Factors Sparking Engagement in Online Learning

Factors Sparking Engagement in Online Learning

Disengagement from learning is a critical issue, so teachers have long been concerned about the engagement of their students. But what really this ‘engagement’ is and how it affects the process of learning?

As we are aware with the word ‘motivation’ and it is easy to identify motivated students in the classroom because they show interest, curiosity, involvement, and enthusiasm than others; same factors play a chief role in engaging students in the learning. Students who are engaged show complete involvement and intense efforts in the learning activities with the positive emotions. Skinner and Belmont (1993) while emphasizing upon behavioral and emotional aspects of the engagement implied that the opposite of engagement is disaffection which means disaffected students are bored, show anger, and they are withdrawn easily from the classroom, hence they are disengaged.

In other words, engagement is a participation of students not only in classroom activities, but their cognitive and affective (Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004) involvement in all manoeuvres associated with the subject matter whether in class or outside it. It also constitutes their interaction with teachers, peers and family members. Hence, engagement has three facets: conative, cognitive and affective; conative means their physical involvement in the learning activities, while cognitive signify students’ interest and curiosity in learning, and affective engagement implies the level of excitement and optimism exhibited by students in learning. They are affectively engaged when they feel excited and optimistic in learning and contrarily, disengaged if they feel bored and frustrated.

Likewise, considering interaction, participation, collaboration along with cognitive and affective factors for engaging students are important to sustain online learning. Before emphasizing on learning outcomes, teachers need to engage students in an online course because Skinner and Belmont (1993) stated that active engagement gives satisfaction to students in terms of achieving their learning goals, and it “should increase their actual competencies”.

After researching on extensive research papers, I have extracted chief factors which influence engagement of students in an online course along with the strategies which may be employed for engaging them:

1. Teaching Presence: Unlike traditional teaching where teaching presence is not a problem, online learning is afflicted with the lack of or very low teaching presence. It is not merely required during the time of instructions in the course, but teaching presence starts right from the planning of the course, when teacher and instructional designers design it, when teacher give instructions, and through its assessment (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison & Archer, 2001). Though teaching presence is linked to engagement certainly, besides it is also connected with the learning community (Shea, Lea and Pickett, 2006). Shea et al. also proved that active presence of teacher where educator facilitate discourse- “is related both to students’ sense of connectedness and learning”.  Lately, it is researched by Zhand, Lin, Zhan and Ren (2016) that engagement behavior: constructive and interactive influence teaching presence perceived by learners rather than active engagement behavior. It shows that teaching presence improves interactive engagement where students interact with their peers and teachers in a challenging environment which stimulate them to think, and constructive engagement motivate them to construct together in a collaboration. To sum up, engagement is influenced by students’ connectedness, learning, learning community, and teaching presence is the pivotal factor among them.

Effective instructional design, organization, facilitating discourse and direct instruction were recommended by Anderson et al. (p.4, 2001) to be focused upon for enhancing good and active teaching presence as it is related with learner engagement also. The measures of discourse facilitation constitute: identifying areas of agreement or disagreement, seeking to reach consensus and understanding; encouraging, acknowledging, or reinforcing student contributions; setting climate for learning; drawing in participants, prompting discussion, and assessing the efficacy of the process (Anderson, et al., 2001). For instructional design and organization, table 2 (p. 6) provide few examples which may help online educator, and table 3 (p. 8) furnish examples and strategies for discourse facilitation, while table 4 (p. 10) provide strategies for parameters of direct instruction.

2. Interaction and Collaboration

The next element which impact engagement is interaction between educator-learner, learner-learner, and learner-content. Interaction of educator-learner is also affected by the teaching presence; moreover, behavior of teacher influence learners’ perceptions towards their interaction with the teacher, and their emotional and behavioral engagement in the classroom (Skinner & Belmont, 1993). It was also suggested and proved that involvement of teacher with an individual learner determine their perceptions towards the teacher.  In brief, I would say that teaching presence, teachers’ behavior, their involvement at personal or group level affect their interaction with students, and hence, it influences their emotional and behavioral engagement.  

Though, teachers’ relationship with students are impertinent to build, and it will remain vital for engaging online students, but fostering learner to learner interaction is necessary also for a successful learning.  Students show high level of perceived learning when they interact with other students (Fredericksen, Pickett, Shea, Pelz & Swan, 2000).

