Key Strategies for Engaging Students in Virtual Learning Environments

Published on April 6, 2021
Written By: 

Christopher Harrington, Ed.D.Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

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Kristen DeBruler, Ph.D.Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The student engagement and relationship-building strategies discussed in this report are based on the current practices provided by the 1,721 virtual teachers participating in this study. These individuals currently work within the school structures of 17 statewide virtual schools or programs, in which providing virtual education to students is their primary focus. The expertise of these individuals is provided as a way to aid teachers and administrators of both traditional and nontraditional schools and districts that have teachers and school leaders who are developing their skills and abilities as virtual educators.

Introduction and Need for the Study

Since mid-March 2020, many traditional schools and districts throughout the United States were forced to adopt remote teaching and learning practices as a result of extended school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Such practices often tried to imitate effective virtual or online learning; however, the results of these efforts fell short in many ways. As traditional face-to-face teachers worked tirelessly to implement effective virtual learning practices, they struggled because of a lack of formal professional learning experiences focused on pedagogy in these virtual environments. This “pandemic teaching,” as it has often been labeled, has been marked deeply by the failure to engage students learning remotely and the difficulty of rapidly developing the skills necessary to teach effectively in this format.

Schools and districts that had already implemented effective virtual teaching and learning practices prior to the COVID-19 outbreak experienced greater degrees of success than their counterparts mentioned above. Teachers and school leaders of established virtual schools or programs had invested time and energy in the development of effective pedagogical skills needed to help students achieve success in virtual or remote learning environments.

This study, conducted by researchers at Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI), aimed to provide promising practices for teachers and school administrators new to teaching and leading in a virtual or remote learning environment to understand the ways in which they could better engage students. 

Methodology

This qualitative study utilized an online survey to collect data from 1,809 virtual educators (1,721 teachers and 88 supervising administrators) representing 17 statewide virtual schools or programs with a combined 150 years of online and blended learning experience and more than a quarter of a million virtual course enrollments annually. It is important to note that the participants in this study were employed by virtual schools that had well-established virtual learning programs, professional learning processes, and teacher supervision practices that were developed and refined over several years. The findings of this study represent an immense collection of knowledge and experience related to virtual teaching and learning across the United States.

The online survey was developed in early February 2021, and data were collected over a 3-week period from late February through mid-March 2021. The data were compiled and analyzed throughout March 2021, and the resulting report was made publicly available to all schools and districts in early April 2021.

Limitations of the Study

The findings of this study represent the perceptions of teachers and supervising administrators of well-established statewide virtual schools and programs. While the intent of the study is to share promising practices with teachers and administrators new to teaching and leading within virtual learning environments, the practices are not generalizable to all schools in the United States as the participants of this study are working within mature virtual learning programs that have formal structures and supports for teachers and administrators to serve students and families in virtual learning environments. 

Discussion of the Findings

Teacher participants of this study provided responses through an online survey that gave us insight into their instructional practice. The vast majority of teacher participants (77%) served as a part-time virtual teacher, while 23% served as a full-time virtual teacher. In addition, the majority of these participants (65%) reported having at least 5 years of experience as a virtual teacher and/or administrator. The remainder of the participants had less than 5 years of experience with (14%) reporting less than one year of experience. 

Approximately 93% of the teacher participants served students at the high school level, 21% served at the middle school level, and 4% served at the elementary school level. These figures reflect the fact that some teachers are teaching students at multiple grade levels. The majority of the teachers participating in this study (75%) reported they taught primarily in an asynchronous virtual format while only 3% reported that they taught primarily synchronously. Approximately 16% of participants that responded to this question reported that they taught in an equal balance of asynchronous and synchronous formats. 

The data collected from virtual teachers were compiled and organized into the themes of student engagement strategies and relationships with students.

Student Engagement Strategies

Survey data indicated the most common strategies used by both full-time and part-time teachers to engage students in a virtual environment were using multiple formats of content such as text-based articles, video, audio, etc.; making themselves available to students through scheduled office hours so they can connect or “drop in” as needed; posting motivational/relational announcements in their course(s); and including video/audio recordings of themselves in their course(s). Various other strategies were also cited by responding teachers as listed in Table 1.

