Creating engaging distance learning experiences for students

| April 30, 2020 in Higher Education

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As educators, we know what student engagement looks like in the classroom. Students are focused on their work in front of them, they are collaborating with their peers, they are asking good questions, creativity is flowing… But now that things have moved online, what does engagement look like? Let’s start by asking ourselves what makes something engaging, and then explore some tools we can use in a digital classroom.

What makes something engaging?

A lot of research has been done around student engagement. Primarily, engagement revolves around student ownership of the material being presented. I know what you’re thinking. “I have a curriculum with standards I have to follow! There’s no room for student choice!” While you may be partially right, there are places in every course that allow for more student choice and input.

In an informal survey of my students, the feedback regarding what makes a class engaging is varied; however, there are a lot of commonalities. Students want to be able to pursue their own interests, feel heard and included, and know that they are supported when taking risks. They want teachers who are not too strict but are fair in their handling of the classroom. Even when the material doesn’t resonate with a student’s interest, teacher enthusiasm can change a mundane course into a potential major.

Daniel Pink, the author of the book Drive1, states that three conditions need to be met to trigger engagement.

  1. Autonomy: Give students choice to work on a project that relates to the curriculum but is also interesting on a personal level for the student.
  2. Mastery: The task itself can’t be too challenging or too easy. One creates frustration and the other boredom. The task should be somewhere in what is commonly referred to as the “Goldilocks Zone,” where the difficulty is just right for the learner.
  3. Purpose: The student has to be able to link what they are doing to the wider world. Why should they know what you are teaching? Make the material relevant and you will get more student buy-in.

Instructional methods to increase engagement

Now that we know what student engagement looks like, let’s look at a few instructional methods that can improve our curriculum and retention. While creating your course, don’t worry about including all these options. Just choose a few to start and then ask for student feedback regarding what they liked and what they want to see changed next time.

Real-world examples

In each lab report I assign, I ask that students relate the concept or technique to a real-world example. The identification of an unknown salt would be helpful in cases with contaminated water and is a critical skill to master. Here is an example of a student response from a lab where they determined the density of an element by graphical interpolation.

“Although this particular lab did not yield extremely accurate results, there are still definite real-world applications for using interpolation, such as to find the density or other measurable qualities of elements. It would be especially useful for finding properties (such as density) of the man-made elements which have too short of a half-life to be effectively examined or measured for mass and volume.”

Project-based learning

Project-based learning (PBL) is where students complete a long-term assignment to solve a problem or answer a question. For more information about PBL, click here.

In my lab class, I try to make this an authentic question that students will need to make a recommendation on. As shown in the example to the left, here is the introduction to a basic percent composition of a mixture lab.

We are Minuteman Wallboard Co. and we have a severe problem. As you know, the inside layer of wallboard is made from magnesium sulfate heptahydrate. Our feeder company inadvertently gave us an unknown amount of calcium sulfate dihydrate in one of its shipments and this was mixed in with the magnesium sulfate heptahydrate before processing it.

Our advisory board has said that there is no reaction between the two compounds, however if the wallboard has 15% by mass or greater of calcium sulfate dihydrate in the initial mix before processing, the strength and durability of the wallboard will be compromised.

We have already made over $450,000 worth of wallboard stock from this suspected material. We do not want to give this to any of our retailers until we know if the mix had less than 15.0% by mass of calcium sulfate dihydrate. We are supplying you with a sample of the original mix before processing and would appreciate it if your company will help us solve our problem.


Chemistry has a large problem-solving component. My students enjoy working in teams on more complex problem sets, and then presenting their strategy to the class. In a number of cases, when two groups are given the same problem, they are able to articulate how their method was different than another groups, and how both are correct. In the picture below, groups worked on particle model diagrams showing correct stoichiometric ratios, phase, and molecular orientation.

Example of Teamwork project

Example of a Teamwork project

Creative projects

I teach Chemistry, which doesn’t seem like there is much opportunity for student creativity. I gave my students a project to create an ABC book using a set of clues. Here is an example of one page, showing both creativity and complex content mastery.

