20 Tips to Facilitate Online Class Participation

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Student engagement is a challenge for any teacher. But when you’re doing corporate training for adults, it gets even harder.

And when that training is happening online, involving you, your LMS, and a bunch of screens? Yikes.

You have your lesson materials. You have a discussion board. You have a group of individuals with different learning styles. How can you get them to engage, and stay engaged? How can you ensure online class participation?

These 20 tips are a great place to start!

How to facilitate online class participation

20 ways to boost online class participation

1. Make the guidelines clear

You want your students to participate, be engaged, and do well. They probably want the same thing! But if you’re working with different definitions of “engagement” and “participation,” both sides will be disappointed.

Set students up for success by giving your corporate trainees clear guidelines at the start of their lesson. Define participation, and lay it out for students.

Start by asking yourself:

  • How often are students expected to be online? Daily? Once or twice a week?
  • Do you expect formal or informal language in their responses?
  • How long does an answer or discussion prompt response need to be? Is a single sentence OK, or should learners submit detailed paragraphs?
  • Is there a cut-off time for responses?

What you decide matters less than the way you present it to your trainees. Make sure they know what you expect, so they can tailor their engagement levels.

2. Familiarize yourself with your LMS

A major reason online programs can be stressful for students is a lack of understanding of how an LMS works. Getting used to any new software comes with a learning curve, and when paired with the stress of trying to learn new information and perform well, it can be one step too many for some students.

You can help mitigate this struggle by familiarizing yourself with your learning management software first. Learn the ins and outs, so you can easily explain the system and its features to your learners, in addition to providing helpful, clear directions to students who need help.

Explore your LMS from both the admin side and the end user side. Remember that admin features are usually more complex, and you may be seeing a screen your students are not. If you’re familiar with only the back end, your directions might not be helpful.

3. Make use of small groups

It’s easy to hide in a big crowd. It’s much harder to hide in a small group.

When creating projects or discussion groups, keep this in mind. The quiet folks in your class (those who don’t want to participate or who may be shy) will fade into the background if you have 20 or more people vying for talking space.

Small self-led groups of three to five people help coax everyone out of their shell and improve individual engagement levels.

4. Create a light syllabus

You may not be teaching a heavy lecture course with pop quizzes or major tests every week. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a lesson plan that your students have access to.

A syllabus can help lay out expectations for your students. It will inform them when they need to pay more attention, what lessons will cover, and how they can best prepare for each session or module.

Engagement improves if students know what’s required of them ahead of time. There’s a strong link between an interesting but clear syllabus and higher student engagement.

5. Make sure navigation is intuitive

What sounds more encouraging: a system in which you have to struggle to locate your lessons, quizzes, and end up getting lost in a digital labyrinth just trying to find a way to contact your instructor? Or a straightforward, intuitive system that makes all those things obvious from day one?

The answer should be clear, but it’s often taken for granted that software will be hard to navigate.

Here’s the big secret: It doesn’t have to be.

If you have any control over the LMS selection process, push for something with easy, intuitive navigation. Don’t force your learners to figure out both your lesson material and complicated software.

6. Reward early answers with personal attention

Being the first one to respond to a question, especially in a public forum like a discussion thread, can be intimidating. So reward that extra level of effort to encourage the same among other students.

Be ready to respond quickly and attentively to the first person to post on a question or discussion thread. Acknowledge their response, and talk about it (even if it’s wrong) as quickly as you can after it’s posted.

This shows your students that their instructor is online, active, and engaging with them and will encourage them to do the same.

7. Ask the right questions

If you want easy multiple choice questions without a ton of depth, use a quiz module. If you want true engagement with your material, however, you need to open up your questioning.

Give students complex, multi-layered questions and situations that don’t have obvious yes or no answers. Make them think about their answers, and how the learning scenarios apply to the real world.

The more open-ended your questions are, the better they are for discussion and retention. They’ll also prompt longer, more invested short answer test responses.

8. Encourage debate

If you’re in an intense discussion with someone on Facebook, you’ll probably check it more frequently than if your notifications are dead, right? The same logic applies to online training.

Encourage multiple points of view and debate among students, especially if you can’t avoid asking a yes or no question.

Showing that multiple viewpoints exist and that more than one method may be a good choice is a great way to drive home the relevance of the information contained in your lessons.

9. Give your lessons a sense of purpose

In school, how often did you say, “What’s the point? I’m never going to use this in real life!” I know I said it fairly frequently (mostly in math class).

Don’t create a lesson so vague and theoretical that your corporate trainees feel the same way.

Use the lesson material to show how useful the information is to your learners’ daily work lives. Leadership training can be tied to all role levels within an organization if you take the time to mention it as more than a manager skill.

A particular corporate policy may seem unrelated to some learners’ jobs until you find a case study or anecdote to connect the dots. Make an effort to show why your training is important to increase how much students care.

10. Highlight the purpose to reinforce it

Once your lessons mention the relevance of a module to a job, write a question or create an assignment about it!

