Increasing student engagement during online, synchronous classes

April 23, 2020

In just a few weeks time, the COVID-19 pandemic radically transformed education in the United States, from preschool through higher education. School closures sent millions of students home to learn — and many educators are teaching classes online for the first time. 

While new video conferencing technologies make it easier than ever for teachers to continue meeting with their students, remote instruction is an undeniably different experience for teachers and students alike. 

Deborah Massachi (MEP ‘13), managing director of the University of Washington College of Education’s INSPIRE Center, works with teachers, principals and district leaders to create job-embedded opportunities for improving teaching practice. She’s hearing from educators who are concerned about connecting with students in exciting, engaging and equitable ways while at the same time getting comfortable using online teaching technologies. 

Among the most frequent questions Massachi hears are: How do you build community on an online platform? How do you create opportunities for student agency and choice in a virtual classroom? How do you make sure everyone has the chance to have their learning needs met as well as a chance to express their ideas with one another?

In response to those questions, Massachi, along with fellow College of Education staff members Kendra Lomax (MEd ‘13), managing director of Teacher Education by Design (TEDD), and Britta Ossim, instructional designer, created a series of general tips, specific strategies and example lesson plans to support student engagement during online learning. The resources are designed to support post-secondary instructors transitioning to online learning but can also be adapted by K-12 educators.

“It can be hard to anticipate the challenges or barriers that students might have, so it’s good to think through the experience of online learning from the student perspective,” Ossim said. “Are links easy to find? Are my expectations for students consistently communicated from week to week? Do students have the tools they need in order to complete an assignment? Thinking through questions like these can help improve the student experience.”

To get started, Ossim and her colleagues recommend creating a shared space for organizing class time together that both a teacher and their students can access, such as a page on the learning management platform Canvas where shared Google Documents, Google Slides or other resources can be posted.

Using breakout rooms for small group discussions and projects is one of the best ways to engage students in productive learning. Groups of about five tend to work well because they’re small enough that it’s easy to jump into the conversation, but big enough that there are different ideas and perspectives, even if someone has technical difficulties or steps away from their computer.

Teachers can include specific questions that they want groups to discuss in a shared Google Doc and move between individual breakout rooms to participate in their conversations and answer questions. Through Zoom, students also have an “Ask for Help” button that sends a request for the teacher to join their breakout room.

Massachi said the most important thing teachers can do to get a good sense of how engaged students are while online is to ask them. 

“Take a poll during or after a session together,” Massachi suggests. “Create opportunities for them to show you by taking part in discussions, using chat functions and jotting their thoughts down on shared online documents or spaces.”

Zoom Polls can be created in the settings for a scheduled meeting and teachers are able to share results with students. Meanwhile, Google Forms provide an easy to read and grade spreadsheet output of student responses, making it a good tool for exit tickets with longer, more detailed responses.

Ossim said incorporating a brief student interaction, such as a check for understanding or a pause for reflection, about every ten minutes during an online lecture is a good rule of thumb. 

“It can be easy for attention to wander during online lessons, so frequently asking for student input is especially important,” Ossim said.

Massachi expects educators to learn a tremendous amount about what working online can make possible. For example, teachers can see what students are thinking about in real time when they use online formats for recording ideas. 

“We can also take advantage of shared note taking or the ability to look closely at artifacts together in ways that are more difficult in person,” Massachi said. “Online platforms can also be easier to engage with for the hard of hearing or for learners with particular anxieties. I hope this experience will give more educators the opportunity to practice using technologies as helpful tools for supporting in-person or even hybrid classes in the future when that’s appropriate.”

Lomax said that what it looks like for students to be “engaged” in learning during the current moment will be different because it’s a strange and scary time for students and teachers alike. She encourages educators to engage in conversation with each other and their students as they work to create online spaces that are closer to in-person interactions that everyone is missing.

“In order to learn what’s working and what feels supportive to students, we’ll have to find ways to listen to them along the way,” Lomax said. 

Ossim noted that online learning can provide opportunities for educators to choose different types of experiences to best match their instructional purpose and students’ needs. For instance, an instructor could hold a full-group, synchronous session to build community, or a small-group, asynchronous discussion that provides more time for deep thinking or research.

“Also, educators teaching online might also be pleasantly surprised by an increase in engagement from students who have historically been less vocal in in-person classrooms,” Ossim said. “The different modes of communication, from typing in a chat window to responding to a poll to contributing to a discussion forum, might feel more comfortable for some students.”

While the move to online instruction comes with challenges, translating teaching practices to an online forum also presents an opportunity for teachers to articulate why they engage in those practices. 

“I'm seeing instructors communicating with one another about their practice across disciplines and contexts,” Massachi said. “That is an exciting opportunity to learn from one another that I would love to see continue beyond this historical moment.”

General Tips for Engaging Students During Synchronous Online Classes

  • Prepare students for upcoming online class sessions, including any technology requirements.
  • Establish norms and familiarize students with any videoconferencing features you’ll ask them to use.
  • Use videoconferencing features to elicit quick student responses, check for understanding or get feedback.
  • Make time for individual reflection and be comfortable with a little silence. 
  • Use shared documents to provide a collaborative workspace (e.g., Google Slides, Docs and Sheets; Office 365)
  • Prepare your workspace for smooth transitions. Share a class agenda link, organize Zoom windows (e.g. main window, manage participants, chat) and prepare links for sharing with the class (e.g. online exit tickets, other websites).

Find more general tips, specific strategies and example lesson plans to support student engagement during online learning.


Deborah Massachi, Managing Director, INSPIRE Center

Kendra Lomax, Managing Director, Teacher Education by Design

Britta Ossim, Instructional Designer

Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications