How to Engage Students in a Virtual Learning Environment

Tuesday, July 28, 2020
How To Engage Students In A Virtual Learning Environment

As educators discovered this spring, the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic have been inconvenient at best, and at worst, have completely changed the future of education. 

With so many schools closing and transitioning to virtual learning, educators have had to shoulder so much responsibility when it comes to keeping students educated without the ability to meet in a physical classroom.

Educators have had to rapidly adjust their lesson plans to fit digital platforms while dealing with challenges like lack of internet access for all students, handling parent and student concerns, and keeping students engaged who have just been thrust into a whole new way of learning. 

It’s a lot.

Now that school might continue to be either totally or partially virtual for the foreseeable future, educators will have to keep adjusting and find a way to engage students in a virtual learning environment more long-term. 

Below are 10 tips for educators who have to make digital learning work, at least for now.

Openly recognize challenges and set expectations.

Since both students and educators are going through a difficult and unprecedented moment, students will be able to engage more effectively if you just tell it like it is. You don’t need to pretend that everything is normal or the same as it was, because it’s clear to both of you that this type of learning is different.

That said, knowing that you’ll be teaching students online, set expectations right away. Help them to understand the challenges that you might face as a class, how you expect them to show up for their lessons and utilize the digital platform, and how you will show up for them as their teacher. Make sure all students understand the online class etiquette, how to use the platform, and how they can participate.

By making your expectations clear and also showing them you understand this is new and might be challenging at times, you will set the tone for success and better communication down the road.

Use icebreakers.

A fun way to keep students engaged right away is to have a list of icebreaking activities that you use for the beginning of virtual class. You might have a check-in each day, for example, during which you ask students a question that each person has to answer. 

You can even use polling functions of different virtual meeting apps to ask silly, non-personal questions to the entire class or have students break out into groups to interview each other and present three new facts about each classmate to the group.

Find activities that suit your specific class and students. But actively engaging students at the very start of each lesson will set the tone for the rest of the class and get students used to participating in this virtual environment.

Create individual learning plans, if possible.

If you have the ability, try to cater your virtual teaching to individual students. Many digital platforms offer ways to track students’ performance individually, including ways that each student learns best and how quickly they are able to move through digital lessons. 

By gathering as much information as possible, you’ll be able to see which virtual teaching methods are working best for which students. You can also offer ways for individual students to work differently, depending on their learning style and ability to process material online.

Plan to do less. 

Since virtual learning is so inherently different from in-person learning, plan that you will likely have shorter lesson plans and get less participation than you might in your usual setting. Prepare fewer hours of work for students to do outside of class and instead try to focus on quality over quantity.

Students are less likely to want to spend more time on the computer after having gone through a virtual lesson, so if you can find ways for them to complete activities that do not involve the internet, even better.

Leave room for computer breaks.

If you’re actively teaching using video conferencing, make sure you build in computer breaks for your students. Perhaps you lead a physical activity, for example, or set a timer and let students move around however they want for that small amount of time. 

Students are going to get easily fatigued and distracted using online learning, so make sure that you are building in time for them to rest their eyes and stop staring at a screen, even if just for five minutes at a time.

Integrate moments for required active participation.

Whatever lesson you’re teaching, make sure your lesson plans offer ways for students to actively participate in the lesson. That could mean planning a homework activity that requires hands-on learning or integrating group discussions into each lesson. 

Different participation techniques will work for different classes and subject material, so find those that work best for you.

Provide opportunities for student collaboration.

Students will likely engage more if they are able to collaborate with their peers. Just like in a physical classroom, you can assign breakout rooms with many of the different virtual conferencing applications. 

So, find reasons for students to break out into groups to discuss a concept or come up with a short presentation together. Any chance for students to work together will inspire them to engage more actively in the material. 

Be more flexible with assignments.

You might find that you have to be more flexible with deadlines for some students who might have difficult home environments, but you should also be mindful of flexibility when it comes to assignment types.

Some students are going to engage more when they know they can make a short video instead of writing an essay, for example. If you’re teaching a writing class, you might have to ask all students to write a paper, but maybe you offer an opportunity for students to present their knowledge of a concept in a more creative way whenever possible.

Communicate frequently with students.

Communication is always important, but it will become your best friend in a virtual learning environment. Make sure students know exactly what is expected of them, how to reach you, when to reach out, and how to utilize digital learning platforms. 

If you make any changes, make sure these changes are communicated to all students and their parents. Let students know their various options with different assignments and your deadline expectations. When all else fails, communicate.

Collect feedback.

Your students will always tell you what’s working for them and what’s not. In line with the idea of communication, if you can collect feedback from your students, you will find out which parts of the digital learning process are hardest for them and what you might be able to do to help.

Ask students what their experience is with virtual learning, changes they’d like to see in the way the class is run, and how easily they are navigating technology. This information will be vital in finding out how you can continue to engage students in an effective way and avoid any backsliding during this time.

Finally, though, know that you are also navigating a tough moment. Give yourself time to adjust, and most importantly, give yourself credit for the work you’re doing to make sure students stay educated during this strange season.


And if you need moral or tangible support, lean on fellow educators. Collaborate and share what’s working for you while receiving tips from your peers. And you can always turn to organizations like NSHSS for educator resources.