Asking a test question about the ways corporate policy is useful for a specific job, or requesting a short essay on the ways all employees can display leadership qualities reminds students why they’re completing this training in the first place (and might grab the attention of students who skimmed the lesson and skipped to the test).

11. Let students ask their own questions

Asking questions proves that students are interested in and paying attention to the material. Give students space to ask questions in the discussion forum, but don’t rush to answer them right away. Give other learners a chance to respond with their own answers.

Teaching others is proven to be one of the best ways to learn new material. And when your students respond to each other, you’ve got more than one student actively participating, you have two (or more)!

12. Base exam questions on discussions

Let students know that you’re paying attention and care about what they have to say by turning their discussion topics into questions on your tests.

Basing exam questions on discussions has the added benefit of cementing discussions’ importance to your course, making those who contributed feel valued and like their intelligence matters.

13. Watch for early problems

Opening up discussion and student-to-student interaction can feel intimidating for course designers or instructors who have ever experienced an uncooperative workforce that wasn’t interested in being trained in the first place. Are you going to be staring at a blank forum where nobody replies? Or worse, a bunch of sarcastic or two-word answers?

But discussions are a good, low-risk space to identify students who seem to be less engaged than others. Ask students to critique a given topic or idea from your material, and evaluate how long responses are, how quickly students respond, and what they say to see if certain students need more guidance than others.

A student who writes multiple, insightful paragraphs is probably fine on their own. A student who posts a two-line response no matter the prompt, however, may need some coaxing or guidance.

14. Ongoing, actionable feedback means the most

Even the most engaged students will check out if they feel they’re submitting assignments to a brick wall.

Take the time to respond to assignments, promptly and with feedback that is more than a letter or number grade. Comment on long essay responses. Discuss the finer points of sophisticated observations. Really dig into the meat of questions learners got wrong to make sure they understand why.

Comprehensive, insightful feedback will give learners something to grow on and motivate them to remain engaged.

15. Keep cameras on during chat sessions

I’ll confess something: When I took online education courses, I was guilty of muting my mic and then completely checking out. I certainly wasn’t following the slide presentation or lecture whiteboard materials.

If I was asked a question, I’d feign technical problems and ask for a repeat so I could quickly come up with an answer. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, I just wasn’t engaged.

Learn from my past choices, and don’t let your students be like me! Avoid the dreaded web conference/video chat checkout by insisting that all participants turn their webcams on and keep them on for the duration of the session.

This lets you see their faces and keep track of who is actually staying involved (and who isn’t).

16. Use a variety of lesson activities

Sure, you could have a ton of text on a web page and then a simple click-to-answer quiz module. It would get the job done, but it lacks a certain level of excitement that could add a lot of value for your learners.

Include multimedia, such as games and video. Use audio files, discussion boards, video chat sessions, and instant messaging.

If your LMS offers any cool, unique feature (like gamified learning or graphics-heavy interactive quizzes), test it out and take advantage of it. The more varied your lessons are, the less likely it is that students will zone out.

17. Use silent moments to chat

Make something of that awkward lag time while you’re waiting for all participants to sign on to an online chat session or video lecture. Use this time to humanize yourself and connect with your students on a social level.

“How was your weekend? Did you do anything fun?” is a simple way to make a connection and share social information with your trainees.

It helps learners see you as a person who is invested in their experience with your training, both personally and professionally. I don’t know about you, but I’m much more inclined to engage with someone who seems real, rather than a nameless face behind a series of assignments.

18. Follow up, follow up, follow up

A student had a question? Follow up.

A student struggled on an assignment? Follow up.

A student seemed excited about a topic and was really engaged in the lesson? Follow up.

There is never a situation in which trainees benefit from their instructor being less involved in their education and course performance. Following up helps you address problems early on, provide additional resources, and encourage struggling students.

19. Organize by due dates

When deciding how to set up your virtual classroom, you have a range of options for how to present assignments.

When it comes to your learners, however, the best thing you can do is lay out assignments in the order that they’re due. It’s the most intuitive way to organize your lessons.

And remember: Even your most engaged students can get confused and miss an assignment if the due date is buried in your LMS.

20. Model engagement yourself

You might have noticed a theme throughout these tips: Instructors need to be engaged in order to have engaged students.

It’s a two-way street. You can’t assign a module and then ignore it if you want to ensure that your corporate trainees fully understand the material. You need to be on top of grading, giving feedback, and proactive about engagement.

Show that you’re paying attention by reaching out to students before they ask for it. They’ll see that you’re involved and interested in their progress and will understand associated expectations.

How do you improve online class participation?

Do you have a tried and true engagement-boosting tip to share? Have any of these tips ever failed you? Let me know in the comments below, or tweet me @CapterraHalden.

Looking for Training software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Training software solutions.

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About the Author

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Halden Ingwersen

Halden Ingwersen is a former Capterra analyst.

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