Engaging Students Online: 5 Barriers to Avoid

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Online LearningStudent Success
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When it comes to your instruction, we understand how difficult it can be to keep students attentive, engaged and focused—an issue only compounded by the recent shift to online learning due to COVID-19.

To help you make the most of your instruction, regardless of the format, we’ve compiled a list of five pitfalls that may be hindering student engagement. Read on to learn more.

What Do Students Think?   

According to one poll, which asked students what kind of actions a great professor takes, they shared the following:

Question: What Traits Make a Professor Your Favorite?

  • The instructor is straightforward—making expectations clear
  • There is availability for help outside the classroom
  • Students are treated as people, not numbers
  • The instructor goes the extra mile to ensure students have what they need
  • Students receive detailed feedback on areas they struggle with

Question: What Advice Would You Give on How to Become a Student’s Favorite Professor?

  • Show students that you value them as people
  • Be personal and relatable—share your story with students
  • Get feedback from students
  • Help struggling students
  • Keep communication open

Five Barriers to Student Engagement

1. Course Content Doesn’t Relate to Students’ Real-Life Experiences

Research has shown that teaching the relevance of course content helps students grow into engaged, motivated and self-disciplined learners. As an instructor, you’ve no doubt heard the classic, “when am I ever going to use this stuff?” from your students.

When students don’t feel that coursework serves any other purpose than assessment fodder, it makes it hard to stay motivated and engaged. By demonstrating relevance to your students, you’re adding a new source of inspiration to motivate students on a personal level.

“Show the relevance of the subject matter and make it fun and meaningful! My excitement for what I teach is obvious, and my students can see it and feel it. I believe in what I teach.”

Sandy Keeter, Computing Professor at Seminole State College

2. Instruction Doesn’t Cater to Various Learning Styles

As you’ve no doubt experienced, in a packed lecture hall or classroom, it can be difficult to ensure every student has the ability to learn their way. But research suggests that catering to a specific learning style may limit students’ ability to take in information in ways that differ from their “preferred” learning style.

By teaching students using a combination of visual, auditory, reading/writing and kinesthetic methods, you offer students the chance to learn their way while teaching them how to learn in ways they may find more challenging. The results? Well-rounded students capable of critical thinking in new ways.

3. Student Confidence May Be Declining

With COVID-19 forcing classes online, the higher education experience has drastically changed. For students, this change has been especially difficult. Many students look forward to the college experience as a whole—the social, athletic and cultural aspects—alongside academics.

Now, students are under an incredible amount of stress and with that stress comes significant strain on their confidence, a crucial element for success in higher education.

To help keep your students thriving, look for the students showing signs of low confidence and empower them with the outside help you’d typically reserve for office hours, recap sessions, etc. For tips on fostering student confidence, take a look at our checklist.

4. Outside Factors May Be Impacting Your Students

On top of the many academic stressors that can impact your students, many are worried about a number of external factors like finances, finding a job, living up to expectations, etc. Consider these students’ experiences and how they may impact their ability to learn:


5. Students May Not Be Used to Online Learning

With 90% of institutions reporting transitioning some or all of their classes online, it’s clear that many students are also adjusting to online learning as a result of the pandemic. A shift this massive can drastically affect engagement, motivation and outcomes.

In a previous article, we explored ten practical tips for teaching online that can help you help your students. At a glance, these tips include:

  1. Being specific
  2. Clarifying tone and communication styles
  3. Continuously encouraging student engagement
  4. Keeping things simple
  5. Being responsive—but with limits
  6. Establishing a routine
  7. Creating a separate space for students
  8. Leveraging group activities
  9. Adding a personal touch to your lessons

Want Some Peer-Tested Engagement Exercises?

Take a look at our recent ebook, The Student Engagement Exercise Handbook for tips, tricks and exercises you can incorporate into your instruction to keep students engaged and learning.