As faculty prepare online courses, many are asking crucial questions: how do students learn online and how does this differ from what happens in class?
There is some good news: the same psychological processes are at work in the classroom and online. In a recent review of the research, e-learning expert Will Thalheimer found that where the teaching was the same, the learning was the same.
But there is bad news: students taking online courses are more likely to disengage. This happens when they feel disconnected, distracted and deluged by the problems in the rest of their life. Recent research highlights seven things we can do to help students stay engaged with online courses.
1. Create connection
First, connect with students. Researchers of online courses in community colleges found that the level of interpersonal interaction was the best predictor of how well an online course did. Connect with students by welcoming them on discussion forums, summarising what will happen each week, and posting regularly. While pre-recorded videos are good for getting across information, live sessions are better for building genuine links with students.
2. Build commitment
After connecting, you need to build students’ commitment. Educationalist Daniel Willingham argues that students are driven by a mixture of curiosity and laziness: they want to find out new things and solve puzzles, but they don’t want to invest too much effort in the process. That means the best way to build commitment is start out with a task that piques their interest but doesn’t take much effort. Once they have completed this task, they are much more likely to commit to your next task. The trick then becomes slowly ratcheting up that commitment as the course progresses.
3. Provide structure
Once students commit, they need structure. Psychologists have found that if information lacks a clear structure, we understand less and waste more effort working through it. But when students perceive a structure, they navigate more quickly, work more efficiently and engage more confidently. You can give students a clear structure by sticking to a weekly activity sequence and using clear, consistent labels.
4. Engage with questions
With the structure clear, give them a way in. One way to do that is through the careful use of questions. Researchers found that students remembered passages of text better when the extracts began with a question, for example, “Is this evidenced?” Cognitive scientists have found also that when we answer a question in our own words, we integrate the information better into our long-term memory. You can harness the power of questions by beginning each section with a puzzle. You can also get students to share what they think the answer is in the chat function or in small groups.
5. Stay focused
If you want engaged students, keep them focused. A recent review of the evidence finds that when students are cognitively overloaded, they disengage more often, perform badly and learn less. You can help students stay focused by making your presentations less cognitively overloaded. So, shorten slides, reduce text, use diagrams, remove irrelevant images, progressively reveal content and stick to one idea per slide. Take a careful look at the materials you use and ask yourself: “What’s my main message? What distracts from that? How can I remove distractions?”
6. Manage attention
Be careful: attention doesn’t last forever. In the classroom, students can often concentrate on a single item for about 20 minutes. The time dramatically decreases, to about five minutes, when you move online. This means you should break video content up into segments punctuated with activities. If you are holding a live session, account for Zoom fatigue and mix in more time for students to answer questions, work in pairs or even take a break from the screen. This means neither you nor your students feel drained at the end of a session.
7. Give feedback
For learning and morale, students need feedback. Communications researchers have found that when people use websites that are more interactive, they are more likely to get into a flow state and, as a result, remember more. Feedback also satisfies students more. Recent studies found when teachers gave trainee pharmacists frequent low-stakes questions with feedback, students performed better on tests and were more satisfied with the course.
Making an online course engaging can seem laborious – and, initially, it is. It also can feel jarring – after all, it is a challenge for a seasoned lecturer to abandon well-honed practices for something unfamiliar. The good news is that many of these techniques for making online learning more effective also apply directly to teaching off-line. It is interesting to note that, at least anecdotally, many of our colleagues have reported that redesigning their courses for the online world has made them better teachers on the whole.
Leonard Houx is a senior instructional designer and André Spicer is a professor of organisational behaviour, both at Cass Business School, City University of London.