How to Maintain Student Engagement in a Virtual Learning Environment 

How to Maintain Student Engagement in a Virtual Learning Environment 

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Actively working to establish good relationships may help you to avoid negative situations – like teaching to a blank screen, or radio silence when you ask that amazing question that you thought would inspire all the students to unmute their microphones.  Here's how to maintain virtual student engagement.

Is Anyone Out There? 

Imagine this: It’s the first day of the academic year! Or maybe just the first day of the virtual synchronous course that you are teaching. You feel more than prepared, equipped with years of real-world experience, expertise in the subject, and an ever-growing passion for teaching. Also, your lighting is fabulous, and your Zoom background is striking a balance between professional and fun. You feel ready. 

As class time approaches, students begin to trickle into the virtual classroom. It’s officially go-time. You begin your well-prepared introduction. 

To your horror, you only see a screen of initials, avatars, and black boxes in front of you. Taking attendance took much longer than expected, and that “getting to know you” activity was a bust, because students seemed like they would rather get a root canal than speak up. 

It’s time to dive into the syllabus. Six out of the 25 students enrolled in the course now have their cameras on, but you don’t see their full faces, just tops of heads or backlit shadows. Others have their microphones on, but not their cameras. You are pretty sure that you are hearing the theme song to Stranger Things coming from one of the black boxes on your screen.  

What. Is. Happening? Is it you? Are you not interesting enough? Is something wrong with the virtual platform that you are using? How in the world are you supposed to know who is actually listening and who just left their laptop on and walked away to make a sandwich? A million questions run through your head. 

This experience is all too common for faculty members teaching virtual synchronous classes, especially for first-time or newer users of online teaching formats. But don’t worry – you are not alone! With the popularity of this class format increasing in recent years (largely thanks to the pandemic), it is likely that you may have to navigate this tricky issue at some point, if you have not had to already. Luckily, there are ways that you can ensure that you are caring for the unique situation of each student, while simultaneously ensuring that everyone is learning and participating.  

How to Increase or Maintain Student Engagement 

As an educator, you know that the student-faculty relationship is the foundation for any productive classroom management plan (Pierson, 2013). This is true for both in-person and virtual classrooms. Actively working to establish good relationships may help you to avoid negative situations – like teaching to a blank screen, or radio silence when you ask that amazing question that you thought would inspire all the students to unmute their microphones.  

After an initial class session lacking participation and engagement, it might be helpful to send a message to enrolled students along the following lines: 

Welcome to [insert course name]! I hope that you enjoyed our first class session, and I look forward to working with each one of you this term. I have some tips for you to get the most out of this virtual class experience: 1) Be present and engaged for each live session with your cameras on (when possible); 2) Try to minimize distractions as much as possible; 3) [insert anything else that is relevant to your course] .

If you anticipate any challenges when it comes to your ability to participate or would like to share specific information about your learning style with me, please let me know. I may be contacted at [insert contact information] and my office hours are [insert office hours]   

 We know that students often perform well for faculty members whom they respect and who have their best interests in mind (Pierson, 2013). If a specific student is not engaging in class discussion or lecture, contact the student directly and inquire about how you might support their virtual learning experience. Approaching the situation from a stance of helpfulness rather than punishment will likely yield better results.  

It Was Supposed To Be More Beautiful Than This  

When you were in graduate school, daydreaming what faculty life would look like, you might have imagined educating hungry minds about a subject that you are passionate about, having meaningful interactions with students, and building cohesive classrooms where students feel safe sharing their thoughts with one another. 

Instead, you are managing dropped Wi-Fi signals, videos that take entirely too long to buffer, and breakout rooms that eject students from the class entirely. In addition to teaching the class, you are your own tech support. It’s hard – even for the seasoned faculty members who have taught online for years.  

If you are feeling frustrated, disillusioned, or anxious, know that your feelings are valid. You never know if students are going to show up with bells on or log on for the attendance points and then go directly back to bed. All you can do is your best. That is, and will always be, enough.  

Proceeding With Empathy 

As educators, we have to make sure that we are not punishing students when so much of their lives have been upended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Students might be reluctant to unmute their microphones or show their surroundings due to a variety of factors, such as having a talkative toddler running around in their room during class time. Other students may not have a computer with a working camera or the bandwidth for audio to come through clearly. Sure, many students are digital natives, but this does not mean that every student has a personal computer and access to reliable Wi-Fi.  

We should always be curious about our students and what lies beneath their classroom behaviors. Be inquisitive: Ask questions. Offer support. The virtual classroom has its challenges, and we realize that this is certainly a difficult space to navigate as faculty. However, the mission to help students to get the most out of your class is unchanged.  

Scholarly Sources 

Pierson, R. (2013). Every Kid Needs a Champion [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFnMTHhKdkw  

Terada, Y. (2020, September 4). 5 research backed tips to improve your online teaching presence. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/5-research-backed-tips-improve-your-online-teaching-presence  

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