The strategies for teacher-learner interactions can be same as devised for teaching presence, and to improve learner-learner interaction, one needs to design a course where activities and assignments spark discussions among learners such as group projects in a project based learning, peer reviews, and discussion threads, etc.  For improving learner-content interaction, active learning can be an important factor, and it also relies on productive designing and construction of the online course by teacher which promote active learning: assimilation and creation of content on the part of students. Engaging instructions, tasks, and activities in the course stimulate learner-content interactions: moreover, for indulging students in active learning, it was proved by Ertmer, Sadaf and Ertmer (2011) that development of effective question prompts is essential for stimulating interactions in online discussion forums. They found that question prompts which facilitate higher level of thinking, promote more response from students, while brainstorming and playground questions facilitate higher number of posts posted by students. Therefore, besides, engaging activities and tasks, effective framing of the questions or question prompts during the course is significant for learner-learner and learner-content interactions.

In regard to the factor, collaboration, it is said that online learning is all about collaboratively working together, so interactions alone cannot work out if students will not learn or create in a collaboration. Take an instance of Wikipedia, where people collaborate and create together; likewise, for instilling online learning skills, students need to possess strong collaboration skill also. Furthermore, as proved by Quiros (2006) that collaborative learning activities have a strong relationship with higher level of students’ engagement in an online course.   Collaboration improves interactions, create a learning community, and an improved sense of community; develop critical thinking skills among students (Brindley, Walti & Blaschke, 2009) which also helps in co-creation and curation of knowledge in an online platform. Brindley et al. (2009) devised effective strategies for upgrading collaborative learning skill of students in their paper in section: implications for practice if employed can lead to better collaboration and higher engagement among online students. Interactions or collaboration of any kind do not happen without the involvement of teacher who is a vital element for fostering it among learners.       

3. Feedback and Self-Regulation

The concept of 21st century learning has given a real meaning of feedback. Earlier, people used to think that feedback is provided after the instructions and assignment work is done, but it is more than what is provided during post instructions or assignments. It begins when teacher furnish instructions, and continues during learning activities: discussions, project work, till the assessment of students, so it supports traditional or virtual classroom environment throughout the process of teaching and learning. Feedback if utilized appropriately can influence learners in many ways: Mandernach and Garrett (2014) echoed in their article that it assists students in employing their time usefully and correctly, what they feel regarding their endeavors in learning, it helps them to know if their level of motivation is proper and relevant. In addition, the study done by Guo, Chen, Lei and Wen (2014) scrutinized data generated by learners in an online course to study the effect of feedback and it was revealed that level of cognitive engagement was much higher for the experiment group which shows feedback affect cognitive engagement. Rutz and Ehrlich (2016) emphasized the association of teaching presence with feedback and proved that interactive feedback improves engagement of students in online course.  

Timing, target and nature (Mandernach and Garrett, 2014) of feedback should be highlighted for furnishing learners with effective feedback. Learners must be given feedback when they need it which means during the process of learning only: teachers should check if the aim of providing feedback is achieved or not: leaners have processed it or not, what the feedback is about? Does it say what students wanted to know? Hence, all these things are impertinent to be considered for giving appropriate feedback to the learners. Feedback can be given individually, in a group; it can be provided to learners by teachers, peers, family members and stakeholders. Technology is very useful in furnishing students with instant feedback. When they learn in online course, it leaves digital footprints; it is gathered by software, and through the help of Learning Analytics or Educational Data Mining, insights are presented to teachers and learners on the process of their teaching as well as students’ learning. Students’ self-analysis of insights, brought to them based upon data they leave in an online learning systems and teachers’ assistance in presenting educative and interactive feedback motivate them to engage with the online course.

The new challenges presented by online learning needs to addressed by improving self-regulation skill of learners. As most of the time students spend in an online course with no real teacher face, and due to complete autonomy of online learning environment; it becomes necessary for learners to have a (Barak, Hussein-Farraj & Dori, 2016) skill of regulation of cognition for completion of successful online course. The use of self-regulation techniques helps learners in executing online tasks independently. In terms of the theoretical framework, self-regulation is considered a facet of engagement as these constructs are multi-dimensional, and share some common features. Zimmerman (2002) described that students who show good self-regulation skill are engaged learners.

For improving self-regulation skill of learners, they need to understand their thinking, take a control over, and evaluate it. In other words, learners need to understand the way they think, learn and process knowledge. Plenty of strategies these days researchers have come up with to improve self-regulation of learners, and metacognitive strategies is also a part of it. For example, students should be motivated for self-realization, self-assessment, and self-monitoring; It aware them concerning the specific path they follow during learning and about their own learning process.

The era of web-based learning presents new challenges to teachers and students where both are connected online, but not in a real form. In such a case, factors elaborated above can provide a good knowledge to teachers for developing a new bond with students for understanding, connecting with them to spark engagement in online learning. To conclude regarding above factors, it can be inferred that teaching presence influence learning community, sense of connectedness in learning, constructive and interactive engagement. Hence, it affects interactions also. Furthermore, good behavior of teacher, their involvement at a personal level with students ignite emotional and behavioral engagement; while interactions among students improve their perceived learning. In addition, collaboration affect interaction, learning community, sense of community, and critical thinking skills. On the other hand, educative and interactive feedback improves engagement, and general feedback stimulates students to engage cognitively.                                                                                                                                                                                                             


Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. and Archer, W., (2001). Assessing Teaching Presence in a Computer Conferencing Context.  Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (2), 1-17. Retrieved on May 26, 2017 from immagic.com/eLibrary/ARCHIVES/GENERAL/ATHAB_CA/Anderson.pdf

Barak, M., Hussein-Farraj, R., and Dori, Y. J. (2016). On-campus or online: examining self-regulation and cognitive transfer skills in different learning settings. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 13: 35. Doi: 10.1186/s41239-016-0035-9. Retrieved from https://educationaltechnologyjournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41239-016-0035-9

Brindley, J. E., Walti, C., and Blaschke, L. M. (2009). Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 10 (3). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/675/1271

Ertmer, P. A., Sadaf, A., and Ertmer, D. J. (2011). Student-content interactions in online courses: the role of question prompts in facilitating higher-level engagement with course content. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 23: 157. Doi: 10.1007/s12528-011-9047-6

Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of evidence. Review of Educational Research, 72 (1), 59-109. Retrieved October 15, 2013 from http://rer.sagepub.com/content/74/1/59.pdf

Fredericksen, E., Pickett, A., Shea, P., Pelz, W., & Swan, K. (2000). Student satisfaction and perceived learning with on-line courses: Principles and examples from the SUNY learning network. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 4 (2). Retrieved from olc.onlinelearningconsortium.org/sites/default/files/v4n2_fredericksen_1.pdf

Guo, W., Chen, Y., Lei, J., and Wen, Y. (2014). The effects of facilitating feedback on online learners’ cognitive engagement: evidence from the asynchronous online discussion. Education Sciences, 4, 193-208. Doi: 10.3390/educsci4020193.

Mandernach, J., and Garrett, J. (2014). Effective feedback strategies for the online classroom. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/effective-feedback-strategies-online-classroom/

Quiros, O. M. (2006). The effects of online collaborative learning activities on student perception of level of engagement (Dissertation). Retrieved from Texas Scholar Works, University of Texas Libraries. http://hdl.handle.net/2152/29651

Rutz, E., and Ehrlich, S. (2016). Increasing learner engagement in online learning through use of interactive feedback: results of a pilot study. ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. Doi: 10.18260/p.25672. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308632961_Increasing_Learner_Engagement_in_Online_Learning_through_Use_of_Interactive_Feedback_Results_of_a_Pilot_Study

Shea, P., Li, C. & Pickett, A., (2006). A Study of Teaching Presence and Student Sense of Learning Community in fully Online and Web-enhanced College Courses.  Internet and Higher Education, 9 (3), 175-190. Retrieved on May 26, 2017 from www.sunyresearch.net/hplo/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Shea-Li-Pickett.pdf

Skinner, E. A., and Belmont, M. J. (1993). Motivation in the classroom: Reciprocal effects of teacher behavior and student engagement across the school year. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85 (4), 571-581. Retrieved from https://www.pdx.edu/sites/www.pdx.edu.psy/files/Assessment-11-Motivation-in-the-classroom--reciprocal-effects-of-teacher-behavior--Skinner-Belmont--1993.pdf

Zhand, H., Lin, L., Zhan, Y., and Ren, Y. (2016). The impact of teaching presence on online engagement behaviors. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 54 (7). Retrieved on May 26, 2017 from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0735633116648171?journalCode=jeca

Zimmerman, B. J. (2010). Becoming a self-regulated learner: an overview. Theory into Practice, 41 (2), 64-70. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15430421tip4102_2

About the Author
Author: Ambalika Dogra
I have worked as an assistant professor for around 7.5 years in a teacher training college which train students to become a teacher. Besides, I am a doctoral student of Panjab University, who have already submitted Ph.D in Education thesis recently. Besides, my area of interest or research is: How to employ technology, artificial intelligence, and new methodology for improving deeper learning competencies of k12 students. My immediate aim is to create a global innovative cluster to bring educational innovations particularly for improving deeper learning competencies of students by collaborating with international researchers, teachers, students, stakeholders, and other people of the community.

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