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Engage Students

Online can feel disconnected

  • Students who are learning remotely out of necessity and not by choice may feel isolated from their classmates and instructor, distracted by events in their current living situation, and less engaged with their schoolwork.
  • Engaging students — helping students engage with the class material, one another, and the instructor – is essential to creating an effective online learning environment.
  • Students who are engaged find learning more enjoyable and demonstrate greater accountability to themselves and to their classmates.
  • The more students can connect meaningfully as a classroom community, the safer they feel and thus the more motivated to stay engaged, to learn, and to contribute.

Your online presence matters

Online presence refers to the quality of “being there” and “being together” with your online students. It is an intangible but vital part of creating an online learning environment and building trust with students. You can build a strong online presence by following these suggestions:

  • Encourage student-instructor interaction
    • At the beginning of the term, make time for introductions, and use students’ names.
    • Hold online office hours and encourage students to attend, individually or with others. If possible, set aside class time for online office hours to make yourself available to students.
    • Ask your students how they are and how they’re doing; your concern for them as human beings will make it easier for them to talk to you.
    • Respond promptly to student questions and concerns; students need to trust that you will respond to their needs.
    • Regularly connect with your students; establish a specific place and/or time to regularly post announcements throughout the quarter.
    • Consider inviting students to weigh in on decisions by voting or negotiating a contract for how they will work.
  • Provide clarity
    • Provide clear expectations regarding due dates and participation. Emphasize to students the need to spend as much time in an online class as an in-person class. At the same time, be reasonable in your expectations regarding quantity of reading and work within any given time frame. Let them know exactly what you mean by “participation” and what “good participation” looks like in your mind.
    • Provide clear instructions for student work. Students want to feel like you and they are on the same page. Clear instructions for assignments, as well as examples and rubrics help students understand what quality work looks like and what criteria will be considered when grading.
    • Provide feedback to students on their performance. Include both summative feedback and actionable formative feedback
  • Use multiple means of engagement, instruction, and assessment
    • Provide opportunities for students to get to know one another. Facilitate introductions among students, and make generous use of group work and active learning strategies.
    • Encourage cooperation among students. Include all-class or small-group discussions and well-supported group work a part of the learning using both asynchronous and synchronous collaboration technology.
    • Participate in online discussions, rotate among small groups, and check in on groups working asynchronously. To the extent that you convey a strong online presence, students will feel more motivated to engage. Use these opportunities to provide coaching or feedback to students to further their learning.
    • Offer flexibility in your instruction and assessment. Make use of audio, video, screencasts, diagrams, etc. to support Universal Design for Learning. Allow students’ choice in formats for completing an assignment (e.g., paper, slideshow, video, etc.). Record lectures or classes for students to listen to outside of class time.
    • Consider offering flexibility in due dates and grading. Students appreciate when they can turn in an assignment late if needed or have a lowest grade dropped. Eliminate anxiety in students who fear they need to prove themselves “worthy” of an extension by offering policies such as “two late assignments allowed, no questions asked.”

Trust is built through these best practices, but it takes time. Through repeated positive interactions between you and students and students with one another, you will create a healthy online learning community.

Helping students get to know each other

Helping students get to know each other is important for creating a learning community in any course, but that importance is doubled when teaching online students who may already feel isolated, and tripled if you are going to ask them to work in groups.

Facilitating these important social connections can be successful online, though it may take a bit more structure, intention, and time than you are used to. Following are some ideas from UW Tacoma’s course for iTech Fellows (requires UW NetID) that might be useful for your online classes:

