15 Ways to Engage Students and Prevent Online Drop-Outs

October 3rd, 2012 No Comments Features

Students raising hands

Engaging students in a meaningful way can be challenging. Add a virtual element and it may seem almost impossible.

But did you know that engaging students online may be easier because of the various forms of communication tools available.  The trick is to have an understanding of online behavior and to present information in a way that triggers meaningful conversation.

Here are some tips that may help you along the way:

1. Know Your Students:

At the beginning of each class, take the time to talk to each student individually. Learn about where they are from, what they are interested in, and why they are taking the class. A little information about them can go a long way in getting them engaged.

2. Plan Interactive Exercises

Sometimes the lack of body language cues can make it hard to communicate online. Planning interactive exercises where students are forced to speak to other students may actually be the oil that makes the conversation machine run.

For example, each student can have a partner whom they must discuss class topics with during the last 5 minutes of each class.  The point it, giving students a little push may go a long way.

3. Different Types of Technologies

Students with laptops

As teachers, we all know that individuals have different learning styles, and thanks to the inexpensive and diverse technology options available, it has never been easier to adapt to each style.  Some students may prefer to participate passively via a wiki, others may prefer a real-time chat, while other may prefer a more introspective method such as writing a blog post.

Try to offer a handful of options.

4. Impromptu Writing Assignments

Surprising students with impromptu informal writing assignments during class is a sure way to keep them on their toes and ensure they are paying attention. One of the biggest challenges we face as teachers is fighting the many online distractions available, such as social networks.

Tasks like this push students to listen a bit more, since no one wants to be put on the “spot” by not being prepared.

5. Be a Human

In a pure virtual environment it essential that the teacher bring in a breath of humanity. Be yourself, speak in a friendly tone, and joke around. Plus, remember to ask questions, use people’s first name, and share personal things about yourself as well.

6. Understand their Pain

Education and the job market has changed significantly in the last decade, making today’s student’s (and their needs) radically different. This is even more true for students participating in virtual classrooms.

Common obstacles include feelings of isolation, lack of support, feelings of being disconnected, and higher incidents of miscommunication.  By understanding their pain, you can offer a more customized classroom experience that truly alleviates it, and better meets their needs.

7. Provide Motivational Messages

Everyone likes to receive positive feedback and in an online environment it can be crucial to prevent dropouts.  Recent research shows that classes where students received bi-weekly motivational and “conversation starter” emails had lower withdrawal and failure rates than those that didn’t.

But it doesn’t have to stop at emails. Think outside of the box. For example, maybe a Facebook group might be a good way to send out motivational messages on a daily basis.

Whatever your method, however, remember that in the lieu of having no body language to read, written encouragement and feedback is the only way students understand how you feel about them and the class.

8. Be the Community Manager

As an online teacher, you are also accepting the role of community manager for your particular class. You set the tone of the conversation, enforce guidelines, and bring people together.

This means several things, including and most importantly, that you must stay involved in threaded conversations. Your presence ensures that a safe learning environment exists and that the conversations are heading towards a good direction.

Keep in mind that if you are not seen in conversation threads, many students will assume you are not present.

9. Collaborative Code of Conduct

In a physical class environment, students are able to use various tools to create a team culture and environment.  However, these tools, such as body language, are taken away from them in a virtual environment.

By allowing them to collaboratively determine the code of conduct of the class, not only are you empowering your students but you are helping students take personal ownership of their learning environment.

Surprisingly, what you may find is that the very students will start policing and enforcing the code of conduct on their own accord.

10. Establish Clear Expectations

While this is a no brainer – expectations are necessary in any class – they sometimes get lost in virtual classrooms.  As a result, make sure to place a list of expectations as in as many gathering places and course interfaces as possible.

Remember, students can’t raise their hands or whisper a question to a colleague next to them, so having information available in an accessible format is essential Additionally, during the early stage of the course, make sure to give individual feedback as often as possible to correct any misunderstandings early on.

11. Design Quality Questions

More than any other classroom experience, online classes require the formation of well thought out questions. This is because questions are what trigger conversations and thoughtful analysis. Make it a point to come up with a long list of questions prior to the course, or at least for each topic.

You will thank your lucky stars.

12. In Real Life (IRL) Meetups

While in many cases, it is impossible to organize physical meetups that caters to the entire class, you can encourage socializing on a hyperlocal level. This can include something as simple as two people living next to each other who can meet for a cup of coffee once a month.

Not only will this have beneficial effects for those meeting up, but the IRL bonding or gelling will carry over to the virtual classroom, further instigating connection among classmates.

At the end of the day, students want to connect to their classmate and may need a little of a push in that direction.

13. Incorporate Multimedia

Using headphone and reading

Gen Y is used to more interactive ways of learning. This means content should be presented in various formats. Don’t be afraid to incorporate things such as videos, podcasts, music, images, blogs, and Skype interviews with thought leaders.

Your students will thank you, and their ability to absorb the information will be improved!

14. Stage Monthly Debates

Planned debates provide an opportunity for students to really digest information, and discuss it in a fun format. Make sure debates are done in teams, since some of the more shy students may prefer to do more of the researching and less of the debating.

Additionally, try to give out some type of prize, even if it’s a homemade image banner award that may say “debate team of the week.”

15. Record Your Lessons

In an online format, it is easy for information to fall through the cracks. Recording your lessons allow students to go back and quickly review those parts they had the most difficulty with. It also allows you to go back and see what you could improve upon as a teacher.

Remember, this is not only new for the educational world, but its new for you as well, so there is a lot of room for improvement for us as educators!

Images by Xanetia, One Laptop Per Child, Audio Luci Store,


Miriam Clifford holds a Masters in Teaching from City University and a Bachelor in Science from Cornell. She loves research and is passionate about education. She is a foodie and on her time off enjoys cooking and gardening. You can find her @miriamoclifford or Google+.

Leave a Reply