The Secret to Learner Engagement Revealed: How to Enhance the Student Online Learning Experience

It doesn’t matter if you’re instructing preschoolers or Ph.D candidates—all educators know that the most meaningful learning happens when students are highly engaged. Body language and real-time conversations make it easy to know when learners are actively engaged during in-person courses, but what about when learning happens online?

Identifying what engagement looks like in online learning is key to understanding whether or not your courses are having the desired effect on student learning. Discover the importance of student engagement and the secret to encouraging it in the digital classroom.

Why Student Engagement Matters

There is a strong correlation between student engagement and knowledge retention. Highly engaged students are more likely to complete their courses of study and experience success in other areas of their lives. This is especially true with technology-based learning.

Students who are invested and actively engaged in their online learning are more likely to experience:

  • Increased motivation to learn
  • Increased satisfaction with the learning course
  • Improved performance
  • Reduced sense of isolation


This makes it critical for students to take an active role in their learning. In order to encourage more active participation, the technology needs to add value for learners.

It’s important to note that using technology does not inherently mean students will be engaged. Just like in a face-to-face course, careful thought and consideration must be given to creating purposeful, enriching learning experiences. Educators must think critically about their pedagogy and use it to create a well-designed online learning course.

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Recognizing Engagement in Online Learning

Student engagement appears in various forms. Knowing what to look for will make recognizing and assessing student engagement easier. Broadly speaking, educators should pay close attention to the following three areas:

  • Maintaining the variety of online learner interactions with instructors, the content itself, and other learners
  • Fostering behavioral and cognitive engagement habits
  • Using online learning course design to focus attention and reach certain learning outcomes

Maintaining a Rich Variety of Learner Interactions in Effective Online Learning

There are three types of interaction in all learning: interactions with instructors, interactions with the content itself, and interactions with other learners. Effective online learning has to take particular care to retain all three.

Learner-to-instructor interactions are the most effective interactive tool for building student engagement. In the digital classroom, students are most engaged when instructors build a community through which everyone can interact. Actively participating in group discussions and providing regular updates to students is pivotal. Leveraging tools such as video conferencing will help students feel more connected to their instructor and will boost engagement.

Learner-to-content interaction is the next-most effective interaction type.. Students crave practical applications for their newfound knowledge. Providing them the opportunity to work with authentic content or consider realistic scenarios will have a greater impact on their overall engagement than a traditional quiz or slideshow. It’s also crucial to provide content in multiple formats, such as print, audio, and visual. Students expect flexibility and will appreciate having options.

Although considered the least effective option of the three, learner-to-learner interactions still play an important role in fostering student engagement. In order to emulate the feeling of an in-person classroom community, it’s important to allow students the opportunity to introduce themselves to each other early on in a course. It’s also important to provide opportunities for collaboration. This can occur in a multitude of ways, such as discussion forums and collaborative projects and reports.

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Fostering Behavioral and Cognitive Engagement Habits

Another aspect of student engagement is being aware of how students are interacting with their learning platform (whether that’s a learning management system (LMS), their intranet, or some other form of system) and how they’re thinking about their learning experiences. To encourage behavioral engagement, the platform should have an easy-to-navigate design. It’s important that students can log on and easily navigate to the information they need to complete their learning tasks. A disorganized LMS will discourage students and create unnecessary frustration that puts students off from the learning.

Your online course also needs to give students the opportunity to reflect on their learning. Fostering more cognitive engagement means that students are thinking about what they’ve learned and experienced after the initial learning activities have taken place. Incorporating self-reflection papers, discussion boards, and other similar tasks will continue to keep your learners invested in the content, leading to higher retention.

Engaging Through Course Design

The principle of backward design—an approach to instructional planning that starts with the end goal—is just as useful for online learning as it is for in-person learning. Start by identifying your learning outcomes. Once you know what it is you want your learners to achieve, decide how you will evaluate those learning outcomes. Which assessments will allow students to demonstrate that they’ve gained the necessary knowledge and skills to successfully complete the course?

Carefully consider how to engage students throughout the course. The most engaging activities will push at students’ perspectives and connect to the three styles of engagement mentioned above. After all of these choices have been made, you can decide how to provide content. Downloadable materials, lecture recordings, and synchronous online learning sessions are all viable options.

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The Student Engagement Secret

Understanding and recognizing the many ways that students interact with learning is half the battle when it comes to student engagement. The other half is getting them to engage. The secret is creating active learning in our courses.

Active learning means getting students to achieve a higher level of thinking. With each learning activity, we need to consider how to encourage students to think more deeply about the topic. Whatever the subject, it’s essential to involve them in analyzing, defining, creating, and evaluating.

It’s also important to provide learning that closely relates to their reality. When students work with concrete and authentic experiences, they’re more likely to be actively engaged. Rather than instructing students to watch a lecture or read a study, asking them to develop a solution to a problem gives them more hands-on experience. They will think more critically about the situation because they will apply knowledge as opposed to regurgitating memorized information. These types of learning experiences lead to higher levels of engagement and a better overall learning experience.

Of course, active learning tasks will look different in an online course than a face-to-face environment. The technology should enhance learning.

Active Learning: Achieved

The bottom line is that students are all on their own personal learner journeys. To get them actively engaged, you must help them feel connected to the learning experience. Activities should add value so students never feel as though their time has been wasted. Scenario-based learning, opportunities for self-reflection, and consistent communication from instructors all foster student engagement and encourage active learning. Use the technology at your fingertips to enhance student online learning with authentic and flexible resources that add value.

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See how Open LMS encourages active learning and student engagement. Contact us today!

Rebecca Potter
About the author

Rebecca Potter

Rebecca is a content writer for Learning Technologies Group plc. Prior to writing, she was an educator for seven years. She earned her Master’s of Education from Bowling Green State University and holds degrees in English and Spanish from The Ohio State University.

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