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4 more ways to stimulate online learner engagement

Online learning is a terrific way to create stimulating learning environments for students. The variety of resources that can be included and the self-directed mode of learning encourages curiosity and affords a sense of educational freedom that turns one-directional F2F learning into a multi-directional dialogue that enables more ambitious learning goals.

However, for a number of reasons some students do not adapt easily to learning online. The reasons are numerous and range from a lack of technical understanding and discomfort with technology to a disorientation when asked to plan their own time and learning pace. Sometimes, however, it’s a matter of course design and approach.

A further 4 ways to stimulate online learner engagement

Last week we began discussing this topic, and examined four ways to engage the disengaged learner. This week we will explore a few more ways to motivate and inspire the struggling, or disinterested online learner. Here we go:

Make content relevant to learners

Content overload can overwhelm engaged students, and completely isolate the disengaged. To cram everything that has any relevance into the module is tempting. And while most students will have the motivation to work through the content, guided by their own learning objectives, many will simply find it too much and give up.

Students need to see a clear path through the content. You must ensure that every piece of it has direct relevance to the learning objective in order to keep students engaged and on-track. The recommendation here is to be interesting but relevant. So use some of these as guidelines:

  • Chunking: Instead of just breaking modules into linear ones (one thing after the other), you could try to explore chunking the content together by topic. By finding interesting connections in the content and chunking them together, you may surprise and delight your students and stimulate learning. Check out this introduction to chunking.
  • Must-know? Use a simple rule of thumb: must-know, should-know and could-know content should be layered throughout each module. This ensures that even the disengaged student, who notionally only interacts with the course at a bare minimum, will retain the most necessary information. Reserve the could-know content for optional reading and resources.

Foster relationships

Learners report a greater sense of satisfaction — and their grades bare this out — when they find and enjoy connection in their online course. A key method of creating stimulation and motivation in an online course is to foster student relationships. Seeking answers from others is not only an important way to foster a healthy learning dynamic, but also imparts a key life skill: asking for and providing help.

Find a useful tip sheet on stimulating online student interaction here. Some techniques to try include:

  • Traditional ice-breakers: Introduce students to one another in live forums, encouraging them to share something about themselves and their interest in the course, or perhaps even ask them each to upload a short video showing who they are, and what they hope to get out of the course.
  • Encourage debate: Schedule online debates via the forum applications, and ensure that you participate and moderate the debates. Draw in disengaged students with questions directed at them, and mention thoughts and work they have done in the past, thus stimulating them to share what they have learned, and what they think, with the other students in a safe, moderated space.
  • Peer review: We discussed this tool in our post last week, and it can also apply here. Manage and plan the process carefully, and pair students together to review each other’s work. This will build relationships between students and assist disengaged students to start feeling closer to the communal hub of your course.

Use “Brain Rules”

If you are like me you may ask “What the heck are brain rules?” when you first hear this phase, “just another trendy piece of psycho-babble to contend with?” Thankfully, not.

John Medina is a molecular biologist who has written an accessible book, based wholly on peer reviewed scientific research (no fads). He has assembled these known facts about the brain into 12 rules to guide parents, employers and teachers. He, for instances, reinforces ideas such as repetition, and the power of pictographic information when it comes to retention. He also has a range of useful data with regard to stress, sleep and exercise. His chapters on attention and wiring will be particularly useful to the teacher looking to understand the disengaged student.

Try out some creative evaluation

Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) offer teachers a significant way to measure uptake and retention. The University of New South Wales Australia offers some very helpful pointers on designing correct MCQs.

However, while some students may be interacting with the content in an engaged and interested way, they may not be interacting with their assessments sufficiently or correctly, and you may find that you are not receiving the correct data about a student’s advancement through the course. It is also true that students who have spent a lot of time preparing for an assessment, or learning the material, may feel short-changed by a rudimentary multiple-choice assessment. Finally, MCQs are critiqued for not assessing deep thinking, being easy to manipulate and for not being learner-centred.

In these instances it may be time to get creative with your assessments and try some new designs to improve student engagement. Some alternative assessment techniques include:

  • Challenging students to submit student portfolios of work, essays, assignments, projects or experiments at the end of the course which counts for a significant portion of their grade.
  • Conduct live stream performance tests per student to assess their skill level and learning.
  • Conduct MCGs, but allow an explanatory portion where students can motivate their answers. This will not only help you to gauge their deeper grasp of the topic, but will also provide them with an opportunity to demonstrate their thinking - although their answer may be wrong, their reasoning may attract partial grades.


We have come to the end of this two-part series on how to engage an unengaged student, and as a final comment I would encourage you to consistently evaluate your online course by questioning your students. You may be surprised by how many of them are more confused by the process flow of your course, rather than by the content. Constant evaluation by your own peers and regular student feedback will help you to keep your course streamlined, effective and engaging.