• Kiran Kaur

Challenges with Student Engagement in Online Learning

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

One of the things I've appreciate the most about working in my current position is the reflective approach we use in most of our meetings. And, I've noticed recently we frequently return to the question of how to keep the students engaged online in these times of crisis and uncertainty.

Engagement is not a problem that has disappeared. I reflected on this previously in my blog right at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, where I wrote about strategies that could be implemented in a course. Now however, I want to discuss what has actually worked over this past year online and what hasn't (also what I simple lacked the energy or support to do).

Things I wish I had thought (more) about before switching to online teaching;

  1. Make more time for Fun in the Sessions

  2. How to Build a Learning Community

  3. Communicating Expectations (and even Instructions) prior to, during and if needed again after sessions

  4. Letting go of face-to-face methods of teaching and making the most out of the online platforms from the get go - use forums, virtual drop-in sessions, Q&A sessions, making time for getting to know you etc.

  5. How to deliver content in different forms: videos, voice over slides, audio, discussions etc.

  6. Varying engagement throughout the course and especially using breakout sessions more strategically.

I've always loved teaching precisely for the ability to create engaging classes and connect with students. The changing shape of our spaces for learning has meant the once large lecture rooms have condensed down to laptops and tablets. The past year of teaching mostly virtually has been a serious challenge, forcing me to dust off reading materials for blended learning and look up other teacher's suggestions. All in all, I faced three challenges, and whilst there are many many many articles on advice out there, these is how I found my own way through.

Challenge 1: Tired from the Interaction

Or, knowing when to change up the interaction.

I initially came up with a few ways (warmers, using plenaries and breakout rooms etc) to interact with my students and then found I quickly got fossilised with my teaching method. What I mean is, I got stuck in the same patterns of interaction and soon was hardly hearing the students responses.

I knew I needed to make sure not to use the exact same strategies for building in interaction with my students - mostly because I would not be able to keep myself engaged in the session if I did that. Simply, if I felt the sessions were getting stale then I know the students felt it too.

I've frequently used warmers and 'revitalizers' to manage the energy in classes face-to-face. I found ways to translate this to online learning, and spoke with colleagues on how to make classes more interactive and how to use certain warmers to get the engagement going. We quickly discovered that the energy level drops whenever we use warmers that become extended - i.e. they last more than 5 minutes. Students lose concentration and most importantly energy and automatically I, as a teacher, end up going into lecturing mode to fill the space.

Online learning and discussions are tiring. The longer the session or more involved the dialogue the more tired the students got. What I wanted was to know how to make online sessions more engaging and meaningful for the students, so this meant having to think where their energy could best be spent.

The breakout rooms function on Kultura came up several times in meetings, especially in debating how best to use them. I'll be honest I've changed my mind frequently on how they should be used. Initially, we thought having breakout rooms for the majority of the time with more problem-solving activities would increase engagement. This meant having to have worksheets and shorter explanations within the sessions and more videos online prior to explain key concepts or even provide guides for the breakout groups.

The idea was to make the breakout rooms become problem-solving sessions. In the ideal situation we could present the students problems and challenges to be solved so that they can be more engaged in their work. Is it also gives the space to bring up critical thinking skills and making criticality more mainstreamed throughout their sessions. This was great for the odd session. However, we also realised this too was draining for the students. I started to see that the students were very tired after the second breakout room and would not then contribute to the plenary discussions. This meant a return to finding new ways to engage within the plenary.

A solution I thought would work is to pop into the break rooms whilst the students were working to speak with them. Sometimes this meant they were more willing to share in the plenaries but it also sometimes meant they would get distracted from the task at hand, and I would 'get in the way'. A happy medium did seem to sometimes be to drop in and just listening and not answer questions until the plenary. This mean I could still call on students who I had heard giving relevant point to make that same point in the plenary. But, again, this was also a little awkward at times, and went against my instinct to speak with the students whilst in the breakout rooms.

What I also discovered from the students is that in the other content lectures, the students are needing to listen to an hour-long recorded video prior to their workgroup. After listening to this video they could attend a workgroup which is mainly about working in groups with their peers. This meant there was very little face-to-face contact with their lecturers, leaving the students without space to have a dialogue or ask questions on the issues of their work. This method can sometimes be useful, but given the circumstances from COVID-19's impact on education,it has also meant students feel quite isolated. This is not something that we have previously needed to consider in our pedagogical approaches, nevertheless, a sense of isolation is now something that has become central to the students' learning challenges.

Altogether the challenge was the same, to find ways to engage, I came to realise that to connect with students better I needed to be flexible in the strategies I used and change them up more often. Simply all ideas were great as long as we did not keep repeating them. Breakout room were useful if they were focused and did not have more than 2 in an hour session. I've also realised how important it is to diversify how I connect with the student, not only for their sake but my own as well.