  • Rep Yourself (discussion board) – Ask students to represent themselves and their interests, hobbies, passions, enthusiasms, homes, using only pictures, GIFs, emoji, audio, video, etc…and respond to their classmates in kind.
  • X-Word Story (discussion board) – Have students introduce/represent themselves in just X words (5-8 is common) and then have them respond to another post in kind.
  • Commonalities (discussion board or breakout) – Divide students into pairs or small groups and ask them to find a number of things in common. With pairs, 10 things is reasonable; reduce the number as the groups grow larger.
  • One or the Other (discussion board or breakout) – Create breakout rooms or boards representing contrasting pairs (e.g. coffee, tea; cats, dogs; book, movie; vanilla, chocolate) and have your students self-select and discuss why they chose the room or board they are in.
  • Introduce Each Other (breakout) – Divide students into groups in a breakout with the goal that, upon return to the main room, they introduce someone else. This is traditionally done in pairs, but larger groups can lead to interesting results as they negotiate the eventual pairings.
  • Three P’s (discussion board or breakout) – “Divide students into small groups, where they share three facts about themselves: something personal, something professional and something peculiar, such as an interesting hobby or habit.” (source)
  • Two Truths and a Lie (discussion board or breakout) – The classic game, in which each participant makes three statements, one of which is a lie, and the rest try to guess which is the lie.
  • One Word (discussion board) – “Students think of one word that best describes them or their life. They start their initial discussion post by writing the word in bold, then describe why they chose that word. Students review peers’ posts and find someone whose word resonates with them. They reply to that post with the connection and try to find two other words that the two classmates have in common.” (source)
  • Tell Them What You Want (discussion board) – If students are familiar with the goals, expectations and syllabus for the course, have them share what they are most interested in, ideas and concepts they want to know more about, or anything that seems to be missing, etc. You can ask students to share links to elaborate.

Active learning strategies

Zoom fatigue is real. Active learning strategies are ways to break up passive listening and engage students actively in learning. They can help students process their thinking, check their understanding, and reinforce concepts.

The use of active learning strategies closes achievement gaps between students from underrepresented groups and other students. And they increase learning for all students. While these are great strategies to use in the classroom, they are even more important online.

Active learning strategies include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Brief question-and-answer sessions: When online, it’s not easy to get a sense of students’ comprehension by looking at their expressions. Brief question-and-answer sessions can give you that information.
    • Use Zoom or Quick Poll to ask a question and have students respond with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, yes or no. With Quick Poll you could also ask them to “Rate your understanding of X on a scale of 1-5…” or ask, “Which of the five emoji best describes your understanding of X?”
  • Discussion integrated into the lecture: Small group discussions are a great way to break up lectures and give students a chance to grapple with a problem, dig into ideas, or share perspectives.
    • Use Zoom breakout rooms to separate students into groups of 3-5. Give students written instructions for what they are to do, including introduce themselves to each other, maybe take on roles (recorder, time keeper, etc.), answer X questions, and/or generate Y together. Make sure they know how long they have and, if there are multiple parts to the activity, about how long they should spend on each part.
  • Impromptu writing assignments: These give students a break from screen time and allow them to process what they are learning and assess their understanding.
    • Writing to learn exercise: Ask students to write for 3 minutes (individually) in response to a prompt. This is writing they should not have to turn in or share with anyone. The goal is for them to reflect on their thinking, practice writing about the material, and prepare for discussion.
  • Peer review: This is an asynchronous active learning strategy. Provide students with the criteria they should use when reviewing others’ work.
    • Example: Ask students to respond to the work of two other students by X time. Have students share two strengths and two open-ended questions they have about the work as a reader.
  • Hands-on activities and experiential learning exercises: If students have what they need at home, or can access whey they need for a particular experience, these active learning strategies can be done synchronously or asynchronously. These activities are naturally more discipline specific. They engage students in discovery, assess understanding, and enrich discussions.

Group work and collaboration

Group work is another strategy for active learning. Small groups of 4-5 students are best for online. You might create groups for a small task, such as working on problem sets or creating a document, where you might have students in different groups each day. You might also form groups for longer-term work, such as a group project that takes several weeks to complete.

Either way, students may or may not come to class with the skills and dispositions to be successful in group work online. For single-day groups, it may be helpful to establish community-based norms for how students will work together. For project teams, invite each group to create norms and protocols, including what to do when individual members don’t do their work or when conflict occurs.

