Building a Virtual Connection: How to Engage Students in Online Learning

Let’s face it, it’s hard to capture (and keep) attention these days. Gloria Mark, author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity, found focus has dropped to about 47 seconds.

Despite their many benefits, such as improved accessibility, online classes can make focusing more difficult. Combined with the fact that instructors have less control over distractions like noise, other people, and devices, virtual classrooms can leave students feeling disconnected and disengaged from the learning material.

Thankfully, there are instructional strategies and teaching tools like Poll Everywhere that can keep students focused on learning in an online course. We’ve built a list of 12 tips for engaging students in virtual classrooms to help you foster an impactful learning environment.

12 ways to engage students in online learning

1. Let your personality shine

Develop that first sense of connection for students by sharing information about yourself and adding your personality to the class.

This can look like posting your photo, name, and a list of professional and personal interests. You might even record a short video where you introduce yourself to students and share your goals for the class.

Additionally, put a friendly face to your name and stay visible during video conferences and recorded lectures. This shows students that you’re engaged in the class, especially through facial expressions and movements like nods.

Pro tips: Get ideas for capturing students’ attention in a remote classroom environment.

2. Break the ice

Start your course or semester on the right note by creating a fun, engaging atmosphere. Help students feel connected to each other and you by offering simple icebreakers that allow them to learn about each other.

One option is to ask students to pair up and interview each other. Another fun game is to ask the class to answer trivia questions or non-controversial personal questions using Poll Everywhere. For example, ask students to choose their favorite color or see how many are the oldest, youngest, middle, or only children in their family.

3. Foster community

Students feel more engaged in your class if they believe they’re part of the larger group. A 2023 EDUCAUSE report notes that technology can play a role in student belonging, which fosters engagement, academic success, and general well-being.

Some ways you can use technology in your classroom to foster student engagement include the following:

  • Create a Slack workspace where students can chat about coursework or create study groups for upcoming exams.
  • Use a Twitter hashtag for your class to help students connect.
  • Encourage participation and questions in online discussion forums.
  • Build a virtual community that includes additional resources, alumni, external experts, and current students, like Grand Canyon University’s Doctoral Community Network.

4. Create individual learning plans

A more subtle, personal student engagement strategy is to build individual learning plans for your students. If you’re not sure where to start when creating an individual learning plan, Stanford’s School of Medicine has a helpful guide you can adapt to your students’ and classroom needs.

Individual learning plans should also support technology that allows you to actively track each student’s performance. You can discover holes in their knowledge, adjust the pace of the lessons, and determine what type of   they respond to most.

5. Develop curriculum around shorter content

When it’s harder to focus, students may skip out on long lectures or skim complicated readings. One way to keep them focused is by creating short, captivating lessons, or microlearning modules.

eLearning Industry notes some of the benefits of microlearning in higher education, including improved knowledge retention, flexibility, and opportunities for just-in-time learning.

To add microlearning to your classroom, consider recording five- to 10-minute lectures or having students engage with interactive media, such as YouTube videos, music, or even live performances as part of your curriculum. Encouraging student interaction during your lessons means less lecturing and more engaging discussions.

6. Set up virtual 1:1s with students

Isolation is an unfortunate side effect of virtual classrooms, which can quickly lead to disengagement. You can combat this feeling of disconnect by encouraging or even requiring virtual face-to-face interactions.

Additionally, virtual one-on-one chats with students show you care about their individual success and provide opportunities to walk them through areas of struggle. These short sessions likely take the place of in-person office hours, so be sure to communicate with students when you’re available and that everyone is invited.

7. Learn by doing

It can be hard for students to feel engaged in class (virtual or otherwise) if they only listen to lectures and fill out multiple-choice tests.

One way to encourage learning by doing is with group activities. Role-play, think-pair-share, and other teaching methods provide opportunities for active learning, critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and practical application of newly learned skills.