Table 1.
Student Engagement Strategies Used by Full-time and Part-time Virtual Teachers

StrategiesFull-Time TeacherPart-Time Teacher
Total Count393.01,328.0
I use multiple formats of content such as text-based articles, video, audio, etc.79.4%73.2%
I make myself available to students through scheduled office hours so they can connect or “drop in” as needed77.1%74.0%
I post motivational/relational announcements in my course(s)75.3%77.1%
I include video/audio recordings of myself in my course(s)71.2%60.6%
I include activities in my course(s) such as discussion forums, journal entries, and/or reflections70.5%70.2%
I connect one-on-one with students by telephone or video conferencing66.4%52.9%
I provide personalized remediation options for students in need66.2%61.9%
I provide frequent opportunities for formative assessments65.9%53.3%
I include interactive activities in my course(s) such as polls, quizzes, and/or games62.1%46.7%
I interact synchronously (in “real time”) with groups of students through audio or video conferencing56.2%28.0%
I provide personalized enrichment options for students in need46.8%34.6%
I have students collaborate or work together on projects or activities29.0%25.3%

Given the pedagogical differences relative to teaching in asynchronous and synchronous virtual learning environments, MVLRI researchers analyzed data specific to engaging students in these different virtual learning formats. In general, the strategies used by teachers of asynchronous courses and synchronous courses were used to a similar extent; however, teachers of asynchronous courses were more likely to use these strategies than teachers of synchronous courses. The exception to this statement is in relation to the use of the following strategies: providing frequent opportunities for formative assessments; including interactive activities in courses such as polls, quizzes, and/or games; interacting synchronously (in “real time”) with groups of students through audio or video conferencing; and having students collaborate or work together on projects or activities. Here, teachers of synchronous courses were more likely to use these strategies (see Table 2).

Table 2.
Student Engagement Strategies Used by Teachers of Asynchronous and Synchronous Instruction

StrategiesAsynchronous InstructionSynchronous Instruction
Total Count1,348.048.0
I post motivational/relational announcements in my course(s)78.1%77.1%
I use multiple formats of content such as text-based articles, video, audio, etc.75.4%62.5%
I make myself available to students through scheduled office hours so they can connect or “drop in” as needed75.0%64.6%
I include activities in my course(s) such as discussion forums, journal entries, and/or reflections72.6%66.7%
I provide personalized remediation options for students in need63.2%56.3%
I include video/audio recordings of myself in my course(s)62.5%52.1%
I provide frequent opportunities for formative assessments55.0%62.5%
I connect one-on-one with students by telephone or video conferencing54.2%43.8%
I include interactive activities in my course(s) such as polls, quizzes, and/or games48.4%54.2%
I provide personalized enrichment options for students in need35.9%35.4%
I interact synchronously (in “real time”) with groups of students through audio or video conferencing29.5%41.7%
I have students collaborate or work together on projects or activities24.0%29.2%

Student engagement strategies used by the responding teachers of this study were generally consistent across all experience bands, which consisted of less than 1 year, 1-4 years, 5-10 years, and more than 10 years of experience. The only exceptions to this finding relates to the strategies of having students collaborate or work together on projects or activities; including interactive activities in courses such as polls, quizzes, and/or games; including activities in courses such as discussion forums, journal entries, and/or reflections; and providing frequent opportunities for formative assessments. These four strategies tended to be used by teachers more frequently as their experience as a virtual teacher increased.

The 1,721 participating teachers were asked to rank the student engagement strategies they used in order of perceived effectiveness. The strategy of using multiple formats of content such as text-based articles, video, audio, etc., emerged as being the most effective with 279 teachers reporting as such. The second highest ranked strategy in terms of effectiveness was connecting one-on-one with students by telephone or video conferencing (reported by 247 teachers).  Teachers making themselves available to students through scheduled office hours so they can connect and “drop in” was ranked third as reported by 201 teachers.

