Q. How do I improve engagement in virtual classes/online delivery of education?


Updated: Jul 14, 2020

Engaging learners in an online environment is difficult, so it is also a topic of key concern to everyone providing support to educators moving from face-to-face to online.  Here is a summary of their advice, with links for more information:

  • Before students can fully engage, they need to get familiar with the online setting, explore the tools and resources, and understand the expectations. 
  • In written materials, provide threads for learners to tug on to explore topics further by including links for more information beyond course requirements
  • When you are planning interactivity, make it relevant and on-topic, including reality-based scenarios.
  • Make it an easy and positive experience to ask questions.  During online classes this could be using the chat functions in video-conferencing.  In asynchronous environments this could be an FAQ board with a “submit a question” feature, a chat widget, etc.  You can also consider having “office hours” where you will be available on video conferencing, phone, chat, texting, etc.
  • Work short assessments and quizzes into the end of each learning section / topic / module
  • If you have long synchronous learning sessions, provide stretch breaks and opportunities for folks to step away and get a glass of water
  • Include opportunities for learners to collaborate with other learners:
    • Discussions:
      • Live discussions in synchronous learning like video-conference-based classes – depending on the size of the group this could be with the whole group or in smaller “break-out groups” who can then report back to the class about their discussion
      • Discussion boards in asynchronous learning
    • Group projects, particularly where the project is to produce an end-product
    • Peer support: provide a place for students to ask and respond to questions about course materials, concepts, etc. Allow discussion to happen but provide a presence to keep discussion from devolving into chaos and to answer questions that learners have been unable to solve on their own.
  • Encourage community
    • Consider including some video-conference classes in which videos are on, and discussions are happening while people can see each other
    • Consider including periodic “check-ins” where participants provide a quick update about something outside of class
    • Consider including social media in your engagement strategy
  • Consider having students teach some of the content to their peers themselves by planning and providing presentations or learning activities.
  • Asking learners to role-play, take sides in a debate, or spontaneously answer a question – just as you would in a face to face class – can all be adapted for online learning.
  • Find out about the tools available to you for you or your learners to “write on the board” during live sessions
  • Engage their emotions using human interest pieces, videos, patient or caregiver narratives, etc. Do not aim to shock learners, this will likely be more distracting than engaging, and content warnings for particularly difficult topics may be appropriate.
  • Keep accessibility considerations in mind

For More Information:



Sample of Engagement in Online Learning in the Literature

Bennett H. Engaging the 21st-Century Student: Beyond the Lecture. International journal of kinesiology in higher education. 2018;2(3):87-96.Link

Bergman J, Ballon-Landa E, Lerman SE, Kwan L, Bennett CJ, Litwin MS. Engaging Physician Learners Through a Web-Based Platform: Individualized End-of-Life Education. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. 2016;33(8):748-54.Link

Burke AS, Fedorek B. Does “flipping” promote engagement?: A comparison of a traditional, online, and flipped class. Active Learning in Higher Education. 2017;18(1):11-24.Link

Dixson MD. Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. The journal of scholarship of teaching and learning. 2011;11(3):120-1.Link

Donkin R, Askew E, Stevenson H. Video feedback and e-Learning enhances laboratory skills and engagement in medical laboratory science students. BMC medical education. 2019;19(1):310-12.Link

Farrell O, Brunton J. A balancing act: a window into online student engagement experiences. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education. 2020;17(1):1-19.Link

Gaston T, Lynch S. Does Using a Course Design Framework Better Engage our Online Nursing Students? Teaching and Learning in Nursing. 2019;14(1):69-71.Link

Harris N, Welch Bacon CE. Developing Cognitive Skills through Active Learning: A Systematic Review of Health Care Professions. Athletic training education journal. 2019;14(2):135-48.Link

Holmes N. Engaging with Assessment: Increasing Student Engagement through Continuous Assessment. Active learning in higher education. 2018;19(1):23-34. Link

Huber DL, Joseph ML, Halbmaier KA, Carlson M, Crill S, Krieger K, et al. Leadership for Transitions of Care: An Active Learning Innovation. The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing. 2016;47(2):82-8.Link

Lieser P, Taff SD, Murphy-Hagan A. The Webinar Integration Tool: A Framework for Promoting Active Learning in Blended Environments. Journal of interactive media in education : JiME. 2018;2018(1):7.Link

Mackavey C, Cron S. Innovative strategies: Increased engagement and synthesis in online advanced practice nursing education. Nurse Education Today. 2019;76:85-8.Link

McIntosh EA. Working in partnership: The role of Peer Assisted Study Sessions in engaging the Citizen Scholar. Active Learning in Higher Education. 2019;20(3):233-48.Link

O'Leary J. Engaging Learners Using Online Tools. Canadian journal of medical laboratory science. 2017;79(4):14-5.Link

Paulsen J, McCormick AC. Reassessing Disparities in Online Learner Student Engagement in Higher Education. Educational researcher. 2020;49(1):20-9.Link

Rapp-McCall LA, Anyikwa V. Active Learning Strategies and Instructor Presence in An Online Research Methods Course: Can we Decrease Anxiety and Enhance Knowledge? Advances in social work. 2016;17(1):1-14.Link

Wang M. Designing online courses that effectively engage learners from diverse cultural backgrounds. British Journal of Educational Technology. 2007;38(2):294-311.Link

Wood V, Eccott L, Bainbridge L. A Blended Active Learning Pilot: A Way to Deliver Interprofessional Pain Management Education. Pharmacy. 2013;1(2):218-27.Link


For literature searches on specific topics or questions, members of the UHN/Michener team can:

Answered By: Melanie Anderson
Last Updated: Jul 14, 2020 Views: 102

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