Engaging Engagement in Online Courses

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In discussions about remote learning and future online teaching that many educators may face in the fall, concerns about engagement dominate. They often include the unchallenged claim that online instruction cannot replicate the engagement found in face-to-face teaching. But is that true?

Many erroneously equate the emergency online teaching that most institutions relied on this spring with the kind of online teaching many institutions may be considering for the fall. As a result, they often claim that online teaching generally fails to engage the student as face-to-face classes and result in actual learning. Students have expressed attitudes that the remote education they received during the pandemic has failed them. Commentators on education, like Jonathan Zimmerman, equate most modes of online education to the early days of educational TV, declaring that “Real conversation happens when people are in the same room, not when they’re on the same channel” and “Social distancing is necessary to preserve good health, but it’s not good for education.” Both students and educators point to engagement as a crucial part of the teaching and learning experience and assume it is lacking in online education.

However, we shouldn’t assume that engagement occurs just because student and instructors are in the same room or that one cannot achieve such engagement in an online course. Stephanie Moore and Phil Hill point to the substantial scholarship on the effectiveness of online learning compared to classroom-based learning: “What these studies show, time and again, is no significant difference. In fact, this has been labeled the ‘no significant difference phenomenon’ with a website and book by Thomas Russell (2001) dedicated to documenting the studies and the trend.”

What can make a difference in effective teaching in both settings? Actively engaging students in the course material, with the instructor and with each other. IU – Teaching Online notes that:

The concept of active learning encompasses a wide variety of learning activities in which students engage with the course content. The focus of active learning is to foster that engagement. When students sit and passively watch or listen to lectures – whether in person or on video – they are not actively engaging with the content.

We also know that students learn more effectively when they are involved in their own learning. A cursory look at activity on the Internet and social media reveals that we can have a high level of engagement in an online environment. Individuals spend hours engaging with each other, learning how to do a variety of things. Moreover, I know from personal experience that it is possible to involve students in collaborative research on the Internet. We should view the current situation as an opportunity to develop our best teaching to achieve a similar level of engagement for fall courses that may be online.


Jonathan Zimmerman. “Video Kills the Teaching Star.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 24 Apr 2020. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Video-Kills-the-Teaching-Star/248631?cid=wcontentgrid_41_5 (Accessed 5 May 2020).

“Learning Activities and Active Learning Online.” IU – Teaching Online, UC-Davis, n.d., https://canvas.ucdavis.edu/courses/34528/pages/learning-activities-and-active-learning-online?module_item_id=4973 (5 May 2020).

Stephanie Moore and Phil Hill. “Planning for Resilience, Not Resistance.” Phil On EdTech. 28 Apr 2020.  https://philonedtech.com/planning-for-resilience-not-resistance/  (Accessed 5 May 2020).

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Engaging Engagement in Online Courses by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Disciplines and Active Learning

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Active learning represents a significant set of strategies that can increase student engagement with course material. However, how does disciplinary context factor into the way we use these strategies?

Active learning remains a major trend in higher education. Several of the most-read topics for The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Teaching Newsletter revolved around active learning strategies, including the interactive lecture, test review and debriefing. Studies show that it can have a major impact on student learning. However, much of that research focuses on the implementation of active learning strategies in STEM courses. They represent a stark departure from the continuous lecture, a common mode of teaching, particularly in large classes.

For example, Scott Freeman and his colleagues conducted an analysis of 225 studies and found that active learning increased test scores, but this was specifically for undergraduate STEM courses: “The data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the contained use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields” (8413).

However, disciplines in the humanities have employed active learning strategies like flipped learning for decades: “Procedurally, a humanities seminar is already ‘flipped.’ Exciting student interactivity in a ‘flipped’ engineering class is true of an ordinary humanities seminar” (Berens). So are active learning strategies only effective for certain disciplines? How can we make them effective in all disciplines?

Rather than a magic bullet, it may be more helpful to see active learning as a constellation of strategies that instructors link to the specific learning goals for their courses and match to the needs of their students. In doing, the disciplinary context is key. Some strategies work better than others for certain disciplines. Failing to link the strategies with student learning outcomes, student work and assessment could result in the failure of active learning strategies in the classroom. Claire L. Jarvis reports on Amanda Holton’s experience in her chemistry course at the University of California, Irvine:

Amanda Holton encountered the gap between the optimistic literature and reality when she flipped her large general chemistry class. . . . [Holton’s students] were in their first semester of college, nonmajors taking general chemistry as a prerequisite for their biology degrees. They weren’t strongly motivated to study chemistry and resented having to run through lectures and teach themselves outside the classroom. Exam performance only slightly improved compared with students who took the nonflipped version the year before.

It sounds like Holton’s flip could more directly address the kinds of students in her general course who, unlike majors, do not exhibit the same kind of motivation. Could Holton incorporate other activities that could spark their interest, perhaps linking chemistry to the world they experience everyday? Could she explain her use of the flipped classroom in a way that students see themselves participating in their own learning rather than being completely responsible for it?

Success with active learning strategies begins with the instructor intentionally incorporating and linking them to the goals of the course. Instructors are better positioned to get the most out of active learning when they keep disciplinary values in view.


Berens, Kathi Inman. “Double Flip: 3 Insights Flipping the Humanities Seminar.” Hybrid Pedagogy, 23 Jan 2014, https://hybridpedagogy.org/double-flip-3-insights-flipping-humanities-seminar/ (31 Jan 2020).

Freeman, Scott; Eddy, Sarah L; McDonough, Miles; Smith, Michelle K.; Okoroafor, Nnadozie; Jordt, Hannah and Mary Pat Wenderoth. “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.” PNAS, 111.23 (2014): 8410-8415. doi/10.1073/pnas.1319030111.

Jarvis, Claire L. “The Flip Side of Flipped Classrooms: Popular Teaching Method Doesn’t Always Work as Planned.” C&EN, 17 Jan 2020, https://cen.acs.org/education/undergraduate-education/flip-side-flipped-classrooms/98/i3, (31 Jan 2020).