Tips for Engaging Your Students from DELTA Instructional Designers

Young woman sitting on a brick ledge with a laptop in front of large windows and greenery.

NC State students and instructors accustomed to synchronous, in-person courses have worked hard to make the transition to remote teaching and learning. Faculty across the university quickly learned the basic principles of distance education to get their courses online as their students prepared to be successful in an unfamiliar learning environment. 

But even with planning and preparation, it can be hard to adjust. Engaging with students is an area where faculty new to remote teaching commonly struggle. Engagement techniques that work in person may not easily transfer to a digital environment. 

Fortunately, online teaching offers plenty of ways to enhance student engagement and promote meaningful interactions. DELTA instructional designers consistently refer to best practices for student engagement in online learning environments as they design courses, curricula and teaching materials. They’re sharing their favorite tips for faculty to boost engagement in an online course and connect with students from anywhere. 

Tools and Applications

There are countless online applications to increase student engagement in any course, whether it’s in person or online. Now more than ever, these tools are helping students connect with instructors and course materials. 

Lead Instructional Designer Yan Shen recommends VoiceThread, a voice-recording and narration tool that’s great for presentations. The cloud-based, asynchronous tool allows students and instructors to import presentation files and record narration for each slide. The audience can then play back the presentation and record their own comments slide by slide. With additional video and text commenting features, VoiceThread is a great option for individual and group presentations as well as debates and other interactive activities. 

“I usually recommend using VoiceThread for a low-stake online self-introduction activity first, before using it in projects. VoiceThread self-introduction works great for instructors and students to get to know each other at the beginning of the semester. A lot of instructors I worked with really like this tool,” says Shen. 

VoiceThread is free for individual users for up to five projects.

Lead Instructional Designers Jakia Salam and Jessica White are fans of Flipgrid, a video discussion platform offered free from Microsoft. Like VoiceThread, it can be used for presentations and class introductions. Instructors can also post discussion prompts to which students respond with short recorded videos. Flipgrid is a great option for maintaining face-to-face interactions remotely. 

“Flipgrid lets students share their thoughts, give small presentations and discuss with their peers while they can see each other rather than simply typing replies,” says White.

Top Hat, Padlet and Zoom are also excellent applications to boost your course’s interactivity. For more options, browse all of the DELTA-supported instructional tools

Group Work 

Thinking about group work — from group projects and papers to discussion sessions and seminars — can be hard right now. How can a group work together successfully when the entire class is isolated? Thankfully, there are many ways to keep group work in your class as an effective learning strategy. 

Associate Vice Provost for Academic Technology Innovation Donna Petherbridge is an assistant teaching professor in the NC State College of Education. She builds group work into her online courses by creating opportunities for small group assignments and discussion sessions. 

“I have a case study where I have students read the case and answer questions in a Google document about the case together. Then, we have a synchronous discussion online about the case where we all discuss it. This allows students to read/reflect and respond to each other, then discuss with me and the entire class,” Petherbridge says. 

In large online classes, she recommends meeting with students in small groups rather than meeting with the whole class at once. This ensures that each student can receive facetime and engage with the instructor. 

Petherbridge also encourages her students to adhere to the “three-before-me” guideline when they have a question, meaning they first consult the course syllabus, schedule and one other resource before contacting her directly. However, when she does receive questions from students, she’s sure to respond promptly to maintain their engagement with the course and make sure they feel supported. 

As an instructor, White used group work as a way to form connections with her students.

“I set up meetings with each group when they’re working on group projects to discuss specific questions and ensure the group is doing well; instructor check-in meetings help students realize they’re not in it on their own,” she says.

Forums

Many instructors use forums in their traditional courses to share announcements, answer questions and promote discussion among students. In remote teaching, forums are important spaces for students to support and learn from one another. 

Senior Instructional Designer Cathi Dunnagan finds forums especially helpful when they are dedicated to a course subject or topic. Students can easily navigate these forums to find and post questions and answers about specific concepts. Instructors can monitor these spaces and supply additional information as needed. 

Dunnagan recommends using forums as a part of the “three-before-me” strategy, setting up a forum for general questions about the course. When faculty receive emailed questions, they can answer them in the forum for the rest of the class to see. 

“This has two advantages: All students learn from one student’s questions (usually several students will have the same question — especially if it is about the course navigation or assignment instructions), and it trains students to post to the forum and depend on each other for support,” says Dunnagan. 

Additional Resources

Consider tools and techniques specific to online instruction to engage with students remotely and deliver course material effectively. Here are some additional resources that can help: