6 Tried-and-Tested Techniques to Ensure Learner Engagement in Virtual Education

Great educators know that higher learner engagement leads to better student performance and achievements. As former students yourself, you understand the truth of this statement, and now, as educators, you’re living proof of the effort it takes to achieve it.

Post-pandemic, a new challenge arises with the transition to a virtual environment: maintaining this retention level without the benefit of face-to-face interaction. The good news is that, contrary to being difficult, a fully digital setting brings a treasure trove of opportunities to enhance engagement. In this article, we delve into six engagement-boosting techniques.

Retention Is Not the Same as Attention

First and foremost, it's essential to clarify that retention goes beyond simply paying attention. When it comes to attention, a student listening and nodding is deemed as attentive. However, they might not be interested in what you're saying.

So, what is retention? A practical way to define it is a combination of five elements:

  • Attention
  • Interest
  • Curiosity
  • Optimism
  • Passion

Thus, we achieve proper retention when students are attentive, interested in the topic, curious to learn more, optimistic about their future performance, and passionate about learning. This passion for learning is understood as a student's natural disposition toward acquiring knowledge. The higher this value, the easier the task of retaining them becomes.

Now that you know the elements of retention, let's explore six tactics to help you increase it.

1) Relevant Multimedia

We live in a highly visual society, so trying to teach solely with text-based material, unless students willingly turn to a book, will lead to boredom.

There's a reason why our most important memories often involve different sensations (like smells and sounds). The more senses involved, the higher the probability of long-term memory retention.

But even without considering these factors, some things cannot be sufficiently explained with words alone. Can you imagine describing the following process using only text?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, videos and images are now a common feature of all kinds of learning content. However, we must acknowledge that their use is often rigid. To start, some use images as mere fillers between paragraphs. While they serve as visual breaks, they don't contribute much to the learning process.

Secondly, we have professionally-produced video content that mimics the forms and conventions of television. As you know, this is not the norm in classrooms or real life.

Regardless, too much perfection can actually create distance from students. Memorable lessons and teachers have room for spontaneous events—precisely edited transitions between shots do not.

Furthermore, some multimedia doesn't encourage any interaction, reinforcing a passive attitude in students. A 40-minute video may be marked as "watched" on the platform, but this doesn't guarantee that the student has understood its content.

Here's a proposal: How about pausing the video every 10 minutes and asking a question the student needs to answer before continuing?

This tactic is known as "meaningful breaks": mechanisms to create a stop for the student and check their retention level. The best part is that even if they weren't attentive before, simply pausing and answering the question would awaken their curiosity.

2) Collaboration for All

The idea of one person always talking without giving others a chance to contribute contradicts the interaction concept. In casual conversations, we see it as impolite, but why is it so acceptable in a classroom?

In order to enhance retention, teachers must step back and provide spaces where students can also direct the conversation.

Here are some methods you can use:

  • Teacher for a Day: A dynamic where students present topics, sometimes with their own research. You can intervene to offer praise, or to correct any potential errors.
  • Dynamic Forums: Requests should vary all the time. One week, you can ask them to record a video depicting a situation discussed in class; another week, they can form groups and create quizzes to challenge each other. Avoid requests that can be completed just for the sake of it, like commenting on someone else's homework.
  • Wiki Spaces: Students can proactively create their topics, ask questions, and converse with each other asynchronously.

As the instructor/facilitator, be careful not to get too involved. The ideal with these spaces is for students to lead the conversation and make their own discoveries.

3) Timely Expectations and Feedback

If there's one thing we know to be true, it's that both expectations and feedback must be communicated timely and clearly. However, it's essential to differentiate how precise we can be with them.

Expectations should be clear but not overly specific. Too many rules or requirements limit creativity and the personal factors of study that make it interesting and immersive.

On the other hand, feedback should be precise. A comment like "Good job" may boost morale, but it doesn't provide any valuable information to the student. What did the student do well? What did they do poorly? And why? The more specific you are about this, the more tools you give them to improve.

One effective practice is the use of video feedback. Unlike text, your voice and facial expressions can transmit a positive message that could’ve been taken as criticism when read with the wrong tone.

4) Presence to Drive

If this sounds abstract, you can easily exemplify it by recalling your favorite professors from university or school.

Yes, other teachers could provide information as clearly as they did, but something different about them made their classes so memorable. This "something" was likely their passion and vision for the subject.

Passion is highly contagious, and vision can transform a dull topic into something engaging. It’s one thing to define virtual reality, but defining it while sharing your vision of how it could revolutionize the entire world is something else entirely.

Your presence drives what happens in the course and the emotions your students experience.

5) Gamification to Motivate

Gamification is a strategy that could become a must-have in eLearning, thanks to its immense capacity to boost student motivation.

The main reason video games are so addictive is their release of dopamine, the pleasure hormone, which achieved through various reward systems and immediate feedback. In games, if you make the wrong decision, you lose progress, but if you do something right, you always get something in return, like in-game items, virtual currency, or the chance to level up.

Of course, gamification doesn't mean literally turning our lessons into games, it's about taking those elements that drive motivation. For example, using "levels" could replace the traditional grading system. Instead of going from an "F" to an "A," you could progress students from "Bronze" to "Platinum."

6) Good Course Design

Finally, there’s the most prominent challenge educators faced when transitioning to the virtual environment: course design.

The design of both individual pieces of learning content and the overall progression between pieces of content in the curriculum is of paramount importance. If you simply place learning messages within your content with no thought given to the learner’s journey, and if you fail to ensure easy navigation between resources, students could easily get lost. If this happens, frustration, the arch-enemy of engagement, sets in.

You have several options to achieve good course and curriculum design. You could hire a professional designer, engage with online communities to learn how to implement the design yourself, or let a vendor partnerhandle the task for you.

In addition to working with the right people, you’ll need to work with the right software. Your content authoring tools should provide a sensible range of navigation designs that make it easy for learners to work through individual resources. Similarly, your LMS must offer easy navigation between, and effective grouping of resources. This LMS should also include accessibility options, as it’s obviously important to accommodate the navigational needs of all learners.

Driving Learner Engagement Home

Now that you know the six techniques for improving learner engagement, it's up to you to pursue their implementation in your courses. Remember, your students' success depends on their engagement, and with dedication and creativity, you have the power to revolutionize their educational journey.

At Open LMS, we provide a skillfully designed learning platform to enhance engagement. Contact us for more information or request a demo to see all its features in action.
Amy Tessitore
About the author

Amy Tessitore

Tessitore has been involved with Moodle-based LMSs longer than she might care to admit, but those years have made her a well-established name in the community. An open-source LMS Adoption and Education Manager by day and a Moodle User Association member by night, you might have come across her before at a conference or online talking about learner engagement in online environments, providing tips and tricks to new admins, or gently reminding her dog Pearl that the world does not revolve around her.

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