Engaging Students in Online Classes: Tips from a “Prof in a Box”

Psychology banner image

Article Summary

  • Keeping educational content varied grabs students' attention.
  • Engagement methods backed by research on learning and memory are well-suited for online environments.
  • Making lessons relatable, challenging, interactive and thought-provoking helps them resonate with students.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

By: Jeffrey S. Nevid, Ph.D. Cengage Author and Professor of Psychology, St. John’s University


Like many college instructors, I didn’t willingly embrace the abrupt shift to remote instruction in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. I needed to be dragged kicking and screaming from the classroom.

As a Psychology Professor, the classroom has been my professional home for over 40 years. It’s been a place where I could look students squarely in the eye, engage them in exploring how Psychology informs so many different aspects of our lives, take note of the precious times when student attention was laser-focused and the other times when I battled to reel in their attention.

Shifting abruptly mid-semester to synchronous online instruction, I quickly became accustomed to seeing only the upper halves of students occupying little boxes on the screen rather than the view of them occupying seats in a classroom.


Teaching Online Is an Adjustment

Trying to maintain the semblance of an actual in-vivo class, I held my classes in Introductory Psychology at the usual times. I also administered exams remotely, shared my PowerPoints and classic videos illustrating key experiments in Psychology—and, courtesy of YouTube, drew upon a reservoir of video clips that sprinkled humor on the topics we covered.

Some differences from classroom instruction soon became obvious. As an instructor who rarely if ever sits down in the classroom, I conducted my online classes in a fixed seated position to ensure I was always in full camera view. For the first time in my teaching experience, I needed to remind students to make sure they were dressed and sitting upright for class as they would be in a traditional setup.

Zooming or Webexing so easily pierced the invisible wall between private and public spaces, when the webcam brought students into our homes as it brought us into theirs.

A major challenge facing online instructors as they Zoom into class is keeping students engaged. Some students log in to class but don’t keep their webcams active. With cameras off, we may wonder whether they are still paying attention or are distracted. Or, are they merely logging in and then nodding off?

Even with an active webcam, students seemed more remote, passive and uninvolved. If the “medium is the message,” then viewing a class on a screen may be more akin to watching Netflix than interacting with a live teacher. I realized I needed to retool to keep students engaged.


Utilize Teaching Strategies Backed by Research

Engagement is a core component of effective learning. Metaphors of the brain as a sponge that passively absorbs information, or a funnel through which educators pour ideas, does not square with modern research on the learning process.

We know that without focused attention, we can only expect some incidental learning to occur, as in retaining a few isolated facts or bits of information. Deeper, more meaningful learning requires closer, sustained attention. Whether in the classroom or online the instructor can draw upon established pedagogical techniques to engage students.

These tips, inspired by research on learning and memory—as well as my own experiences teaching students remotely—are designed to engage students when it isn’t possible in person:


Start with an Attention Grabber

Whether teaching in the classroom or online, instructors have but precious few moments to grab student interest at the beginning of class. Involve students with activities like:

  • Using interactive exercises, such as demonstrations, class surveys and polling questions. Online polling services, such as polleverywhere.com, or survey features built into video platforms, are useful tools to survey student opinion and show tabulated results. For instance, I ask my Intro Psych students to express their opinion on whether women or men are smarter. I then discuss the available research evidence, which actually shows no overall gender differences in general intelligence.
  • Showing videos clips from YouTube or popular movies as lecture starters. When using video clips, it’s a good idea to use guiding questions that relate your clip to the material discussed in class. Otherwise students come away thinking they spent their time in class just watching videos.
  • Sharing personal vignettes and news features that illustrate topics or issues discussed in class. This helps make the course material more relevant to our lives today.


Make It Relatable

As a Psychology Professor, I often point out that Pavlov would merit no more than a footnote in the annals of Psychology if he only taught us something about salivation in dogs. To engage student interest, instructors need to show how topics or concepts in our discipline relate to people’s lives. One way to do this is to invite discussions about issues that matter. These topics might include why people use drugs or the drawbacks of using punishment in disciplining children.

When introducing Pavlov’s principles of classical conditioning, I don’t start with the familiar schematic diagram and jargon—such as conditioned stimuli, conditioned response, interstimulus interval and so on. Rather, I start with a personal example, telling students and readers of my text that I hate eggs. I hate the sight of them, the smell of them and especially the taste of them. I go on to say that I wasn’t born with an aversion to eggs. As my mother later told me, I happily ate my eggs as a toddler.

My taste aversion was something I learned along the way, probably in early childhood, the memory of which is lost in the recesses of time. I then ask students how discoveries made in a research lab in Russia, more than 100 years ago, account for a form of learning that can explain the development of acquired taste aversions.

I also invite students to discuss their own taste aversions and speculate about the learning experiences that may have led to the acquisition of these responses.


Pose a Puzzle

You may have heard the familiar expression that “the brain loves a puzzle.” Puzzles are intuitively appealing, which helps account for the attraction of countless “whodunnits” in books and movies.

Just as students stay focused until the guilty party is revealed, a puzzle posed in class can keep students alert to looking for clues that unravel the mystery. When I post a puzzle, I prepare students by saying I will give them clues they can use to solve the puzzle during class. Here are two examples from Introductory Psychology:

  • Most of us are ticklish, but did you know that it is impossible to tickle yourself? The question is, why?
  • Did you know that the ability to ‘‘hold your liquor’’ puts you at greater risk of developing serious problems with alcohol? Why do you suppose this is so?


