Learning environment

Five Ways to Engage Students in an Online Learning Environment


Imagine a classroom and this image might appear: neat rows, faces turned towards the teacher, students listening intently to every word of instruction; However, this is generally not the case and is particularly not the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, many instructors are faced with navigating to a format in which tiny boxes showing a face, picture, or letter represent each student in the class. In an era of effervescent technological change, it can be difficult for educators to keep up with the variety of ways to engage students in the classroom online. Another consideration is to involve students with disabilities, which can provide an additional level of difficulty for effective teaching in online environments. However, research documents the importance of teacher-directed prompts that provide students with frequent opportunities to respond (eg, Lewis et al., 2004; Sutherland & Wehby, 2001). In fact, it is recommended that the rate of prompts provided to students be around 3.5 per minute (eg, Stichter et al., 2009). It is not disputed that the questioning of the teachers also makes it possible to observe the performance of the pupils; therefore, it is essential that these facets continue to be integrated into online learning environments.

The classroom, whether face-to-face or virtual, is a dynamic place full of activities and new ideas. How educators change the format of teaching through engagement strategies is critical. Maintaining the engagement of students with disabilities through fun and interactive content promotes increased learning and social engagement opportunities for all. Additionally, interactive activities support the learning of students with disabilities by increasing their motivation to learn and enabling them to connect to content and use higher level thinking strategies. Most importantly, an active approach to increasing engagement during instruction benefits all students. Teachers need to incorporate a variety of methods for students to interact with the material being taught, including opportunities to participate individually, as well as in small and large groups. Grouping students in these formats can be easily done in an online format. For example, if a teacher plans to ask questions of their students during instruction, it is recommended that during each set of questions, the teacher selects a different format (i.e. individual, small group or large group) to encourage and increase engagement. There are also several websites and technology components that can be added to daily teaching or can be provided as additional learning activities. Below are five easy-to-implement strategies that educators can use in an online format that provide effective and inclusive formats for engaging. all students.

1. Animated response

Sites such as Voki, Powtoon, and HistoryBird are examples of online platforms that allow students to respond to content interactively through the creation of a voiceover character, cartoon, or creative storytelling. Formats such as these can be used for individual student responses, with content being taught across all subjects and then shared with the teacher or classmates.

2. Cooperative learning

Cooperative learning is a collaboration that can occur when different group members have different levels of contribution to the job. Cooperative learning requires that all group members have specific and designated tasks to accomplish, and without the input of each group member, the work is incomplete. There are several strategies that can be used to ensure that work is collaborative, including strategies such as think / combine / share, puzzle, and flexible grouping. Examples of platforms that can support these strategies include Edublogs , Weebly for education, Zoom workshops or a shared Google document. It is important for teachers to ensure that students know the expectations of the assignment, how to access the specific technology platform and what should be the expected end result.

3. Organizational outlets

All students benefit from the organization of their learning, however, as students become more familiar with the content being taught, independent work to reinforce these concepts can help all students retain information better. Graphic organizers help students conceptualize and break down learned material and help maintain a clear focus on what needs to be dissected from the information. Freeology.com provides access to hundreds of free printable graphic organizer templates. Canva.com is another free online tool where students can create visually appealing graphic organizers that can match any content. In addition, students can use text-to-speech to produce information faster so that their thoughts are immediately recorded on paper, whether on a smartphone or a computer. Sources like Microsoft, Google, and EndNote are great organizational platforms to help students track their work in one place. Finally, in an online learning environment, tracking assignments is of the utmost importance. Google Drive and Box are two examples of storage repositories that students can use to store and organize their class materials.

4. Movement

Another, often overlooked, method of involving students is to get them moving. It can be difficult for students with disabilities to stay still during class, but by intentionally incorporating movement into teaching, engagement can become more achievable. Four-corner learning is a strategy that can encourage student movement. At the four corners of the learning process, students move from one activity to another with different levels of grouping. For example, students can start the class in a small collaborative group, then move on to the large group, then return to the small collaborative group, and finally finish at an individual workstation. In an online learning format, this can be achieved by having students stand or sit depending on the group they are currently engaging with. For example, when students move on to the first activity, they get up. Then in activity two, they sit down. This would continue until the students had completed all of the activities. Creative ways that teachers can accomplish in an online environment would be through the incorporation of a GoNoodle activity, or simply have the teacher guide students through the movements with their directions during a transition.

5. Interactive courses

Teachers can also embed interactive learning opportunities for students into PowerPoints through the PearDeck add-on for Google Slides or NearPod where students can interact with learning content through questions, surveys or specific student responses. PearDeck and NearPod are also a quick and easy way for instructors to do an informal assessment of whether or not their students understand the material, as each mode captures student responses.

Maintaining student engagement is no small task in the face-to-face learning format. However, by applying some of the same traditional methods of engagement that incorporate the use of free and readily available technologies, engagement in an online learning environment is achievable. Although the workload of educators has undeniably increased due to the pandemic, the engagement of our students remains important in this new world of education. The strategies outlined above can help educators today overcome the age-old problem of engagement. all students during teaching.


Maria B. Peterson-Ahmad, PhD, is Visiting Associate Professor of Special Education at Texas Woman’s University. Dr. Peterson-Ahmad’s research interests are in bridging the gap between general and special education by enhancing and enhancing teacher preparation experiences, particularly through high leverage practices. In addition, she is interested in training future teachers on how to become increasingly comfortable in individualized interventions for students with learning disabilities, through pedagogical coaching and teaching. ‘simulated learning experiences.

Randa G. Keeley, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Texas Woman’s University with a research focus on classroom interventions that promote inclusive learning environments for students with special educational needs and disabilities. His research interests include the application of quantitative and qualitative measures to analyze the effects of inclusive practices, culturally appropriate teaching and co-teaching as it relates to teacher and student.

The references

Lewis, TJ, Hudson, S., Richter, M. and Johnson, N. (2004). Scientifically Supported Practices in Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: A Proposed Approach and Brief Review of Current Practices. Behavior disorders, 29(3), 247-259.

Stichter, J., Randolph, JK, Kay, D. & Gage, N. (2009). Using structural analysis to develop antecedent-based interventions for students with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(6), 883-896.

Sutherland, KS, & Wehby, JH, (2001). The Effect of Self-Assessment on Classroom Teaching Behavior for Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. Journal of Special Education, 35(3), 2-8


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