Why Online Students Need to Be Actively Engaged in Class
May 9th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Student engagement is one of the main concerns that online instructors have when teaching. Instructors know that if students are not actively participating, they will not absorb the material being taught or disengage and ultimately drop the course. While professors have a responsibility to present the information in a compelling manner, they are only half the equation.
Students, too, are responsible for their involvement with course material. But what does engagement mean to you as the student? Why does it matter? How can you increase your interaction to other students and the online instructor?
What is Student Engagement?
One way to view engagement is that it is an action-based state that consists of the time, energy, and effort students devote to their classes. In other words, it’s what you are doing in class. You take action to be engaged in the class when you believe your emotional needs are being met, you’re interested in the class, and you are motivated to do so because completing the class will help meet your goals. The process of being engaged in the class involves more than putting in enough effort to “just get by” or doing the minimum required to pass the course. When you are engaged in the class you are dedicating the time necessary to become an active participant in the learning process and your attention is fully focused on the course.
Students may consciously think about how they can be engaged in the class or it may occur because of the required learning activities, such as a participation requirement or group project. It is possible for the level of engagement to frequently change, depending upon the quality of interactions that take place with other classmates and the instructor. In addition, the emotions and feelings experienced by students may also influence the conscious decision to be actively engaged. Throughout the class, students may encounter a range of emotions that can either increase the level of engagement or adversely affect it. For example, if you are feeling confident with your progress and abilities, that positive emotion can encourage your engagement. In contrast, if you feel a sense of discouragement your engagement and progress may diminish. This applies to all students, even students within an online class.
Student Engagement in the Online Class
Students that are introverts by nature may find that they can adapt to the online classroom; whereas, those who are extroverts and rely upon a strong, personal connection may find the process of learning through a technology-enabled platform more challenging at first. Student engagement in the learning process is encouraged by instructors through learning activities such as participation in a discussion board. Peak engagement is demonstrated during discussions when students are actively participating, and through their posts they are sharing knowledge and ideas, utilizing critical thinking skills, and frequently interacting with each other.
It is also possible for students to demonstrate peak engagement through completion of their written assignments, especially when their papers provide a strong analysis through the use of critical thinking skills, along with the development of new ideas that are supported with research and the application of course concepts to the “real” world. Peak engagement may also be evident when students express an interest in collaborating or working with others and they are communicating with their instructor about their progress, concerns, or challenges along the way. While the online classroom has changed the format of communication, it has not lessened the need to be actively, virtually involved and engaged in the class.
Why Engagement Matters
Your instructors want you to be engaged in the class because you be more likely develop working relationships and feel part of an academic community. Suzanne Young and Mary Alice Bruce, of the University of Wyoming, conducted a study about student engagement and concluded that “engagement and sense of classroom community are closely related to one another; students who feel a sense of connectedness rather than isolation are very likely better prepared to become more actively involved with course learning, successfully persist, and experience real world success.” As you interact with others and develop connections you are also creating a support system that can increase your motivation to be an active participant in class.
However, students who have negative interactions with their instructor or other students may retreat from class or withdraw their active involvement and engagement in retaliation for something experienced or how a particular incident was perceived. As noted by the New England Literacy Resource Center, “it is human nature that when we feel welcomed, respected, and develop a sense of belonging, we are more apt to return to the setting or endeavor than when those factors are not present.” Engagement matters because it is an indicator of how you feel about the class and your ability to be involved, and it also indicates that you are having a positive experience.
Methods for Increasing Classroom Engagement
Student engagement has been used as a means of describing “students’ willingness to participate in routine school activities, such as attending classes, submitting required work, and following teachers’ directions in class.” This again indicates that engagement is a state of action. Some of the methods you can utilize to increase your involvement in the class is to log onto the classroom website frequently, ask questions, share your experiences, post frequent replies to other students in class, and find other students who would be willing to participate in a study group. In my post, All Online Students Can Benefit from Peer Support, I indicated that the use of a study group is one of the best options for students because of the ability to develop connections based upon specific courses. Instead of looking for a general school activities group, students create a forum to ask questions or exchange ideas throughout the class.
Another option for connecting with students outside of the class is through social networking websites. In my post How Social Networking Relates to Online Learning, I talked about the use of these websites by students and how it helps them learn to feel comfortable communicating and interacting with each other in a technology-enabled environment, which translates effectively for online learning because of the communication and interaction skills acquired. In the article, How to Build Real Relationships with Online Classmates, the use of Facebook and Linkedin are discussed. The benefit for interacting with other students through these websites is that “groups are formed with ‘like’ similarities and these interactions are low risk and an easy way to connect with classmates.” As others learn about your interests, career and academic goals, they will view you as a “real” person rather than a virtual stranger, which can strengthen your interactions in class.
Why Students Should Actively Engage in Learning
When students experience engagement in what they are doing they are devoting their full attention to the task and they are enthusiastically involved, highly interested, and experiencing positive emotions. Active engagement can lead to increased participation in the class discussions, which is a gauge that instructors often use to measure the level of your involvement. While it is up to the instructor to establish conditions in the classroom that are conductive to and supportive of meaningful exchanges, students also have direct control over the level of their engagement. Take time to be involved in your class and you will likely enjoy the learning process and develop relationships that support your progress.
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