Engaging Students in Remote Classes

Suggestions and sample activies for student engagement.

remote teaching
for professors

September 10, 2020


Wendy is a PhD candidate, Federica is a PhD student, and Mine is an Assistant Professor of Teaching in the Department of Statistics at the University of California Irvine. During Spring and Summer 2020, we worked together to teach statistics online. We have held numerous discussions on how to modify our courses. All three of us have been fortunate to receive support from the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation during the Summer to learn more about remote teaching and learning.

It is generally agreed on that online education requires a higher level of self-discipline, motivation, and time-management skills. However, college is a place where students are still learning these skills and will thus need more assistance from educators for getting the best out of online learning.

Teaching and learning during the pandemic is unique in its own way and different than online education. After the sudden requirement to teach our previously in-person classes remotely, we had made some decisions in the Spring that we later changed for our Summer courses, as we continued to learn about remote learning. In this blog post, we will share what we explicitly do in our courses for keeping students engaged from behavioral, emotional, and cognitive perspectives and provide some sample activities for student engagement.

Behavioral Engagement

The behavioral component of engagement has to do with students’ effectively taking all the actions that are expected by someone who participates in the class. Keeping students engaged behaviorally is essential for ensuring that they achieve positive academic outcomes and don’t drop out (Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004).

Concretely, in a virtual learning environment, behavioral engagement consists of:

  • following class policies and weekly workflow
  • attending synchronous activities
  • watching asynchronous videos
  • reading required study material
  • submitting homework and quizzes
  • participating in online discussions
  • answering instructors’ emails

We adopted asynchronous teaching of course content, with time zone differences and internet connection issues in mind. However, we also have what we call “mandatory flexible attendance”. Students are required to attend at least one hour of office hours, but the student is given the option to attend any of the four (or more) office hours offered by the instructor and the TAs. Additionally, office hours are scheduled at 8 am to accommodate students in different time zones.

Videos are intentionally kept brief, usually under 10 minutes. We try to keep videos simple and easy to follow. Improving the video quality often requires some editing for us on a weekly basis.

To keep students on track with deadlines, we have a consistent weekly schedule throughout the academic term. This schedule is explicitly provided to our students. An example from one of our courses is shown below.

The first week is spent making sure students have the tools they will need (mostly software and websites in our case) and know how to use them (Learning Management System). Further, we specifically assign a Toolbox Quiz to check whether students have installed and can log onto everything that they will need for the class. This quiz is mostly for us to check if each student has access to all the tools. We also assign a Syllabus Quiz to make sure that students are aware of the workflow, expectations, and deadlines for the course.

In addition, we have been experimenting with the frequency of reminders sent to students. Reminders are helpful with behavioral engagement but we also do not want to overdo it, given the high number of emails that students receive. We plan to send weekly reminders at the beginning of the week and before major assignments (midterm, final, extra office hours etc.)

Even though we expect students to submit assignments on time, we understand that sometimes life happens. For this reason, we offer a Life Happens Card, an imaginary card that can be used (only once) for lecture quizzes or homework assignments. This card is an alternative to the common “drop the lowest grade” policy, and the assignment for which it is used will not count towards the student’s final grade. Within a week of the deadline, if a student wants to use the card they would have to email the grader, who will keep track of it and encourage them to still complete the assignment even after the deadline has passed.

Emotional Engagement

Emotional engagement is broadly defined as a student’s feelings about the class - including the instructor, fellow students, the material, and even the school (Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004). Feelings can be positive, such as interest and happiness, or negative, such as boredom, sadness, or anxiety. We are more likely to feel invested and motivated to work on a project that we are excited about, with people we get along with and respect, at a place where we feel valued and whose values coincide with our own.

In the first week, we dedicate some office hour time for everyone to get to know each other and for us to get to know the students. As some students may not be comfortable talking via video chat, they also have the option to introduce themselves with a discussion board post, which counts as extra credit. Below is a sample set of instructions for the discussion board.

Please take time to introduce yourself to your classmates. Please do not provide any personal information that you would feel uncomfortable sharing with others. Share only what you want. Below are some suggestions. You can share more or less than what is suggested.

Your name
Your pronouns
Your location
Your major
Year at UCI
Do you have pets?
Any fun facts?
Favorite TV show, movie, or book.
Complete this sentence: I am awesome because ____________________.
Anything else that you would like to share.