The second and third ranked strategies as described above reinforced the MVLRI research team’s existing belief that direct communication between students and teachers—both synchronous and asynchronous—are highly effective for engaging students. Teachers reported that in addition to synchronously communicating with students through telephone or video conferencing, the use of email and text messaging were also highly effective methods of communication. One teacher stated that “[I am] sure to touch base via SMS (text message) with all my students weekly.” Another reported, “I provide ample opportunity for students to interact via email, and I reply almost immediately.”  

Another way of engaging with students reported by teachers included mailing paper cards and letters to maintain a connection or deliver extra information to the student. In contrast to this passive, one-way approach to engagement, teachers also actively engaged by encouraging two-way interaction. One teacher shared “[I] text students weekly and ask them questions that they can answer to share more about themselves.”

Some teachers reported that providing timely and constructive feedback on students’ work was another way that engages students. One teacher proudly shared, “I provide as much timely, effective feedback as possible. I respond to student questions within 12 hours.” Several other teachers supported the notion that feedback engages students especially well when the feedback is specific to individual performance or when it is accompanied by opportunities to revise and resubmit work.

This report has discussed specific teacher actions and the role of communication as it relates to nurturing student engagement. Communication also plays a critical role in the development of relationships between students and teachers. There is a high degree of interdependence between communication, relationships, and student engagement.

Relationships with Students

When the online teachers participating in this study were asked about ways in which they built relationships with their students and what specific strategies they used, the teachers overwhelmingly reported using communication and feedback tailored to individual students. To a lesser extent, but still widely reported, teachers noted using online teaching best practices as a means to build relationships with students. While there were a number of best practices reported, teachers most often mentioned strategies such as posting “Welcome” videos, course announcements, teacher contact information and office hours, providing content in multiple formats, posting supplemental videos, and offering on-demand academic remediation sessions. One teacher remarked, 

I have a general welcome video on my course main page. I send a welcome email to students and their stakeholders right away. I post my contact information wherever I can. I encourage students to meet with me in real time and make it easy for them to do so, even though it is not required on their part.

Another indicated they “[Provide] online discussion forums with either reflection prompts or deeper conceptual questions, offer office hour help times on Zoom and Google Meet, [and] record lessons of myself teaching for each topic.”

It is important to note that while common themes across teacher responses are broken out and detailed in the subsections below, none of these themes exist in isolation. Individualization and customization are themes that ran throughout strategies from communication to feedback to the use of discussion boards and student surveys. One teacher noted,

I respond individually to each student every week. I make the responses personal. I am open to flexibility. Many students don’t have internet access once they are home. During Covid, some end up quarantined and thus need flexibility in assignments. The bottom line is, I am here to help make them successful, not to fail!

Feedback, while mentioned separately by several teachers, is for many teachers the primary form of communication with their students. One teacher remarked,

I think my most crucial and effective tool in building relationships with my students is my use of feedback. I provide detailed, specific feedback on every single assignment in my course. Some of it is corrective, but I mostly use it to encourage and motivate my students to keep working hard. That is my primary interaction with my students.

What was clear from all the responses is that teachers have a strong desire to connect with students, to encourage them to open up, share their interests, and believe that there is a real, live teacher in their course who wants them to succeed. 

Communication

Communication was the most reported strategy for building and maintaining relationships with students. Teachers reported using email, text messaging apps, and phone calls, but even more importantly, they reported responding promptly to messages from students, using the students’ names, being flexible with the students’ preferred form of communication, and being consistent with their communications. Participating teachers reported the following:

I find that when I have been able to connect with a student through various forms of communication (email, text, one-on-one conferencing), our relationship becomes more personal, and students are more successful.

Connecting with students through the various ways of communication, such as phone calls, video conferencing, discussion forums, email, assignment feedback comments, etc. is always good when there is dialogue and we connect, and as a result, develop a comfortable teacher-student relationship.

