Hybrid Learning: How to Boost Online Student Engagement

Online education adds a handful of new challenges for instructors. You’re no longer able to fully see each student, what they’re doing during class, or deliver face-to-face feedback.

But a change in course design, including the addition of elearning tools that facilitate communication in virtual classrooms, can bring students back into the fold. Let’s take a look at 10 different strategies for improving online student engagement in your higher ed classroom.

10 online student engagement strategies to promote student interactions

The key to a lively online classroom is participation—more than just logging in and zoning out. Here's how you can encourage active participation.

1. Make use of tech tools

Most students experience lapses in attention of up to five minutes, but tech tools can help you regain their attention.

  • Zoom breakout rooms: After a lesson, create small breakout groups on Zoom where students can freely discuss the material. You can jump into each room and moderate, encourage discussion, and answer questions.
  • Digital whiteboards: Switch from slides to a digital whiteboard like Sketch, Miro, or Canva to illustrate complex problems, brainstorm ideas, and create a visual learning experience.
  • Pop quiz: Nothing makes students groan more than a pop quiz. But this form of low-pressure testing fosters student engagement, improves motivation, and provides students—and instructors—a chance to get immediate feedback. Use a polling tool like Poll Everywhere to make it easy for students to answer and for you to check results.

Breaking up lecture time with these interactive activities keeps students engaged and helps them absorb the information. Discover 17 more tech tools that promote student engagement in hybrid and online classrooms.

2. Foster communication

A 2023 study in the Journal of Adult and Continuing Education found online students crave opportunities for peer discussions and chances to contact their instructor if they get stuck. You can add opportunities for in-class and asynchronous communication in multiple ways:

The idea behind these activities is to create group cohesion. Don’t overlook icebreakers and trivia games that aren’t directly related to your course materials. These activities can set the stage for student participation by creating a safe and positive learning environment.

3. Incorporate active learning techniques

Flip the script on traditional teaching: Encourage students to take charge of their learning through problem-solving activities, case studies, and critical thinking tasks.

Active learning strategies motivate students to go from passive listening to actively participating in class. A 2021 study found that 90% of students found active learning exercises made class more engaging—and the course materials more memorable. This was largely due to the chance to practically apply course concepts during these exercises.

Learn more: How To Measure and Ignite Student Engagement

4. Flip your classroom

Don’t spend valuable class time on lectures and direct instruction. Instead, flip the classroom and ask students to listen to the lecture, complete reading assignments, or watch course videos before class starts.

This lets you focus on spending in-class time on discussion and activities that help students apply learnings from their pre-class preparation. Additionally, you can require students to write down any questions they have while completing their pre-class work and invite them to ask and discuss them during class.

Another strategy for flipped classrooms is to open class with a multiple-choice poll. Ohio State chemistry instructor Dr. Matt Stoltzfus uses Poll Everywhere to quiz students on their pre-class homework. This allows him to assess which students have completed pre-class work and understand the content. Additionally, students get immediate feedback on their understanding and see what they got wrong.

5. Open class with a video

Another great way to capture students’ attention and keep them engaged is to start class with a video. As your students sign in to class and get set up, have an educational YouTube video playing. Channels like Crash Course, ASAP Science, and Kurzgesagt offer visually stimulating videos on various topics like history, science, and English literature.

Choose a video that’s related to your class material to help students review before class starts. These channels have years of experience educating and entertaining virtual audiences and therefore can be used to capture your students’ attention.

6. Gamify class activities

Gamifying education has multiple benefits, including improved critical thinking, creativity, and leadership. Games are also notorious for engaging all ages and fostering a sense of achievement.

You can appeal to your students’ competitive side by gamifying your classroom with competitions or trivia questions about the class, pop culture, or current events.

If competitions aren’t your cup of tea, end each class with a brain teaser or tough questions and ask students to come to the next class with their answers. That way, students think about the lesson even when class is over and have something exciting to share at the beginning of the next class.

7. Assign group activities

Online learning can feel lonely, but nothing brings students together like a common goal. Group projects and activities open the door to collaborative learning and can also have positive mental health benefits for students—and they’re completely doable even in online classes.

  • Student check-ins: At least for the first week or month of class, break students into small groups. Ask them to introduce themselves to their group, share their goals for class and any challenges so far, and ask questions about the class or instructor.
  • Compare notes: Ask students to group up and share their lecture notes with each other. While comparing, encourage them to ask questions—any questions that stump the group can be shared after the activity in a whole-class discussion.
  • Problem-solving: Give the class a difficult problem, then divide them into groups and ask each group to come up with a solution. Have them present it to the rest of the class along with their reasoning and the method they used to make their decision.
  • Service-learning projects: Work with your community to identify relevant opportunities for students to give back through service activities. This gives students a chance to interact with each other and also apply course learnings in real-world situations.

