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How to Engage College Students in Online Learning

The switch to online learning has left professors at universities and colleges across the country scrambling for ways to effectively bring traditional, classroom teaching models to students who now attend classes from their homes, apartments and dorms by way of a computer screen.

Anthony McMullen, J.D., assistant professor of business law

Anthony McMullen, J.D., associate professor of business law in the UCA College of Business, was part of a team of seven professors at the Academy of Legal Studies in Business to create a summary of effective strategies for professors to use for online learning in higher education.

The researchers found the best way to have success teaching college courses online was to quickly orient students, humanize the online environment and maintain engaging course material.

“Many professors need guidance on this, so our purpose was to compile these tips in hopes those who are new to online teaching could gain ideas and have time to carefully plan and prepare for their courses,” McMullen said.

Welcome Module

The first step identified was having a welcome module with a host of content that introduces students to the instructor and the course. The goal is to give students “low-stakes opportunities” to get engaged and learn how to find course material and complete assignments throughout the semester.

This can include a welcome email or video, an instructor bio, student introductions, the course syllabus, a how-to video on navigating course content and assignments and introductory assignments such as a syllabus quiz.

“This helps support and guide students through the online environment, especially if they are new to online courses,” the report states.

Humanizing the Course

Professors must also have a strong emphasis on the connection between faculty and students, as well as between students, the researchers found.

“You have to find a way to humanize the course and content,” the report states. “Professors need to facilitate multiple interactions with students without creating a barrier between technology and student engagement with the material. Previous research has found students from at-risk demographic groups had lower performance in online courses.”

One important factor to this is the use of online discussion boards.

“These can help instructors bridge the pedagogical gap between face-to-face and online learning by encouraging active student engagement,” the report said.

While discussion boards are often used, getting students to participate can be challenging, so it is important for professors to layout instructions and expectations from the beginning.

“This will encourage participation and create an environment of accountability and mutual respect,” the researchers said. “One tip is to have students not only post their own threads, but be required to comment on other student posts as well.”

Presenting On-Screen

Professors should use both synchronous and asynchronous material that effectively present the content of the course, complement one another and improve student motivation.

Synchronous instruction can include video conferencing to provide feedback on assignments, techniques and exam review.

“One recent technique that has found student satisfaction is presenting the professor’s screen,” the report states. “This allows professors to show PowerPoint slides normally shown during class. Professors can write and draw on the whiteboard and students can see that happening, just like a normal class.”

Voice-over PowerPoint presentations is an effective way to implement asynchronous learning, as well as assigning students to view short videos — preferably 6 minutes or less — on single topics discussed in the material.

“These ideas and others discussed in our article will be effective for teaching online, even when students return to physical classrooms,” the report said. “These strategies will help instructors reach and educate students wherever they may be.”