Teachers also reported that building relationships with students online can be difficult, and that sometimes students do not want to interact. However, teachers continue to try and encourage students to open up throughout the duration of their course(s). As one teacher reported,

I do a lot of emailing and texting with students to help them feel comfortable with the course and to know there is a real teacher to help them. I ask them about their in-school and out-of-school activities, their jobs, their hobbies, their family.

Another teacher reinforced the need for persistent communication offering, “I message them weekly – answer their messages to me within the day and leave comments/feedback on all their submitted assignments.”

Feedback

Like communication, feedback was frequently reported by teachers as a relationship building strategy. Many teachers reported using feedback as the foundation for building a relationship with their students and as a place where they could connect with students. Others noted that feedback provided an opportunity to motivate their students, and that as the feedback was formative in nature, they were also able to encourage students and keep them engaged in the course. Teachers suggested that developing positive relationships with students can occur by providing effective feedback from the beginning of the relationship, and the feedback needs to be consistent, specific, and encouraging. One teacher elaborated, stating they ensure consistency “…by providing lots of individually-tailored feedback for students on every assignment they submit. I also offer specific suggestions to help them revise their response and resubmit and improve their score.”

Much like the aspect of communication, teachers noted using specific strategies in their feedback. Teachers commented on the importance of using students’ names and personal messages tailored to each student. One teacher shared,

I address them by name in feedback; I remember things about them (such as their nickname, favorite activities, etc.) and maintain positivity during live sessions and calls. I include relevant details about myself and my family in discussions so they also feel like they can get to know me as well. 

Another teacher offered, “I use personal messages as feedback to students and remember the sandwich technique = commendation, remediation, commendation.”

Appealing to Students’ Interests

In communicating with students and providing feedback, teachers often reported appealing to students’ interests to make both more impactful. Teachers reported strategies such as surveying students on their interests, encouraging them to share about themselves on discussion boards, and learning about student interests as a way to connect. Again, teachers spoke to the importance of using students’ names in their communications—a simple yet highly effective strategy to let the student know they are important. One teacher emphasized this importance stating,

I speak to students on the phone and I try to find a common ground to relate to them other than the course such as their sport, activity, or interest. I email students and encourage them. I use the reminder app to motivate students. I post congrats on announcements with first names of students who completed a specific assignment or who have worked to complete assignments.

Humanizing 

Another strategy teachers reported for building relationships was their attempts to “humanize” themselves. Teachers reported wanting students to feel like there was a teacher in their course and not just an automated learning management system (LMS). Teachers reported different strategies for this including having face-time conversations with their students, with one teacher citing the importance of,

Having actual face-time with my students. Cameras on when we are one-to-one at least for a while. Being real and human in our live sessions and showing them that I am a person, too. Specific feedback given on assignments.

Sharing a bit about themselves alongside other course announcements is also a common practice for humanizing themselves as another teacher shared,

This is a continual goal. I have found that doing announcements that share my personality/hobbies/interests and my life are received well and students have commented that they appreciated it. It’s always a constant battle to get them to share back in response though. I have asked for them to share specific things, and I get a few responses but not many.

These responses clearly show how teachers employ several complementary strategies in building relationships with their students—utilizing strategies to connect with them and letting students know they are supported in their online course. Other teachers offered,

I try and relate content to their everyday lives. Also during live sessions, I try and talk to them about their day and let them see into my personal life to make it more personal.

[I] start with introduction assignments where the students tell me a little about them, then [I] respond with similarities and differences from my life. I also reach out on email and phone as often as necessary and try to leave positive feedback or humorous notes as often as possible.

Synchronous Meetings

Teachers who do not typically teach synchronously online still reported using synchronous communication with students as a way to build relationships with and among students. One teacher elaborated stating,

Our class does a weekly or bi-weekly check-in Google Hangout meeting – I originally started it because I wanted to give extra academic support, but what happened is that kids started showing up and talking to one another instead. They love it, and I get the chance to know them a little better. The other thing I think that I do well is provide individualized video instructions for kids who have questions, and I make it a priority to give personalized feedback – using kids names and preferred names. Things like that.

Four other teachers shared their thoughts relating to the use of synchronous communication to build relationships:

Teaching kindergarten online is a unique challenge, and we take advantage of as much real-time interaction as we can with our students.

