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The Secret to Online Teaching Success: Engage Your Students

Imagine that you are a student walking into a classroom on the first day of school to find no teacher. At first, you may sit with other students talking and laughing. You know that when your teacher shows up, it will be time to buckle down and get to work. Minutes go by, then LOTS of minutes, and still no teacher. You and your classmates begin to get a little nervous; what are you supposed to do? You may wonder if you are in the right place at the right time.

You look up at the white board and see assignments written there; they have specific pages you should read and assignment directions, just no teacher! Reactions vary. Some students leave the classroom, others call the office and tell them the teacher is missing, and others muddle through the assignments written on the board. The one thing all students feel is frustration.

Now, imagine if this were an online class. As a student, you would be completely isolated. This type of isolation would derail even the most motivated of students. This scenario is just one example of why student engagement is so important.

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Engage Your Online Students
Unless students are engaged in their learning, they will not get the most from it. Some students may fail completely. This is true of both the face-to-face classroom and an online educational environment. The connections teachers make with students create a positive atmosphere in a classroom, add an element of fun to learning, and guide students into deeper learning!  Engaged students are interested in the content of the lessons. They are motivated to learn and achieve. They progress steadily through the course and interact with the instructor, and, when appropriate, other classmates.

Engaging students in the learning process is not unique to the online learning environment; the goals for connecting with students are the same regardless of where learning takes place. Online teachers want to develop a positive relationship with students, motivate them to learn and enjoy learning, provide them with a variety of learning opportunities, and encourage them to dig deeper into the content. Above all, they want students to be successful in their classes.

Here are some tips for making those connections with your students and engaging them in an online environment.

Communicate Early and Often
The most important thing you can do as an online teacher is to establish good communication with your students. Contact your students on or before the first day of class by sending a welcome email. Introduce yourself and share tips on how to get started. For example, let students know how to contact you, when your office hours are, and how to access the textbook. Knowing this information can reduce anxiety about the course, and it lets students know you are there to help when they need it.

Ask students to share some things about themselves with you. Doing so will give you a better idea of who your students are, and it will allow you to connect with them in a personal way. Creating an introductory discussion board or wiki is another good way to use the tools of technology to get to know your students. Above all, continue to communicate frequently with your students throughout the course.

Provide Structure and Establish Classroom Expectations
It is important to establish times that you will be available to chat live with students to answer their questions or help them to understand a difficult concept from their lessons. Holding online office hours at a consistent time provides such an opportunity. Be sure to let students know how to access your virtual office and when you will hold your live office hours.

You must also articulate what is expected of students in your online classroom. Remind them that they must take responsibility for logging into the course, completing assignments, and communicating with you when they need help.

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Take Advantage of Teachable Moments
As an online teacher, you won’t be standing in front of the classroom lecturing or sharing content. However, providing effective feedback on assignments is essential to engaging your students. Feedback is your opportunity to provide specific guidance and direction, correct any errors in content or procedure, build on prior knowledge, and deepen the learning of your students.

Providing detailed feedback is your teachable moment; you can connect the content to the real world, share practical applications, and deepen students' understanding of the lesson. In other words, this is your opportunity to answer that proverbial question, “Why should I learn this stuff?”

Motivate Your Students
In an online classroom, you can’t look into your students’ eyes or read their body language as they walk through the door. Therefore, you need to proactively work to keep your students engaged and motivated. One way to do this is to gamify!

If your learning management system (LMS) allows you to do so, award badges for successes, such as when students reach class milestones. Create challenges in the form of supplemental materials that are fun and apply the concepts of a lesson. Then, award certificates for completing that material. Above all, communicate, encourage, and support your students. Doing so will make learning fun for your students, reduce their anxiety, and allow you to provide the guidance they need to be successful.

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As one online teacher to another, I want to wish you all the best this year. Remember that your online students have been entrusted to your care. You have great influence, and your daily interactions are incredibly important. This quote sums it up quite nicely.

“You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.” - Clay P. Bedford

Tuttle_bioPhyllis Tuttle is a Health Teacher Facilitator for Lincoln Learning Solutions. She has more than 35 years of experience in education with a focus in Science and Health. Phyllis has 10 years of experience teaching online and writing science and health courses for online education.

Topics: elearning, edtech, online learning, education, student motivation