Chat with Me

The chat function is one of the most unheralded learning devices in online instruction. It’s useful not simply as a means for students to ask questions in class or interact with one another—important functions in themselves—but as a cue that instructors can use to engage students in the learning process.

My classes are replete with requests I make to students to chat with me. I use the chatting feature to survey student opinions, with questions like, “Is there a safe limit for alcohol use by pregnant women?” or “Is it better to study in the library or your bedroom or dorm room, and why?”

Or, you can invite students to relate topics discussed in class to their own lives, from “Do you consider yourself to be a sensation seeker?” to “What does self-actualization mean to you?”

Take it a step further by making predictions about results of experiments discussed in class—e.g., “Do you think a person who collapses in the street is more likely to be helped on a crowded city street, or on an emptier street in a small town?”


Mastery Quizzing

I expect that one of the most feared terms in a student’s lexicon is “pop quiz.” Well, I am confident your students will not have any fear of a pop quiz I call a “mastery quiz,” and may actually welcome it as an opportunity to earn points toward their final grade.

A mastery quiz is an unannounced quiz administered at the end of class with a question that matches up with a concept discussed during class. What makes a mastery quiz different than the ordinary pop quiz is students know that if they pay attention, they will have the opportunity to learn the answer by the end of class.

I typically credit students with either a full point or a half point toward their final grade for answering the mastery quiz item correctly.

I use two variations of mastery quizzing. In the first, I administer the same multiple-choice quiz item at the beginning and end of class and credit students for submitting the correct answer on either try. The second variation is one I am now using—which takes less class time—in which I post the question on the course management system at the beginning of class and have students post their answers at the end of class.

In our research, we showed that mastery quizzing significantly boosted student performance on regular examinations on concepts tested in mastery quizzes (Nevid & Mahon, 2009). Mastery quizzing provides incentives tied to three important objectives:

  • Attending class regularly. Students need to be in class on an unannounced mastery quiz day to get credit.
  • Punctuality. The quiz item is either posted or pretested at the very beginning of class.
  • Paying attention. Students know the concept tested will come up during class, but they don’t know when during class it will be discussed.


Minute Writing Assignments:  When We Write, We Learn

In other findings by our research group, we showed that writing-to-learn assignments—in the form of journal postings by students on concepts discussed in the textbook—enhanced exam performance on related content (Nevid, Pastva, & McClelland, 2012).

It didn’t matter whether students wrote about generic concepts or personal examples of concepts. In either case, writing enhanced learning. To engage students in online classes, I have assigned writing assignments in which students pen a few sentences at the end of class, either explaining what they learned about a particular concept that they hadn’t known before, or giving an example of the concept in their personal lives.

You can have students post short comments at the end of class for course credit or extra credit points. There are a number of variations of writing-to-learn assignments. For instance, you can ask them to give an example of a concept discussed in class that’s different than the same example you used in class.

Or you can ask them to write about something they learned in class they hadn’t known before. Have them respond to writing prompts posted at the beginning of class. Here is an example I use from The Early History of Psychology: “How did a view from a train inspire the development of a new school of Psychology in the early 20th century?”

You can also ask them to comment on issues in the news that relate to content discussed in class, such as: “Apply the concept of cognitive dissonance to people who believe they should be wearing a mask in public during the pandemic, but don’t.  What are some ways in which cognitive dissonance in this case might be reduced?”


“Let Me Tell You a Story”

These words are about as close as we come in teaching to magical words, as they almost invariably capture student attention in an instant. Everyone loves a good story—but the trick is to embed the concepts you want to teach within the story. This helps students also remember the concept.

For instance, I tell a story about a time our family had pizza delivered. My two children, Michael, then 11, and Daniella, then 5, started grabbing slices from the pizza box. But when they got to the final two slices, one was clearly larger than the other. My son quickly grabbed the larger of the two slices and started happily chomping away. It was then I noticed tears starting to well up in my daughter’s eyes.

I then recalled the concept of conservation from Developmentalist, Jean Piaget: the principle that performing a superficial operation on physical matter does not change its quantity or volume. But I also knew from Piaget that children of my daughter’s age have not yet developed the principle of conservation.

Armed with this knowledge, I quickly scooped up the remaining small slice and took it to the kitchen, where out of sight I performed a superficial operation of cutting it in two with a pizza slicer. Then, setting the two now smaller slices on Daniella’s plate, I noticed her tears instantly dried up and were replaced with a huge smile, since now she had two slices and Michael had one. The kicker to the story was the expression on my son’s face, as if to say, “But Dad, no one would ever believe that!” No one, of course, except a child in the preoperational stage of Piaget’s model of cognitive development.


I hope these suggestions will resonate with your approach to online teaching. As I’m writing this blog posting in late 2020, I’m hopeful that the coming vaccine distribution will enable a return to some form of normalcy. For many of us, this will likely include teaching again in the classroom. I hope to apply lessons learned from remote teaching to new ways of engaging students in the classroom—or virtually—wherever they may be.



Nevid, J. S., & Mahon, K. (2009).  Mastery quizzing as a signaling device to cue attention to lecture material.  Teaching of Psychology, 36, 29-32.

Nevid, J.S., Pastva, A., & McClelland, N. (2012). Writing-to-learn assignments in introductory psychology:  Is there a learning benefit?  Teaching of Psychology, 39, 272-275.


Get More Tips

Want more ways to take teaching to the next level? Discover resources for various course formats and other ways to gain professional development in today’s higher-education landscape.