Using games in your online classroom also provides opportunities for hands-on learning. Gamified learning experiences can be extremely motivating to students as they compete with each other and earn a sense of accomplishment when they reach goals and achieve success.

8. Add flexibility

You can make course materials accessible to all students by allowing them to use their existing talents and interests to complete assignments.

For example, for history class, ask students to design a period costume. For math class, challenge students to find the square footage of a room in their home and document how they did it.

Not all students excel at writing, and if the assignment is to write an essay, they may struggle to not only complete it but also to think critically about the topic. By giving them the option to fulfill the requirement creatively, you can help students better grasp the material—and have fun doing it.

9. Use breakout rooms

Most video conferencing tools, like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, include an option to break attendees into small groups called breakout rooms. You can strategically use this feature to encourage small group work, deep-dive discussions, or even peer presentations and feedback.

While students are divided into groups, you can hop into each breakout room to check on progress, answer any questions, and encourage engagement if things seem a bit too quiet. You can even use Poll Everywhere in Zoom to pose a question and then have students discuss their thoughts in small groups and then submit their responses as one when they return to the main room.

10. Proactively communicate

Make sure no one is left guessing in your virtual classroom by providing clear, consistent expectations around due dates, coursework, class objectives, and student participation. You may also want to include a statement about homework extensions, extra credit, and other flexible policies in case students need help getting back on track after a family emergency, illness, or other unavoidable circumstance.

You should also proactively communicate with students. You’ll never know if a student is falling behind or feeling bored unless you ask. Virtual classrooms make it easy for shy or disinterested students to fade into the background.

If students miss homework deadlines or aren’t actively participating in class, send them a personal message and ask how everything is going. Virtual office hours, social media and Slack groups, and one-on-one check-ins with each student can also contribute to proactive communication.

Pro tip: Check comprehension by taking quick student pulse surveys using Poll Everywhere’s engaging features like highlighted responses, polls, Clickable Images, and more.

11. Solicit and provide feedback

If you want to know if your students feel engaged and are grasping the material, why not just ask? You can encourage honest responses with anonymous polls that ask what types of assignments or class activities students prefer, whether they want to spend more time on a topic, and what they didn’t like about the class.

Additionally, you can send out a diagnostic assessment to gauge what students already know before the semester starts. Compare that to assessment results at the end of the semester to gather insights about which parts of the class were effective.

Did you know? It’s shown that quizzes can lead to better recall through repetition, and you can recapture student attention with short polls every 10 to 15 minutes.

You can gather student feedback using Poll Everywhere’s Multiple-Choice activities, Word Clouds, and short Quizzes. Students can answer quickly and easily from their computers or phones, and you’ll get valuable feedback to improve your class for next semester.

Don’t forget to also share feedback with students in a thoughtful manner:

  • Share constructive, actionable feedback in private to create a foundation of trust and avoid embarrassing students in front of their peers.
  • Make sure both positive and negative feedback is sincere, specific, and clear.
  • Encourage students to work with you (or each other) to find a solution to any issues you’ve pointed out.
  • Be honest—you’ll do more harm than good if you hold back feedback for fear of hurting a student’s feelings.

12. Create an inclusive classroom

Using inclusive teaching methods fosters a sense of community and belonging among students. It also exposes them to diverse perspectives that improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills they can apply long after they graduate.

By diversifying your curriculum to represent multiple backgrounds and points of view, you show students the value of understanding other cultures, people, and ways of living. Encouraging respectful dialogue in your classroom and using inclusive language also helps students see the world as less black and white and more of a spectrum of varying experiences, opinions, and ideas.

Use these 12 engagement strategies to capture attention in your online classroom

Online teaching isn’t easy, but neither is online learning. Still, online learning environments can foster a strong sense of engagement and connection with a little help from technology.

Educators can use tech tools to create strategic learning activities, asynchronous communication, and real-time collaboration.

By creating immersive online learning experiences, Poll Everywhere empowers online learners to participate both inside and outside the classroom, leading to improved student success.