Example of Creative Project

Example of a Creative project

HyperDocs or learning menus

Here are some examples of HyperDocs. These would be a great component to add to an online class. Students have choice over how they meet different assignment requirements. If the teacher has one or two mandatory skills to master, they can easily accomplish this while still allowing for choice in the rest of the activity.

Instructional tools available from Pearson

Creating a sense of community and collaboration is key to online teaching success. If you already have Pearson’s Mastering product with the eText, then you already have access to many great resources to increase student engagement.

Learning Catalytics

Learning Catalytics is what we jokingly call “clickers on steroids.” This tool was developed by a Harvard professor who wanted to engage his students. It is an interactive student response tool that encourages team-based learning by using students’ smartphones, tablets, or laptops to engage them in interactive tasks and thinking.

As an instructor using Learning Catalytics, you can pose a variety of open-ended questions that help your students develop critical thinking skills, while simultaneously monitoring responses with real-time analytics to find out where they’re struggling. With this information, you can adjust your instructional strategy accordingly and try additional ways of engaging your students during class. Learning Catalytics also lets you manage student interactions by automatically grouping students for discussion, team-based learning, and peer-to-peer learning.

On the instructor side, there are over eighteen different question types to choose from so that you can find the best way to probe for student understanding. In Chemistry, I like to use the numeric expression, image upload so students can show their work, and the direction type when assessing dipole moments. Learning Catalytics can also be linked to your Mastering course so that grades can sync over.

Another platform similar to Learning Catalytics is Live Response, also by Pearson. Visit the website for more information.

Student tools

When it comes to studying, students often say they’re not sure where to start, what to focus on, and when they’re exam-ready. Pearson has many tools designed to keep students engaged with your course material and encourages them to take charge of their own learning.

Pearson Prep

Designed by learning scientists, the Pearson Prep app automatically creates online flashcards from students’ notes and other materials. It also gives students access to expert decks that align with their Pearson texts and narrow in on key concepts.

We know from learning science, and from our work with more than 850 students, that spaced practice is key to effective studying. Pearson Prep relies on spaced practice to create personalized study routes. When students get a card wrong, that card appears again sooner. If they get it right every time, it moves to the bottom of the deck.

Students can quickly see how much progress they’ve made and how ready they are for their exam. This feedback engages students in metacognition, which we know is essential for success.

With Pearson Prep, students can make the best use of their study sessions and feel more confident going into exams.

eText mobile app

With the Pearson eText app, students can download their Pearson eText to their smartphones or tablets to keep on learning no matter where the day takes them. The app organizes all of their Pearson eTexts, including their MyLab and Mastering eTexts, in one place. Even without an Internet connection, they have access to reading and study tools that help them learn wherever and whenever they choose.

Keep refining

Part of developing a good course is also developing a good relationship with your students. Make sure that they understand why they are doing certain tasks, and why it will help them in the long run.

The most integral part to student engagement is communication. Being available for your students, giving them a space where it is OK to make mistakes, and reaching out when they are struggling are definitely not a part of your curriculum, but it is human nature. Communication is a two-way street, however, and soliciting student feedback about what works for them is also critical.

Ensure that your students can give you timely feedback on whether certain educational approaches are working for them. In my teaching, I have often found that students don’t know how to give effective feedback. Before asking, give them some basic guidelines to frame their thoughts.

Here are some key points to share about giving good feedback2:

  • Goal-referenced
  • Tangible & transparent
  • Actionable
  • User-friendly
  • Timely
  • Ongoing
  • Consistent

Keeping students engaged in your course will lead to better retention, better relationships, and stronger grades. It takes time, dedication, and honestly, a bit of risk-taking to put everything together, but the outcomes are clearly worth it.

1Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin, 2011.
2Wiggins, Grant. “Seven keys to effective feedback.” Feedback 70.1 (2012): 10-16.