The following are best practices for engaging students in group work and effective collaboration:

  • Provide scaffolding for group work through course design (intentional sequencing of activities) so that students have the skills and confidence to be successful.
  • Provide a clear task for the group to accomplish, as well as some flexibility (e.g., choice of group, topic, roles, process, format of final product). When students have a degree of personal control over the task, they are more engaged, take greater responsibility, and feel that the task is more relevant.
  • Nurture student relationships and a sense of community. Model and reinforce elements that make a successful learning community – informality, disclosure, authenticity, humor, respect for diverse opinions, and trust, among others.
  • Make the task relevant for individual members of the group. Authentic, real-world tasks and content help motivate students to work collaboratively. Motivation and relevance is also increased when students are allowed to form groups based on mutual interests, or when they are allowed control over the process of their work and final product.
  • Monitor group activities actively and closely. Be available for feedback, general information, and private counsel. Intervene as necessary to spark discussion, focus students’ attention, assist with relationship building, and provide reassurance. Frequent feedback in these instances can help students build skills and increase their learning.

Online discussions

Online discussions are often considered an essential part of online courses. However, getting students to engage with the content, each other, and with you in the online space can be challenging, as well as pose new demands on your teaching. The following are helpful guidelines from UW Tacoma’s course for iTech Fellows (UW NetID required to access).

Consider your purpose

Before digging into the “how” of discussion in your online classroom, take a moment to ensure you are clear on why you have them: what is the purpose of discussion in your course? What learning outcomes are you working toward? What might successful discussion look like in your course? It isn’t necessary for students to be discussing all the time; how can you emphasize (and teach to) quality over quantity?

Fundamental principles

No matter the types of discussions and facilitation methods you employ, some principles of discussion will remain relevant:

  • Model what it looks like to be part of your classroom community. Don’t simply state your expectations, model participation as an exemplar of substantive contributions and through your willingness to be authentic, explore, experiment, wander, and be vulnerable.
  • Pose a strong discussion prompt. Instructors often decry “I agree” and other short, affirmative answers…but these are often the result of limited questions. Ask open ended questions, and questions you care about. Consider asking multiple questions and letting students respond to the one(s) that appeals to them.
  • Provide feedback and coaching. Some students may be new to online discussion. They may not know how to articulate their ideas and respond to others. Use the first couple weeks of the course to help students understand what you expect. Consider providing sentence starters for different kinds of responses (agree/disagree; elaborating; clarifying question; etc.)
  • Don’t hyper-focus on grammar and mechanics unless such a focus is justified by the nature of the forum, such as in a presentation board, and are an explicit part of your grading policy or rubric.

Some discussion types

You’re probably familiar with content forums–whether for directed content discussion or reflection—which are the most common kind of discussion, but depending on the needs of your class and students, discussion forums of many other types have been used effectively, such as:

  • Meet, greet and represent forums allowing students (and instructors!) to get to know one another and share who they are and what they care about.
  • Project, collaboration and draft sharing forums for working together and sharing, which can be more or less directed.
  • Virtual water cooler, coffee shop, or café forums for informal, ongoing social interaction not composed in advance or even necessarily directed at a particular topic.
  • Current events forums for bringing real-time, real-world events and topics into the class, which serves to engage and connect learners and instructors.
  • Guest forums for bringing in outside experts in a way possibly more amenable to asynchronous (and lower-bandwidth) learning situations.
  • Resource forums to centralize contributions students and teachers discover as a course progresses.
  • Presentation forums for lighter-weight “presentations” that can replace or supplement resource- and bandwidth-heavy methods such as web conference presentations.

These discussions can be employed course-wide for all students or distributed among groups.

