What's the best way to engage learners online?

Online learning requires student engagement to be a success – here four experts share their tips with us
11th January 2021, 3:00pm
Grainne Hallahan


What's the best way to engage learners online?

Coronavirus School Closures: How To Get Students Engaged In Online Learning

Switching to online learning midway through the academic year isn't a new challenge to teachers, but that doesn't mean that it's without its issues.

If you're setting tasks for your classes and feeling disappointed to find only a smattering of students submitting work, you're not alone.

If you were in the classroom, this would easily be resolved. But it's not so easy when there is distance between you.

Coronavirus: Keeping pupils engaged in online learning

When the problem is with one or two pupils, the solution is easily resolved by contacting home. But when you have whole classes missing their deadlines, what do you do?

We spoke to some teachers and a behavioural psychology expert to get their tips on how to get all your learners on board.

Zoe Enser, an English teacher (who tweets from @greeborunner) says:

Sometimes what you need is a lot of reminders. Secondary school students will be juggling lots of different subjects and deadlines, so it helps to give them prompts to keep them on track. Group emails or text reminders can work well.

Because there will be a variety of different demands on families, it makes sense to use centralised communications. Use your website, letters and video messages to remind them of where to find the work, and give suggestions for practical support, like login details. 

Student participation can be boosted with the sharing of success and positive feedback, as well as making sure that the tasks you're setting are achievable. It might help to focus on recapping prior knowledge for some of your pupils so they can begin with things they can definitely do. 

I also think it also helps to keep things short and sharp, so they get time to see, talk and do every lesson. 

David Thomas, principal at Jane Austen College in Norwich, says:

Getting students to take part in lessons and engage properly in their work is crucial if remote education is going to work. It has to be about more than passively watching a video. For online learning, we try to mimic the usual school routines as closely as possible.

Every lesson starts with a register that shows if students have attended. We then use our usual behaviour platform to flag any incompleted work. This sends an automatic notification to the parent, form tutor and head of year.

If there are repeats of this for a particular student, they will contact home to discuss with parents; there might be an issue - around internet or workspace, for example - that needs resolving. If nothing improves, we will run home visits, or possibly ask for the pupil to attend our vulnerable provision at school.

If pupils don't arrive for form time or join their lessons, we follow our usual attendance processes. We'll send an absence text to parents, and if absence is repeated we'll arrange an attendance meeting.

Encouragement and rewards are a big part, too. When children are isolated on the other side of a computer screen, it's easy for them to feel unnoticed. We've found there are few things more motivating to them than receiving a Freddo in the post!

Elspeth Kirkman, senior director of education at the Behavioural Insights Team (who tweets from @karminker), says:

People are naturally inclined to want to keep what they're "entitled to". You can harness our reluctance to miss out by using "loss aversion". For example, you could begin by awarding all your students in the class with 10 points, and explain that these are points are lost if they don't follow the instructions to complete tasks or hand in their work. So everyone would keep their 10 points if they follow your instructions, but if they fail to hand in work, you deduct points.

Another tactic you might want to try is encouraging your students to see that handing in work is the normal option, and not handing in is unusual. You can communicate this by giving (true) examples of where other classes or year groups have complied. For example, you might say: "In other Year 9 classes, everyone handed their work in on time."

Emphasise how the majority of students are complying with the instructions. When people think other people are complying, they're more likely to.

Shannen Doherty, a primary school teacher in London (who tweets from @MissSDoherty), says:

Although in a primary school, you're keeping track of just 30 or so students, that doesn't mean that it's not without its challenges. To keep on top of your admin, it's worth getting organised with your communication.

We set up class mailboxes on Outlook so that we had direct communication with parents that was separate from our own emails. We also found that sending regular emails to let them know we were there to support families improved engagement in our classes. To keep track of this, we use a central Google Doc to record who has been called and when.

One way to improve engagement is to consider how you're setting the work. We found using teachers to create reading videos was really popular and improved engagement.

It might be a challenge to get over the ultimate cringe of recording yourself reading a story, but there is no doubt that the children loved seeing their teachers on screen reading them stories.

Reading to our students is a daily non-negotiable for me and many publishers allowed teachers to read their books via video, which made life so much easier.

Tes Coronavirus Hub

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