online students introductions in online courses

4 Ways Instructors Can Better Engage Online Students

Just how engaged should instructors be in online classes? Everyone has a different opinion or approach, but research indicates that “instructor presence” is critically important to online students’ success. What exactly does instructor presence mean? And how can you ensure you’re present enough?

In face-to-face courses, instructor presence means instructors show up to teach, interact with students, provide handouts, explain concepts, answer questions, and meet with students before and after class. How can this happen online? Being present in an online course means spending quality time in the course, responding to discussion threads, sharing additional resources, creating videos, and writing summaries of ideas students have shared. These efforts should challenge students to exchange ideas, deepen their thinking, and grow intellectually.

Instructors benefit from this as well, in that they can connect with their students on a more personal level, and can learn from what their students share. Students often bring new perspectives and background information to course content. Online learners can offer some especially valuable insight, as they are often older, have full-time careers, and have a wealth of personal experiences that influence their opinions and suggestions.

Now that we’ve established why instructor presence is so important, here are some practical ways you can increase your presence and engagement in online courses.

1. Respond to Discussions
The heart of an online course is the discussion. The pulse of the class is found there, and if instructors really want to engage students, they need to respond to what students are saying.

Comments can reinforce a point and navigate students toward important takeaways from the course. They can also help build confidence in students who post less often than others, or serve to “shut down” a downward spiraling conversation. Adding comments also helps build trust, which is important in increasing student success and retention.

Sometimes students will post questions deep in the threads that are aimed at instructors, even if there is a separate space designated for questions. This might occur because they are immersed in the threads and questions pop into their minds at specific times. This is another reason why it is imperative for instructors to be involved in discussions.

Your comments do not have to be lengthy, and they can be sporadically dispersed among the discussion groups and threads. Acknowledging students’ good ideas or encouraging positive commentary is usually sufficient to indicate you are listening. Consider creating video responses, at least some of the time, in order to connect visually and auditorily with students online.

2. Ask Probing Questions
Discussions are open opportunities for learning to occur, connections among students to be made, and ideas to surface. You can facilitate this by ask probing questions of students after their initial responses have been posted. Some examples include:

  • What are the environmental effects of this idea?
  • What is the scalability of this strategy?
  • How might this idea be implemented in the workforce?

Probing questions like these are great foundations for helping students think critically and expand upon their ideas.

3. Supplement and Cite
Introducing new resources is another way to sprinkle discussions with instructor presence. Students appreciate being able to explore content to further depths, and to see concrete examples of concepts. Seek out not only additional written resources, but video and audio resources as well.

Just as sharing resources is helpful to students, so is providing citations or quotes that document the content and back up what you are saying. Citations not only display your knowledge of the subject area, they demonstrate good writing practices (e.g., APA, Chicago, MLA). Additionally, citations show that instructors took time to create thoughtful, content-rich responses to posts. This too, assists in building trust with online students.

4. Break Students into Discussion Groups
Discussions can be nearly unmanageable in large online courses (50+ students). If the discussions are prolific, they can be unmanageable in smaller courses too. A best practice for managing discussions is to break students into smaller groups.

Most learning management systems have a group function; if you need help finding this, you can contact an instructional designer. Feel free to be creative with the names and purposes of the groups (such as Elephants, Bears, and Javelinas; Blue, Green, Yellow; or name groups after specific discussion topics); students will enjoy the variety in group names and purposes.

When possible, allow students to self-enroll into groups they choose based on topics, and consider assigning roles to students within the groups such as leaders and summary agents. Also, consider changing up the student groups a few times throughout the term so students can interact with a variety of classmates.

Just as in face-to-face class settings, online students appreciate discussion groups with 5-10 other students because this allows them to engage more with their small group members in depth, and learn the names and whereabouts of other students. This also makes for great networking in cohort-type programs, because students are likely to take other classes with one another. Sometimes students will even share personal contact information with each other for reference outside of class, and for future classes taken together. This is something the instructor can encourage among students as well.

Remember, a little effort goes a long way in improving students’ experiences in your online courses. For more ideas, contact Dr. Athena Kennedy, Learning Innovator at, at or Cody Connor, Learning Strategist, at

Find more articles about online teaching here.


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