Guide To Teaching and Learning

Promoting student engagement and maintaining attention

According to researcher Randy Garrison, instructor presence, or “being there,” is the most important practice in online teaching. His 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 in Online Courses. 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, instead of thinking of them (and you) as tiny squares on a screen. 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:
    • Direct students to New School services and resources 
    • Ask whether they’ve ever attended Public Programs or Student Leadership Initiative events
    • This could spur conversation that channels back into your classroom and foster connection that keeps students engaged. 

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.  


“Student attention precedes motivation, engagement and learning.” -Nilson & Goodson: Online Teaching at Its Best 

If you make it engaging, they will engage! Research has shown the following to be most engaging:

  • problem-based learning and guided inquiry
  • activities in which students have to apply concepts to problem solving or case studies (synchronous or asynchronous)
  • group or team-based activities and projects (synchronous or asynchronous)
  • assignments or activities around current events and real world issues 
  • research papers that require in-depth exploration of a topic
  • movement activities, whether they involve doing work with their hands or their whole bodies
  • discussion forums about course concepts or activities

Highly engaged students will use discussion forums to interact with other students. In the design of your courses, consider the types of discussion prompts and questions that will most engage students to challenge each other.

Less engaging material includes:

  • recorded lectures, require passive viewing so try to keep them short. 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 7 minutes, or even better, 4 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.
  • assigned readings, but consider teaching students how to read for a more active engagement with reading texts
  • quizzes, though very short low- or no-stakes quizzes can promote engagement 
  • Powerpoint slides or other static presentation of material

To gain and sustain student attention:

  • Your own excitement and enthusiasm for your course material will itself promote student engage. 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.
  • Respond with warmth and personality to student correspondence. When they email you, thank them for doing so, and let them know you care about their learning. This increases the likelihood that they will persist in your course. Ask them what you can do to support 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 such as case studies, games, role play, debate, discussion?

Finally, 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.

Recommendations from New School Faculty

From Dawnja Burris, Assistant Professor of Media Studies: how to promote continuous engagement in asynchronous courses.

Take The Next Step

Submit your application


To apply to any of our Bachelor's programs (Except the Bachelor's Program for Adult Transfer Students) complete and submit the Common App online.

Graduates and Adult Learners

To apply to any of our Master's, Doctural, Professional Studies Diploma, Graduates Certificate, or Associate's programs, or to apply to the Bachelor's Program for Adult and Transfer Students, complete and submit the New School Online Application.