Forms of Engaging Learners in Online Classes


Philip A. Pecorino, Ph.D.

Professor of Philosophy, Queensborough Community College, CUNY

Published in Community College Humanist, Fall 2006,  Vol. 27, N0.4 , pp.7-8.

             I have taught on-line classes for over five years now, and have accumulated a good deal of experience in working with students I have never met face to face.  I have taught more than 70 sections of three different Philosophy classes in the SUNY and CUNY system to over 2,000 students.  They have ranged in age from 18 to 70.  Some have been traveling while learning.  Others have been confined to their homes or  hospitals due to illnesses.  Some were in military field tends in the Middle East as part of a reserve unit.  Some have been women with young children asleep nearby as they worked at the computer.  Some have been members of the workforce, staying past their assigned hours to make use of their employer’s computers.  Some students have been brilliant, others less so. 

With all of them, as with my traditional classes, taught over twenty-five years, my aim has been to do the best that I can for them and to assist them to learn and develop their intellectual skills.  So, how to get them involved? Well, engage them!  Engaging learners means interacting with them.  The more interaction, the greater the satisfaction.  The greater the satisfaction, the higher the academic achievement.  This article will outline a few strategies that instructors considering on-line classes may wish to consider as means to engage the learners we teach.

Engagement is not to be mistaken for entertainment.  We engage our students to help them focus and direct their intellectual efforts.  We want to attract learners into experiences from which they can learn and become educated.  We want to challenge learners to expend effort, even to struggle; to take them past a comfort zone to a place where they can grow as intellects and as individuals.  There are a number of ways to do this for students on line. 

Engaging Through Communication with the On Line Instructor 

Your first, best, tool is the old-fashioned telephone!  Require a direct telephone conference with your student during the first week of the semester.  Talk to your student about the class, and about his/her special concerns.  Require a second telephone conference during the third week, to discuss the student’s progress and your continuing expectations.

There are also many types of e-mails that can be sent to students.  Some of these are formulaic, such as an initial e-mail of greeting, that outlines protocols in the course, such as acceptable language, and other on-line etiquette; a course assignment, or grade and class status reports.  The instructor may wish to keep boilerplate samples of each and use them through the semester as needed.   

E-mails can be used to reach out to students who may be having difficulties, such as participation problems, excessive absences, or who may be showing a need for advisement

The instructor may also use e-mail to send corrected student assignments, lecture additions, handouts, and class notes.  Students and instructors may also use e-mail to request and receive clarifications, extra assistance, and so on. 

Engaging Students through Group Work: 

Encourage virtual classroom communication by creating an Ask the Professor area in the discussion section of your website, where students may post questions pertaining to your course.   You may also wish to create a Student Café or Chat room where student to student communication occurs directly, about class-related, and non-class-related matters..

Participate in the on-line discussion of course material with your students.  You may also wish to assign students responsibility for beginning on-line discussions. 

Promote Learning Communities where students work with one another to master the material in group projects.   

Engaging Students Through Instructional Experiences 

Make your lecture an on-line conversation. As your students read through the “lecture” sections of your on-line course, create points at which your students may respond to questions, or examine a linked website and report back. 

Follow up your lectures with assignments that range from simple written essays to case studies and group problem solving activities.  Be available as a “coach” to assist students with these tasks. Assignments that have students interacting with other students or with the instructor are more engaging than those where the learner works in isolation.

Students should be asked to assess various aspects of the course—from the instructor’s contribution to those of fellow students.  Try to conduct assessments in the middle of each term, when there is still time to make changes, as well as at the close of the course.   

Engaging Students Through Instructional Design Itself 

Students may also be engaged through the physical design of your instructional website.  Changing the appearance of the website on occasion to highlight useful points or herald new assignments lets students know you are there.  You may also wish to consider the ways in which you organize your course on line.  Repeat your messages at various points on your website.  Dates that activities begin and end should appear in more than one way.   Some learners prefer that activities for each learning unit or course module appear together.  Build in a method for Special Messages to the class as an indication of your virtual presence as well as a vehicle to assist the class.  Think about using additional visual media—music, or film—through your on-line website. Short video clips as prompts for group work or case studies appear to work well in capturing and focusing learner attention.    

The design of your course can also assist with assessment.  Your prompts for student assessment should appear at conspicuous and logical points in your course content.  Instructors responses to the mid course assessments provide a powerful form of engagement with learners.  The class takes on something of the feeling of a partnership, a common effort in which the learners are engaged in making some determinations about what is going on with their learning.

 A fully online class offers many different ways in which the online learner can be engaged by the instructor, both inside and outside of the class website and the course management program.  The more opportunities your offer your students for such engagements the more likely it is that your learners will become and remain involved with the class, their classmates, your course and their academic program. 


Philip Pecorino teaches philosophy and ethics at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.  If you have questions or comments about this article, please contact him at

Published in the Community College Humanist, Fall 2006,  Vol. 27, N0.4 , pp.7-8