Facilitating engagement

Once you’ve decided on the purpose(s) and type(s) of discussions, it’s time to consider methods of facilitating engagement. Here are some methods that have been successful:

  • Break the text barrier: Keeping bandwidth concerns in mind, use—and promote the use of—emoji, images, and media. This could mean simple activities like having learners introduce themselves using only emoji or bringing in media from elsewhere, or more complex tasks such as creating original images, memes, charts, infographics, etc., some of which could be part of other assignments.
  • Let students lead: Give students the opportunity to lead discussion. One popular method is by having learners take a turn posing questions, perhaps by bringing in contemporary issues, related journal articles, or other relevant artifacts. You can even have a discussion about…discussion! Give learners a chance to share what they think makes for good discussion, things that have worked (and not worked!) in their earlier experiences, their ideas for activities, that kind of thing.
  • Expand your direction: This doesn’t mean to direct more responses but to ask for specific kinds of responses. Just a few possibilities:
    • Quick research: provide a list of topics, or have students brainstorm one, and ask for rapid research, with a time limit or other constraint.
    • Collection and curation: ask participants to compile a collection of links and resources on a particular topic, along with some added value, such as summaries or explanation of the importance of each. This works well with groups!
    • Classic compare and contrast of previous responses, a model that can work even better if you ask them to work with more than two existing posts.
    • Summarize and query: ask students to summarize a thread, the posts by a particular group of students, or some other selection…and ask questions about what is missing and what they didn’t understand.
    • Weaving: ask learners to identify commonalities and conflict across and within a selection of posts.
    • Elevator pitch: ask participants to create an original post—or summarize an argument or position—in a (very) limited number of words. This works well with media, such as asking for this as a 30 second or less video or audio file.
    • Hypotheticals: ask students to propose a hypothetical change, difference or revision and explain how that would affect their own—or someone else’s—position.
    • Scenarios and role playing: use the discussion board as a place for learners to engage in scenario activities, taking on roles and participating in character.
  • Break the platform barrier: Your course might lend itself to “discussions” outside of the Canvas discussion board or other traditional tools. You could ask your students to meet virtually, using audio or video, and have a debate, convene a panel, or just…talk to each other using applications such as Zoom. “Discussion,” or the essential features for meeting some learning outcomes, can happen in the comments of a shared document, through “track changes” in a Word document, or using a collaborative annotation tool like Of course it’s always important to balance the benefits of these approaches and tools with the increased demands on you and your students.

Communication and netiquette guidelines

It is important in an online course that you work with students to develop a collaborative, safe, and friendly environment. One way of doing so is through good communication. The following are netiquette guidelines to share with your students.


When you send an email to your instructor, teaching assistant, or classmates, you should:

  • Use your UW email address.
  • Use a clear and descriptive subject line.
  • Be brief. Don’t make the reader have to scroll to read the entire message.
  • Get to the point. Put the most important part at the very beginning to orient the reader to your point.
  • Sign your message with your name.
  • Think before you send the email to more than one person. Does everyone really need to see your message?
  • Forward wisely. Be sure that the person who wrote the message you are forwarding is OK with having their messaged passed along.
  • Wait if you’re upset! Resist the temptation to send an email when you’re angry. If you can, wait 24 hours and allow yourself to cool off. You will make a better case for yourself if you write the email when you are calm and level-headed.
  • Emails Are Forever. You cannot take back what gets sent, and without a clear tone of voice, it can be easy to sound offensive. Read your message before you send it and keep in mind that some issues are better discussed in person or over the phone.