8. Assess student learning

Assessments can improve student engagement, and they also give students a chance to test their comprehension and retention. You can even gamify formative assessments, like Dr. Max Dolinsky, assistant professor of finance at the University of Delaware, did using Poll Everywhere competitions.

Diagnostic assessments are another great way to engage students and gauge their foundational knowledge at the start of the semester. Poll Everywhere lets you quickly gather data on student assessment results, and then analyze it to identify students needing intervention or topics the whole class needs to spend extra time on.

Learn more: Find out how Poll Everywhere makes pre-lecture assessments easy.

9. Make real-world connections

A study on student engagement at a Brazilian university found barriers related to online course environments were most commonly mentioned by learners. Updating your instructional strategies to create more interrelated, practical, and relevant learning activities can break down these blockers.

Help students apply their learning to real-world scenarios with some of the following activities:

  • Choose your own adventure: Take real-world events related to your course materials and have students re-enact them in a choose-your-own-adventure style. For example, have students walk through the events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Present students with situations where they make decisions that affect the event's outcome, such as, “Should the Treaty of Berlin mandate Austria-Hungary to occupy Bosnia?” Once students make a decision, ask them to share their reasoning.
  • Assign case studies: Ask students to analyze real-world situations related to your course. They should identify any challenges or opportunities, then present solutions or takeaways.
  • Set up simulations: Multiple sites exist that allow instructors to simulate real-world scenarios where students can experiment, refine their strategies, and apply learning. Simulations can cover a variety of topics like IRS tax simulations, business strategy simulations, virtual science labs, or MIT’s management simulations.
  • Role-play: Ask students to role-play a set of characters from real-life events or assigned reading. Students should act out situations the instructor provides and use their understanding of the characters and context to act accordingly.

10. Let students design the agenda

Give students autonomy and allow them to decide how class time should be spent. You can do this by listing the topics you planned to cover in class, and then letting students decide what order to review them.

Another approach is to pose an open-ended question in Poll Everywhere asking students questions like “What questions do you have about the assigned reading?” or “What did you struggle with most on the last exam?” You can also pose broad questions like “What do you want to get out of this class?”

RetroFuzz co-founder Matt Kendall found posing questions like these in Poll Everywhere opened up engagement in his online coaching sessions.

“Everybody submitted their comments and then upvoted each other’s responses,” Kendall said. “That showed us where there might be gaps in the content, which we could adjust in advance. […] This kind of feedback with upvoting was really important for us. It was like a workshop activity in its own right.”

How to address challenges with online student engagement

Still talking to a room full of crickets? Here are some additional strategies for overcoming challenges in online learning environments.

  • Divide students into manageable groups: Breakout rooms in Zoom or other video conferencing platforms help manage large classes and foster intimate discussions.
  • Look beyond attendance when assessing engagement: Track participation in discussion forums, quality of assignments, or responses to in-class polls.
  • Provide synchronous and asynchronous learning options: Try a combo of synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous activities (flexible timing). Create a blend of live classes, recorded lectures, and independent assignments. Variety can encourage student participation.
  • Create an inclusive learning environment: Ensure accessibility of materials, respect diverse backgrounds, and provide equal opportunities for participation. Be sure to also acknowledge and design your class around learning disabilities and give students multiple ways to participate: verbally, in text, or through shared documents.
  • Foster interaction between diverse students: Encourage cross-cultural teams for group assignments and facilitate respectful discussions on diverse course content. Inclusive teaching strategies help you make all students feel like their voice is valued.
  • Personalize feedback: Recognize students’ efforts and connect with those who are struggling in one-on-one discussions. Be sure to publicize your office hours and any other ways students can contact you for help. Discussion boards, Slack, and even social media can help facilitate student-instructor communication.
  • Set expectations: Be transparent about what you expect regarding participation and engagement. Clearly outline deadlines, provide tutorials for any classroom tech like learning management systems (LMSs) and Poll Everywhere, and offer to troubleshoot with students who may find participation challenging due to issues outside their control, like poor internet connectivity.

Use Poll Everywhere’s interactive polling tools to foster online engagement

The journey to increasing online engagement in higher education classrooms is a marathon, not a sprint. But these 10 strategies and tools can help you remain flexible and experiment to find the ways to best engage your students.

Poll Everywhere is a powerful engagement tool that helps students feel comfortable enough to share feedback, ask questions, and participate in class—directly from their mobile device, laptop, or tablet.

Discover how to easily add Poll Everywhere to your online lessons, including integrations with popular LMS platforms, Zoom, and Slack.


Click here to learn more about Student Engagement?