I consistently have Zoom sessions weekly. I offer two different times to provide an option for students.

I try to video conference as often as the students are willing so that we can talk about the course and so I can get to know the students.

I invite students to meet me in the virtual classroom if they feel they want some live demonstrations or need clarification on any topic.

Implications

The student engagement and relationship-building strategies discussed in this report are based on the current practices provided by the 1,721 virtual teachers participating in this study. These individuals currently work within the school structures of 17 statewide virtual schools or programs, in which providing virtual education to students is their primary focus. The expertise of these individuals is provided as a way to aid teachers and administrators of both traditional and nontraditional schools and districts that have teachers and school leaders who are developing their skills and abilities as virtual educators.  

Commit to Foundational Strategies

Teachers new to educating students in a virtual environment (asynchronously and/or synchronously) should be aware that the most common strategies used by virtual teachers participating in this study to engage students were posting motivational/relational announcements in their course(s); making themselves available to students through scheduled office hours so they can connect or “drop in” as needed; using multiple formats of content such as text-based articles, video, audio, etc.; and including activities in their course(s) such as discussion forums, journal entries, and/or reflections. Committing the time and energy to learn how to implement these strategies would enable teachers to develop a strong foundation for ongoing student engagement in a virtual learning environment.

Grow Toward Advanced Strategies

The findings from this study also illustrate that as teachers gain more experience working in a virtual learning environment, the more likely they are to implement the more advanced student engagement strategies such as having students collaborate or work together on projects or activities; including interactive activities in courses such as polls, quizzes, and/or games; including activities in courses such as discussion forums, journal entries, and/or reflections; and providing frequent opportunities for formative assessments. For educators new to teaching in a virtual environment, these strategies may require developing additional skills to implement effectively.

Focus on Highly Effective Strategies 

Many teachers who have made a rapid transition to teaching virtually in traditional face-to-face schools and districts are responsible for teaching virtual students both asynchronously and synchronously. Those teachers who are delivering instruction synchronously could benefit greatly from the experience of the synchronous teachers who participated in this study. Specifically, the participating teachers reported that the most common synchronous strategies they used to engage students included interacting synchronously (in “real time”) with groups of students through audio or video conferencing; having students collaborate or work together on projects or activities; including interactive activities in courses such as polls, quizzes, and/or games; and providing frequent opportunities for formative assessments. 

The most highly ranked student engagement strategies reported by experienced teachers were using multiple formats of content such as text-based articles, video, audio, etc.; connecting one-on-one with students by telephone or video conferencing; and teachers making themselves available to students through scheduled office hours so they can connect and “drop in” when needing assistance. Regardless of whether the learning environment is asynchronous or synchronous, all virtual teachers should strongly consider the implementation of these strategies as they were ranked as the most effective in engaging virtual students.

Develop Strong Relationships with Students 

While the strategies identified in the previous three subsections can be extremely effective in promoting student engagement, the intentional development of strong relationships with students is an essential underpinning for ongoing engagement and overall student success. Relationships can be developed through practicing effective communication (asynchronously and synchronously) with students and providing them with meaningful and personalized feedback. In addition, developing a personalized understanding of individual students’ interests and needs helps students understand teachers’ level of care and concern for them. When students and teachers get to know each other at a deeper level, strong relationships develop, and students are far more likely to be engaged in their learning.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted schools during the 2020-21 school year, pushing teachers of traditional face-to-face schools and districts into a “makeshift” version of virtual learning. While on the surface the newly adopted learning format resembled what we know to be effective virtual learning, this rapid transition highlighted the fact that many educators throughout the United States were unprepared for this shift, and many teachers and their students struggled to adapt to teaching and learning in this format.

The research team at Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute designed and executed this study to distill the effective student engagement strategies that have been consistently and effectively implemented in 17 statewide virtual schools and programs across the nation. These strategies are being made available to teachers and school leaders for the purposes of enhancing teacher effectiveness and students’ ability to successfully learn in the virtual environment.

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