How to keep students engaged in online learning

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Two women gather around a computer on which an online course is displayed.
J-PAL Africa staff view an online course in the MicroMasters in Data, Economics, and Development Policy.
Photo: Aimee Hare | J-PAL Africa

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, many governments declared public health emergencies and some have instituted shelter-in-place orders. In response, universities around the world have moved students off campus and shifted courses online for the remainder of the semester.

Transitioning from a classroom to an online video conference is challenging for everyone involved—teachers must make extra effort to engage students effectively, and students in turn have to make an extra effort to stay engaged amid distractions at home. Research suggests that students typically do worse in courses that are delivered entirely online.

Since 2012, MIT has been delivering online versions of its residential courses on edX. In 2017, J-PAL and MIT’s Department of Economics developed the MicroMasters program in Data, Economics, and Development Policy (DEDP).

To create the program, J-PAL converted the same courses MIT’s economics faculty teach on campus—in courses like microeconomics, data analysis, and political economy—into online courses. Since its launch, over 31,000 learners have enrolled in at least one course.

We’ve tried different approaches to online education and identified two key lessons that are essential for keeping students engaged—and actually learning.  

Lesson 1: Rethink lecture formats

Remote learning requires high levels of motivation, focus, and organization. There are some steps you can take to maximize students’ engagement and ensure that all students have equal access to material.

  • Engage your students by segmenting lectures into shorter sequences. 

    DEDP lecture segments are less than 15 minutes long and focus on a particular topic, allowing students to direct their attention to one concept and rewatch or take breaks as needed. In live lectures, instructors can mimic this by pausing for breaks, summarizing key points, and soliciting questions often to keep students engaged.
  • Check comprehension by asking quick questions that test whether students understood the key lesson in the short lecture segment. 

    In the DEDP courses, exercises placed in between lecture segments serve as a learning and assessment tool: instructors know what students have learned and students practice applying the concepts taught in lecture. The exercises offer detailed answer explanations to provide feedback and correct students if they are learning a concept incorrectly. Frequent exercises also give students more opportunity to apply lecture material. 

    Research shows that such repeated quizzing can improve student outcomes. Furthermore, classroom studies have shown that students who were frequently quizzed learned more and reported greater satisfaction with the course. 

    When lecturing online via Zoom or another platform, lecturers can administer polls in Zoom or send out Google forms to test knowledge retention and gauge students’ understanding of what is being discussed in the course. These quizzes help encourage  students to stay current with the course and study regularly.
  • Walk through step-by-step examples.

    When shifting courses online, students often do not get the benefit of the opportunity to interact in smaller discussion groups with other students and teaching assistants to see a challenging problem or concept worked out, step-by-step.

    Evidence shows studying worked examples are an effective way for non-experts, like students, to learn. Teachers should set aside some of their time (or a teaching assistant’s time) to practice exercises or problems similar to the homework problems. For instructors working from home without a board to write on, many tablet apps allow them to record themselves working on a practice problem
  • Maximize access to material for all students

    Record all instruction, even live lectures, so that all students can watch or rewatch it (especially important for students in different time zones). When presenting, be sure to describe any images or graphics for students who are blind or have low visibility.

    Students, especially those who need accessibility accommodations, will also benefit from transcripts. Zoom has built-in automatic captions for recorded sessions, but does not provide automatic live captioning. Alternatively, Google Slides has a live captioning feature.

Lesson 2: Build a community

In-person courses benefit from interactions with peers, instructors, and teaching assistants that can provide a sense of community and motivate students to learn. Online courses simulate these interactions through discussion forums. 

  • Encourage students to take advantage of discussion-based features on course websites like Canvas.  

    By stimulating discussion, teachers can encourage students to ask questions and receive feedback from their peers and course team (instructors and teaching assistants). Ask teaching assistants to introduce themselves and their backgrounds and ask a question to start discussion. For instructors using Zoom, use a breakout room to split the class into smaller groups for managing discussions or projects as you would in class. If teachers don’t have teaching assistants, consider assigning a different student each week to lead the discussion.
  • Use office hours to engage students in a more informal setting. 

    Asking students to submit questions or concepts in advance can help avoid awkward lulls and pace the time. Teachers can request students to submit questions aimed at broad concepts to lecturers, and to submit questions on specific homework problems to teaching assistants, to best utilize each instructor’s expertise.
  • Encourage students to keep in touch with each other. 

    In our program, learners have created groups on WhatsApp and Facebook to provide support and share resources with one another. Students may feel much more comfortable reaching out to peers than to their TAs or professors, and creating a supportive community is important—especially in these uncertain times.

These are unprecedented times for all of us, even seasoned online teachers and learners. Above all, lecturers should focus on bringing the same energy, passion, and engagement from the physical classroom to the virtual classroom—students pick up on this energy, and it sets an important foundation for effective learning. 

The next semester of our online MicroMasters in Data, Economics, and Development Policy begins June 2. Check out the courses and enroll today >>

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