I connected back with my colleagues several times and we thought about how we might:

  1. use discussion boards as spaces for ongoing conversations

  2. frame some sessions as Q&A sessions with the students can take the lead but the teachers can be there to provide support where needed

  3. limit and target breakout groups to be more focused on students needs

  4. create shorter videos on common problems and instructions for assignments or sessions

  5. provide more written instructions to be given prior to a session

This could mean having a Q&A workgroup on editing practices, or even a separate workshop. Students could be given the task to come up with an editing plan for a large assignment for example prior to the session and they come to the session to discuss any questions they have to put this together and how this reflects on their writing and editing skills. This also could also mean having a virtual office hour and students jump in as and when they need to. I have at times 'themed' these office hours, for example of an office hour talking about strategies to improve critique or feedback to a previous assignment. I leave it up to the students to define how we use this time and allow them to space they need for dialogue. All in all, knowing how and when to change up the interaction and really listening to the students feedback has helped most of all. It is ultimately not about the online platforms or strategies but the rapport we can start to build.

Challenge 2: Bringing the Humanity and Fun Back In

The issue of isolation has been a challenge for faculty and students (not to mention wider society). The lock downs, and remote learning and remote work has changed how we all interact with each other on a daily basis. Previously, it was common to talk about personalising classes and making them learner-centered, however, consider considering how disconnected everyone has been it is worth discussing how to feel more connected.

In the 'before times', I would spend time before and after classes to get to know the students. There was always 5 minutes prior to the start of a session to chat with students (or eavesdrop and find out what they were struggling with or were interested in). This time would allow students to ask questions or just get to know me and for me to know them, to see how they were handling the sessions. Students got to know for example that I'm not only communication in science lecturer but also doing a PhD in law and development, focusing on global migration and human rights. This made the students interact with me differently, and allowed space for them to open up more. In a couple of occasions, students had come over to talk to me about what it means to work in development-related projects, questions related to topics which interested them related to global health inequity and in one case how to volunteer with refugees. This non-class time to chat, would usually help me to contextualise the goals of the sessions. Now however whilst on teaching online I no longer get these moments of interaction, as the classes need to be much more focused. This is a shame for both the teachers and the students as we lose the opportunity to understand one another better and miss out on an entire world of interaction.

My colleagues have bought up in the past the idea of doing podcasts and having short friendly videos to let the students get to know us so that distance between lecturers and students doesn't seem so great. I think these ideas could be very helpful, and and certainly wouldn't be obligatory for students. There also the idea of other meetups or workshops organised that aren't necessarily part of the main curriculum but could allow students space for connection; it could simply be a book club for example. However, these sessions can easily be run without the lecturers and don't necessarily require any input from us. Indeed I might even suggest that student representatives take up such activities to make sure that the students have more of these opportunities.

Of course, there is a high probability that students may not wish to participate in any of those activities. There is the added issue of extra work and a particular challenge to maintain and upkeep videos, podcasts and meetups. I haven't found the perfect way, if there even is one, to humanise relationships between the lecturers and students. However, finding smaller spaces online to bring warmth back into sessions, through smaller moments and showing empathy is a good place to start.

Challenge 3: Slowing down vs Engaging in'Social' Action through Learning

A lot of the time when life becomes more challenging we have a tendency to shrink away from socially engaged approaches that may also feel too challenging. I think this misses out on how the core skills that we teach students is very much about critical engagement with the world around them. Part of engagement with students for me is also asking how the 'classroom' can be more engaged in the real world.

This is not a challenge I have solved for myself. But, one that bothers me most of all. There has been a temptation, mainly due to the lack of energy, to keep our learning goals smaller and lessons more bite-sized. However, I wish there was more space for taking 'action' and being more socially connected.

Again, in terms of pedagogy it need not be more than the ideas above. Simply to focus on connecting to ideas, organisations and communities that face real world systemic injustices and inequities such as discrimination based on gender, race, sexuality etc. This only requires conversational space on the outset.

Possible strategies could involve asking students to review documentaries or even Netflix shows such as the Good Place (for a conversation on Medical Ethics) or a short news article, and then discussing with students how this intersects with their studies. I've frequently thought about doing a series of workshops titled something like 'Why Science Matters' where students can bring in their own ideas for topics.

Having critically engaged conversations is only the first step, asking students to make further connections outside the classroom is also valuable. For example, including a 'Reading for Impact' session, where students are asked to create an annotated bibliography for an NGO/social enterprise or an organisation which is working on a topic related to the students' studies such as global health. This allows students with the change to sharpen their skills related to building a knowledge of their field, using language of critique, and considering to communicate the science they learn more widely to people who might need to practically apply this knowledge. This form of engagement can students to form new understandings of their studies, but also allowing them to connect to the world around them. It's also breaks down silo thinking where students don't necessarily understand what their knowledge means in different social contexts, or assume communicating widely or with social issues are not relevant for them. These kinds of dialogues can provide students with a basis to critically reflect ask questions of themselves and their chosen field, whilst becoming more aware of the structures around them.

I guess, I miss the opportunity to show the students why their studies matter. This is something we have lost during this past year.


There is no perfect teaching practice for online teaching or blended learning. However, I find the challenges at the heart of teaching practice (online or face-to-face) to be the same; finding ways to encourage ongoing critical dialogue. From this perspective there is another platform to learn but the pedagogic challenges remain the same. Ultimately, it is about creating connections.