Discussion/Group Chat

  • Be supportive; provide others with constructive feedback. Aspire to contribute posts that push past “I agree.” Share why you agree or disagree. Build on the strengths of others or offer constructive ideas to help solve weaknesses or trouble spots.
  • Share your knowledge. Learning happens when people share experiences, knowledge, and ideas.
  • Keep discussion focused on the assigned topics/discussion prompt.
  • Keep paragraphs short and to the point to help with readability.
  • Avoid using all lower-case letters or “texting” language. (ex. BRB, IMHO).
  • Avoid ALL CAPS. It can seem like you’re shouting.
  • Stay engaged. Don’t abandon the discussion after you’ve posted your minimum number of posts . Read through the posts of others and continue your engagement. Discussion isn’t about performing; it’s about learning.
  • We’re not all online 24/7. One of the advantages of asynchronous learning is the ability to log on at any time. But remember that others are not online 24 hours a day. Replies to your posts/questions may not be instantaneous.
  • Be mindful of word choice and tone. Written language can blur intent – even if you were trying to be funny, your post may not read as funny. Before posting, ensure your comments are clear and cannot be taken in the wrong context. Use emoticons (sparingly) to help express intent.
  • Express alternative points of view respectfully. Debate is OK; personal attacks are not.
  • Messages of a personal nature should be emailed privately.
  • Harassment in any form is unacceptable and violates the university’s student code of conduct. This includes taking screenshots of other students or the instructor in a virtual environment without their consent.
  • Remember, we’re all human. Although you’re learning at a distance, your peers and instructor are still human and have feelings. If you wouldn’t make the comment in a face-to-face environment, don’t post it.
  • Honor diversity and aspire to be inclusive. Diversity and inclusion are core values and priorities for the University of Washington. We accept and celebrate the differences that are represented through the many diverse and minoritized communities in our community. Be aware of and sensitive to the diversity of your classmates and instructors. Ensure your comments are inclusive to all participants.
  • Ask for help. Not sure if your post is appropriate? Ask another participant or your instructor to review it before you post.

Zoom/Synchronous Meetings

  • Seek permission before you record or screenshot a meeting or lecture.
  • Mute is your friend. Mute your microphone when you are not speaking. This helps reduce noise so all can hear better.
  • Setup your workspace. If you can, find a quiet, distraction-free environment in which to join a Zoom meeting. If you can’t, be sure to use headphones and keep your microphone on mute when you’re not speaking. If you’re worried about other people seeing your surroundings, use a virtual background while in Zoom.
  • Use the chat space and the raised hand feature to ask questions.
  • Clothes are not optional. As a general rule, wear the kinds of clothes you would normally wear to school.

As the instructor, it is your responsibility to facilitate appropriate engagement. Always monitor your course and send netiquette reminders as needed.

Students outside the U.S.

While studying remotely, international students working from their home countries may have difficulty accessing UW technologies and online content, have their activity or speech monitored, and may face punitive action by local authorities. Consider adding guidance around this to your syllabus for your students.

Of particular concern are the many UW students who have returned to mainland China, due to the Chinese firewall that restricts access to some U.S.-based websites and web applications. Additional issues, such as slowness of page loads, arise from the fact that data is traveling a long distance.

Also of concern are issues related to synchronous instruction, multilingual writing, and online interactions in discussion boards with peers. All of these issues impact UW faculty who want to create online courses that are accessible to and inclusive of international students who are now many miles away.

Staying connected to students in mainland China

If you’re having difficulty connecting to Chinese students who have returned to mainland China, the problem may be related to their UW email account.

All U.S.-based Google products are blocked in China. Many UW students access their university email accounts through Google GSuite. Some students will have anticipated this problem before leaving the U.S. by purchasing a VPN (access to a virtual private network, which cloaks online activity from government surveillance). But VPNs are expensive, and some provide unstable connections. More importantly, the Chinese government discourages the use of VPNs. Students who are not using a VPN may not receive any communications you send to their UW email addresses.

Workaround: Communicate through your Canvas course

All students are automatically enrolled in Canvas sites. You can communicate with students via Announcements and Inbox.

In order for students to receive notifications, they must:

What you need to do:

  • Publish the course. Students won’t receive notifications until the course is published.
    • If you are still working on your course, you can delay enabling any content that you do not want to share with students (such as an updated syllabus, new modules, or new discussion boards)
  • Remind students to check Canvas for announcements and messages. Some students may be new to Canvas and not be in the habit of checking Canvas for communications from their instructor.

Blocked websites, slow connections

Many tools and social media are blocked in China. See details and recommendations for workarounds. The list of blocked websites changes quickly. To test whether a website is available in China, check the URL in a site such as Comparitech.

