Promoting student engagement and attention
Encourage and Support Critical Thinking
According to researcher Randy Garrison, instructor presence, or “being there,” is the most important practice in online teaching. It is also important for in person teaching. Garrison’s Community of Inquiry (CoI) model names three distinct but interrelated forms of presence that, together, are integral to fostering community, trust and student learning. They are social, cognitive and teaching presence.
We discuss instructor teaching presence in our section on Instructor Presence. Here we will discuss social and cognitive presence.
Social presence is the readiness to engage with and build connections with other students. It’s about students getting to know their peers as people.. To promote this, incorporate opportunities for students to share details about their lived experiences:
- Ask students to share introductions during the first weeks of the class.
- Consider creating a thread within Canvas for casual discussion that doesn’t necessarily relate directly to the course material.
- Encourage social engagement outside of your course:
Cognitive presence can be thought of as critical thinking. It’s about students beginning to connect the dots, raise questions and explore. To foster critical thinking in your course, offer:
- Small group activities. Have students work through a topic, with the aim of creating something new together that includes using course content and external resources. For example, have your students draft and design a campaign and present it as a pitch to stakeholders in a roleplay scenario.
- Hold debates. Assign students various viewpoints and challenge them to defend those beliefs, regardless of their actual stance.
- Reflective activities. Have students write a blog, mock Twitter thread or reflection on the discussion board reiterating what they’re learning and how they might use this knowledge in the future.
Expecting students to listen to you speak at them for 45-60 minutes is not good teaching. Whether a/synchronous, if you are lecturing, keep your talking to a maximum of seven minutes, or even better, four minutes. Then allow for other activities before presenting another bit of lecture-type information. This can include reflection questions, discussion forums, small group breakouts if your course is synchronous, or writing or creating prompts.
Highly engaged students use discussion forums to interact with other students – consider this in the design of your courses.
To gain and sustain student attention:
- Ensure that you demonstrate excitement and enthusiasm around your course material. You set the tone: if you bring energy your students are more likely to follow suit. Display emotions in any recordings or live classes, make eye contact with your camera, smile, gesture and vary your pitch and speaking pace. When possible, include other visuals (pictures, animations, slides, etc.) in your recordings. The more energy and momentum you bring to your recordings, written communication and synchronous meetings, the better.
- Respond with warmth and personality to student correspondence. In addition to demonstrating enthusiasm and excitement around your course topic and material, be clear about your availability to meet with students, and be thoughtful in your correspondence. For example, ensure your responses to student emails are warm: thank them for writing, and respond in a way that signals you care about their learning.
- Put yourself in your students’ shoes. What would spike their curiosity? How can you vary your offerings to keep things fresh?
- What course-related surprising, novel, or weird facts and insights can you share?
- How can you utilize puzzles, challenges, dilemmas and real-world or hypothetical problems to bring students into inquiry and debate?
- Are you offering diverse and inclusive examples and models?
- Are there activities you over or under utilize? (Worksheets, cases, games, role play, debate, discussion)
Design and deliver your course with inclusive teaching practices in mind. Students are more likely to persist and engage in learning environments where they feel a sense of academic belonging, connection to peers, clear expectations and commitment to cultural diversity.
Maintaining attention and engagement throughout the semester:
- Student engagement tends to start off strong and can easily decline even with the best intentions from faculty.
- Dawnja Burris, Associate Professor of Media Studies, offers some very specific, concrete examples of how to promote continuous engagement in asynchronous courses.