Engaging Students in Distance Learning

As part of the ongoing effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, thousands of schools have transitioned toward distance education, replacing conventional classrooms with online courses, websites, and apps. Thanks to innovations in educational technology, or “edtech,” students can take tests, attend lectures, collaborate on group assignments, and participate in class discussions — all while maintaining a safe distance from others. 

Unfortunately, while the current generation of K-12 students is also one of the most tech-savvy, many children still struggle to remain engaged in distance learning — especially during the current pandemic. By disrupting their routines, isolating them from their peers, and taking a toll on their mental health, COVID-19 has greatly amplified the challenge of engagement for many online students. 

With disengagement closely linked to decreased academic performance, this is an issue that educators and families must work diligently to help virtual students overcome. To do so effectively, teachers and parents need to understand what “student engagement” means, why it matters, and how it can be increased. We’ll explore each of these issues in depth, guiding teachers, families, and students through some of our favorite motivational strategies for online learning. 

What Does it Mean for a Student to Be Engaged?

While educators are already aware of the pivotal role that engagement plays in learning, the concept may be less familiar to parents. As Gallup explains, “Engagement is a measurement of how involved, enthusiastic, and committed one is to an organization,” such as a class or school. In addition to organizations, students can also engage with course materials, educators, or their peers — all of which are important drivers of learning, distance or otherwise. 

An engaged student actively and enthusiastically participates in his or her own education, whether that means completing assignments thoroughly, asking for feedback from teachers, contributing to class discussions, or simply asking questions about the material. In contrast, a disengaged student may ignore instructions, give up on difficult assignments, or take a passive role in group projects. 

As The Glossary of Education Reform points out, engagement is a complex reflection of each student’s “attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion.” Disengagement, therefore, is just the opposite: inattention, indifference, boredom, pessimism, and apathy. 

Why is it Important to Engage Students in Learning? 

Students don’t need to earn straight A’s or maintain a 4.0 GPA in order to be engaged. Even if a student dislikes or struggles with a certain subject, he or she can still maintain a high level of engagement. Studying the materials, practicing their skills, seeking out extra credit assignments, and asking for help are all examples of ways that students can successfully engage with learning — even when the curriculum is challenging. Remember, engagement is not about achieving perfection, but rather, cultivating passion and striving for progress.  

That being said, data indicates that there is a strong relationship between high engagement and student success. For example, according to Gallup researchers, who have conducted “tens of millions of surveys” on student engagement over the past several decades, “Engaged students are 2.5 times more likely to say that they get excellent grades and do well in school, and they are 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future than their actively disengaged peers.” 

Conversely, studies have also shown that disengagement — especially at an early stage of the student’s education, such as eighth or ninth grade — “is strongly related to the likelihood of school dropout, as well as… drug use and crime” later in life. By improving student engagement, educators and families can help to set children up for greater success — not only in school, but in life

8 Tips for Keeping Students Engaged in the Online Classroom

Whether you’re an educator or a parent, there are plenty of steps that you can take to help your children or students maintain a high level of engagement. Continue reading for eight simple tips on boosting engagement in the virtual classroom. 

3 Ways Teachers Can Increase Online Student Engagement

Try incorporating these strategies into your online lessons to help your students stay more engaged: 

  • Use a virtual reward system for online students. From extra time to complete assignments, to privileges choosing class Zoom backgrounds, exciting rewards and incentives can help motivate students to focus on their goals. 
  • Provide effective feedback to your online students. COVID-19 and the transition to online school has been tough on everyone — especially young children, who may lack the coping skills that adults have had time to develop. Instead of allowing discouragement and demotivation to lead to poor student engagement, let your students know that you care about their success by taking the time to provide prompt and personalized feedback about their work. 
  • Prioritize teaching technological literacy to your students. In a virtual learning environment, digital literacy is key to student success. While video lags and software glitches are sometimes unavoidable, students are more likely to remain engaged if they can confidently master the apps, websites, podcasts, devices, programs, and other resources they’ll need to navigate your curriculum. 

5 Ways Parents Can Help Their Children Engage in Distance Learning

Support from their parents or family members can improve a child’s level of engagement in online school. Here are five simple tips that experts suggest for families: 

  • Encourage your children to periodically take breaks to stretch, play, and be physically active, which will help them to feel less restless and more focused. 
  • Limit the number of distractions that could disrupt your child’s concentration, such as excessive noise from the TV, access to video games and phones, or clutter around your child’s work area. 
  • Make efforts to create and stick to a daily schedule, which your child can help you design and adjust. 
  • Remember that these adjustments likely haven’t been easy for your child, and try to remain patient when he or she is struggling.  
  • Talk to your child about what is — and more importantly, what isn’t — working for him or her.

For additional tips on how to motivate students in online courses — or, suggestions on boosting your own engagement — you may be interested in exploring our articles discussing how to manage your time more effectively, how to stay motivated while attending college online, or how to stay focused while earning your degree at home

Apply to Our Accredited Education Program and Get Certified to Teach Online 

Since 1971, National University has been preparing students for rewarding careers as educators, school administrators, and child psychologists. Through the Sanford College of Education, students can explore dozens of NCATE-accredited degree and certificate programs, such as the Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Education (BAECE), the Master of Early Childhood Education (MECE), the Master of Arts in Social Emotional Learning (SEL), and a wide range of single-subject and multiple-subject teaching credential options. 

With fast-paced courses, a variety of scholarships, and the option to complete your degree online, NU offers flexibility and convenience while still challenging students to excel. To learn more about our accredited education and teaching programs, contact our admissions office, or apply to National University today. 


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