Even when websites are available, those hosted outside of mainland China will load more slowly. Students in mainland China will have difficulty accessing large files such as videos and slides with high-resolution images.

Monitored activity

The Chinese government engages in a high degree of surveillance to monitor its citizens online. In light of this surveillance, it’s important to consider not only which platforms students in mainland China will have access to, but also what they can say or write when using these platforms.

We are not suggesting that faculty tell Chinese students to watch what they say when interacting with their UW courses. They are already likely aware of the need to monitor their own speech online. But faculty should consider the extent to which their writing assignments, discussion prompts, and test questions touch on potentially culturally sensitive topics. In some courses, the topics may be unavoidable. In others, faculty may be able to offer options, allowing students to write about topics that would not jeopardize their safety. Instructors should not compromise their courses or instruction. But flexibility (and a measure of generosity) are warranted when assessing Chinese students’ work at this time.

Considerations for synchronous instruction

This climate of surveillance also has implications for synchronous course activities. Synchronous aspects of a course (such as class meeting, office hours, and group work facilitated by Zoom) would already be difficult for students in mainland China due to the time difference (China is twelve hours ahead of the US).

Activities that require students to speak online could be overhead by family members. Activities that require the use of a webcam or microphone could implicate family members whose images and voices are captured (a general fear felt by citizens in China; see Campbell, 2019). We recommend not requiring students in mainland China to participate in activities that require videoconferencing.

Considerations for asynchronous instruction

Asynchronous classes also introduce complications for international students who use English as an additional language, due to the increased visibility of student writing. Ilona Leki (2007) has conducted case study research on international students during their U.S. university experiences. Leki notes that writing is the place where multilingual students feel the most vulnerable, due to the presence of differences in syntax, differences in cultural rhetorical practices for making and arranging arguments, and “written accent” (i.e., markers that indicate use of English as an additional language). Researchers estimate that 95% of adult learners of English will write (and speak) with an accent (Silva, Leki, & Carson, 1997). In many courses, only the instructor or TA sees student writing. In online courses (especially those that utilize discussion boards), student writing becomes visible to all students.

Not only can peers see discussion board posts made by other students, but they are also often expected to comment on them. Unmoderated discussion boards open students not only to comments and criticisms of their ability to control English, but also to the xenophobia that has been on the rise in the US, which has especially targeted Chinese students since the start of the pandemic. We recommend that you pay extra attention to creating inclusive online classroom climates, as we discuss below.

Creating inclusive online courses

We recommend that as you move to virtual instruction, you re-establish classroom etiquette as it relates to creating an inclusive environment. In your syllabus, you might include a statement about the online classroom culture you hope to establish. For example:

In this class, I expect “written accent” (missing articles, incorrect prepositions, incorrect verb tenses) to be treated with respect. While all students in this course are expected to challenge themselves to become more effective and accomplished writers, we will not spend time worrying too much about the aspects of English that take many years to acquire (i.e. articles, verb tense, prepositions), but instead focus on expression of ideas, communicative competence, and rhetorical savvy.

In your syllabus, you might also include recognition of recent attacks against Chinese students in the U.S. and say that racism, in any form, will not be tolerated.

If you assign discussion boards, you might make a general statement that you do not expect students to edit their discussion board posts for Standard Written English, and that assessment will be more focused on posts’ content. If you ask students to respond to peers’ posts, you might instruct them to ignore non-standard uses of English and focus instead on the message. (This approach is in keeping with best practices for responding to informal writing and writing-in-progress by multilingual writers; see Conference on College Composition and Communication, 2009.)

A final point is that while we focus on students from mainland China in this article, international students from other countries may also have similar restrictions. The UW community includes students from all over the world, including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Venezuela, all of which block some websites and engage in surveillance of online activities. Being sensitive to issues related to access, culturally sensitive topics, time zone differences, and accented English will create a more inclusive online classroom for all of our international students.

Thanks to Michelle Cox, Senior Lecturer, Director, English Language Support Office, Cornell University, for providing the foundation for Students Outside the U.S.