Engaging Students in Online Activities

Designing your course with opportunities for students to engage meaningfully with you, the material and each other is important for learning and helps maintain student motivation.

When engaging students, keep these best practices in mind:

  • Link to clear goals and outcomes: Make sure there are clear purposes and outcomes for any student-to-student interaction. How does this activity help them meet course outcomes or prepare for other assignments? Provide the students with clear instructions and expectations, particularly if this is a new activity or mode of collaboration.
  • Use asynchronous tools when possible: Having students participate asynchronously enables them to reflect more on their contributions while also working on their written communication skills. In addition, bandwidth requirements for discussion boards are far lower than for live video tools. Activities like sharing annotations on readings via Perusall or engaging in peer review via PEAR can also engage students in one another’s work. Live chat and live office hours provide a way to connect with individual students synchronously ,but be sure to provide asynchronous alternatives for those students whose schedule, time zone, or internet connection prevents them from connecting with you, your TA or other students in this way.
  • Build in simple accountability: Find ways to make sure students are accountable for the work they do in any discussions or collaborations. Assigning points for discussion posts can be tedious, so some instructors ask for reflective statements where students detail their contributions and reflect on what they learned from the conversation. Another option is for groups to post a summary of their work.
  • Clarify expectations: Activities such as online discussions may be new for students, and they may need additional guidance. Providing a clear purpose for the collaborative activity can help keep group behaviours and discussions professional, as can reminding students not to write something they would not feel comfortable saying in person.
  • Provide opportunities for informal interaction. Engaging in students in course-related activities is critical to their success, however, students also benefit – both academically and socially – from less formal interaction in their courses, particularly when they cannot connect in-person.

    Research has shown that "the extent to which students in online learning environments perceive themselves as being socially connected to their peers appears to be a key factor in predicting online course successes" (Biocca, 2003; Kreijns, 2004). Indeed, those who "lack interaction with the instructor and other students, and feel isolated from the class are more likely to drop the course" (Bickle, 2018).

Foster more informal communication and social interactions among students:

  • Create an "unstructured" discussion board just for students to talk about things unrelated to the course. Some instructors refer to such a discussion board as the "virtual lounge." Students may need to be reminded to be professional
  • Facilitate or encourage online study groups for those who are interested. 
  • Find additional strategies for building student to student interaction on our Fostering Engagement Resource


Bickle, M. C., & Rucker, R. (2018). Student-to-student interaction: Humanizing the online classroom using technology and group assignmentsQuarterly Review of Distance Education19(1), 1-56.

Biocca, F., Harms, C., & Burgoon, J. (2003). Toward a more robust theory and measure of social presence: Review and suggested criteria. Presence, 12(5), 456–480.Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/105474603322761270

Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P. A., Jochems, W., & Van Buuren, H. (2004). Determining sociability, social space, and social presence in (a) synchronous collaborative groups. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 7(2), 155–172. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/109493104323024429