Make sure to read your classmates’ introductions and say hi to each other and socialize.

In a quiz called All About You Survey, we ask students for their preferred name, pronoun, time zone, as well as their concerns and excitements, both inside and outside the class. This survey is extremely important as students become articulate in expressing their emotions and continue to do so throughout the term. No matter how large the class is (sometimes we have more than 200 students), we take the time to read and respond to each student’s survey. We want our students to get to know us and perceive us as humans who are also living through the pandemic - this is why we start each course with short video introductions of the instructor, TAs, and graders.

In our statistics course we use a diverse set of real-world examples to pique students’ curiosity and connection with the topic. This can include using students’ own data to help keep them interested. For instance, in the aforementioned All About You Survey we ask how many miles students are away from campus and whether they are left- or right-handed. Later in the term, we use the mean and median miles in homework or activity questions, as well as the proportion of left-handed students in the class. We only share aggregate data from this survey for privacy reasons.

College is a place where students can build friendships, so we employ explicit community building strategies. Considering the challenges of the pandemic, it is harder for students to make new friends, especially for first-year or transfer students. Before assigning students to breakout rooms during office hours, we give prompts to introduce themselves to each other, discuss life outside of the class, such as how other classes are going. These prompts come before any course content prompts. Further, students can ask questions on our online discussion forum and are invited to answer their classmates’ questions which helps foster a feeling of community. They can also solve quizzes (formative assessment) together and discuss their solutions (but not copy them).

Another thing we tried over the Summer that was well-perceived by students was using a virtual background showing different spots on campus. For those who lack this capability, another option would be to include these images in slides. This gives students the opportunity to virtually walk through different parts of the campus, since some of them have not yet been able to see it in person.

Cognitive Engagement

Finally, cognitive engagement focuses on a student’s self-motivation and investment (Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004). This can relate generally to the amount of effort spent on the course as a whole or more specifically to the level of focus and energy devoted to a particular topic or activity. Students with higher cognitive engagement are those who utilize purposeful learning strategies and show self-discipline in order to achieve a deeper understanding of the learning objectives.

Whether our classes are held in-person or remotely, our primary concern is active learning. Learners construct their own knowledge and thus have to be cognitively involved at the time of learning. Since our delivery of content are lecture videos, we make sure each video has some task that accompanies it. Most of the time for us that task is a quiz. The quizzes are used as formative assessments, which act as the main tool for keeping students cognitively active while learning. For videos that involve screencast of coding, we expect students to actively code along with us while watching the videos. For instance, if we make a purple graph then we ask the student to submit the red version of the graph. In short, each video comes with some task that the student has to complete.

Keeping focused while watching videos is a difficult task. At the beginning of the academic term, we post a video titled How to Be Successful in This Course. In this video, we explicitly tell students how to watch videos from taking notes to creating cheatsheets. Other videos also include verbal clues such as “Write this formula down. We will keep building on it.”

We know from our in-person course that attendance does not necessarily mean active participation. This has become even more important for online courses, as for most of our students we do not see their faces. We do not ask students to expose their home life if they do not want to. Thus we need different ways to ensure that students are attending and participating and not just logging into zoom.

For this we use multiple features on zoom:

  • using the thumbs up button to indicate if everything is clear,
  • improvising a statistics question and asking them to solve it and send it as a private message,
  • giving question through a poll (when possible we use the anonymous polling option and ask simple questions like Was this clear?)

Especially at the introductory level, there is a lot that is learned at the knowledge, and application level. At this level students execute procedural learning. For instance constructing a confidence interval is a procedural task. Students follow set of formulae to construct it. However, especially after a certain point, there is not as much cognitive engagement in doing such tasks. Each week we try to assign questions that do not have a correct or incorrect answer and gets students to think at higher levels of learning. In these more open-ended tasks we encourage students to think of statistics in the daily life as well, with the intention of not only cognitive engagement but also emotional engagement.

Example Course

Student engagement has definitely been more challenging remotely but it is possible to keep students engaged with the course with intentionally designing the course structure. If you would like to see a course that we all have collectively contributed to over the summer, you can check out stats4cs.com. Videos are not accessible to non-UCI members but the course policies and structure are accessible. Note that this was a summer course which is double the speed of a course during the regular academic quarter.

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