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miguel-henriques--8atMWER8bI-unsplash (1)When it comes to online student success, student engagement is going to naturally rank high. This is especially the case in online courses, where student behavior, motivation, and participation are critical. Trying to “stay connected” in an online class—even though the Internet is supposedly about connection—can prove daunting to many students. After all, it is quite easy to get lost in the crowd. It’s up to you, as the instructor, to keep that from happening. Imagine if the class is large; a big seminar, say, with possibly even hundreds of students!

There are numerous ways to engage students in those big online classes. Make content challenging. Make activities relevant. Make class time interactive. And make yourself engaging, too. These factors have all been backed up by good research.

That all sounds great, doesn’t it—but what can you actually do to make that happen? We’ll break down these methods more concretely and look at a few activities you can incorporate into your online class.

What Student Reviews Show – What Works in the Large Online Classroom

It’s all well and good for educators like you to put your heads together and try to figure out how to make the online class—and big ones at that—more engaging. But what do students think? That’s where the gold lies, the deep insight. If you want to know how well a class went, the student is the one to ask—and colleges know this. And now students routinely fill out class evaluations at the end of the semester, and those evaluations give us some important information.

Khe Foon Hew (2018), a professor at the University of Hong Kong, undertook a study of what are called “massive open online courses” (MOOCs; think “Udemy” or “MasterClass” and platforms like that) to find out what encouraged—and discouraged—student engagement. To do so, he got his feedback directly from the students themselves through evaluations.

john-schnobrich-FlPc9_VocJ4-unsplashHew’s sample for this study consisted of nearly 4,500 students in a variety of subjects, including healthcare, psychology, entrepreneurship, and history, all of them MOOCs. As Hew points out, some of these MOOCs can be upwards of 40,000 students! Now, at a typical college you will not be teaching that many students—not at once, anyway (I’d consider any online course that hits the 50+ student mark as ‘large’)—but some of Hew’s findings are indisputably valuable.

What’s important here is that MOOCs can vary in quality, at least as far as student ratings go. Students rate some things as positive for sure, but other things they declare as decidedly negative. Why, Hew asks, might some classes be higher rated than others?

In a pilot study, he found three basic components to student success in terms of their engagement with the course.

  1. Giving students flexibility in choosing resources –and allowing them to use those resources in their own time and at their own pace—creates a sense of autonomy. Whatever the resources, whether video or forum or readings, as well as the various activities and challenges, let students have a choice.
  2. Interaction with peers, of course, is important. The interaction that happens when they ask questions or give answers (so this includes interaction with the instructor as well) gives students a sense of connection.
  3. What gives students a sense of competency is the use of problem-centered learning. Students gain a better understanding of topics through things like active learning, peer interaction, and using readings to help solve real-life problems.

So: flexibility, interactivity, and competency—our core components. Hew’s initial pilot was a small study, and when he turned his attention to the larger study, he used student comments as the basis for a list of “what works.” The four most commonly mentioned factors, according to students, were these:

  1. Problem-centric learning, where activities are clearly related to real-life situations. This allows students to make meaning, which is in itself motivating and enriching.
  2. Active learning with feedback, which engages the student by requiring that they take on tasks and think about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. The feedback is equally important—and it will be easier for you to give individual students feedback in a college class rather than a large-scale MOOC, but you still can use things like peer review for writing assignments, which engages students at another level and empowers them to do evaluative work.
  3. Cater the course to student needs and preferences, and at least one way to achieve this is by not making course materials and assignments too difficult to understand and do, but at the same time, making them challenging enough that the student is not bored. For students who are interested in pursuing a subject further, provide more resources for them—videos, readings, you name it. Remember, these are adults: they know what they want!
  4. Finally, a little humor and enthusiasm on the teacher’s part goes a long way. But isn’t that always the case? All you need to do is think back on your favorite teachers. And that humor and enthusiasm works especially well—it is in fact just about requisite—in an online class, where distance can affect a sense of connection.

Peer responsiveness and instructor availability were also found to be important. Overall, the ways to approach large classes are clear: be engaging; offer a wide variety of resources for students to use and the choices that go along with them; keep students active and working together; and above all, make challenges that are relevant to the students’ lives.

Peer and Self-Assessment in the Large Online Classroom

Kulkarni et al. (2013) out of Stanford University also focused on MOOC’s—specifically in connection with assessment. One of the most important motivators for students in any class is feedback. Feedback engages students in self-reflection. As the researchers point out, feedback from an instructor in large classes simply can’t scale—there’s too many students to give each the individual attention. With peer feedback, though, the student is now in the position of the assessor, which gives them a new level of experience and empowerment—and by seeing the work of another student, they can begin to think from a new perspective.

“Peer assessment can increase student involvement and maturity,” the researchers write. It can also “enhance classroom discussion,” as you might expect. All of this engages the student, gets them interested, and gives them a real-world challenge in assessing their peers. Naturally, it also creates relationships.

brooke-cagle--uHVRvDr7pg-unsplashThe trick is, though, to prevent them from assessing off mark and, essentially, inflating the grades, however unwittingly. The researchers point to the need to have clear, unambiguous rubrics to guide peer assessments, and to teach the students to use them. And of course, having the instructor model assessment techniques helps bring student evaluations—including of their own work—more in line with instructor evaluations. The margin of error decreases.

How can you do this? Start with what we might call calibration. Students grade a submission but also see how the instructor grades the same submission, which is provided to them with an explanation. If the two evaluations, teacher and student, are not aligned, the student continues to practice up to five times. Once they get it, or once they have done five assessments (regardless of whether they are close to the teacher’s evaluation or not) they continue on to the assessment phase.

The researchers did this in their experiment, and by the second iteration, nearly 43% of the student evaluations were within 5% of the instructor’s, and over 65% were within 10%. As they point out, this can take an enormous amount of work off the instructor’s plate—and empower students instead.

How did students react? Positively. A full 42% of the students found value in seeing other student work, and 31% said they learned how to communicate their ideas. They could see other perspectives and even get inspiration from seeing peer work.

It’s clear that engagement—and by now we know that adult learners want a definitive role in their education—can come from giving the student responsibilities that matter, and that have real-world implications. The hard skills may be learning to evaluate specific work concisely, but the so-called “soft skill” of communication certainly is at play. And, of course, as the instructor you get the added benefit of creating an interactive environment. Students get to know one another—and not just one another, but one another’s actual work.

Break ‘Em Up – Using Small Group Discussions in the Large Online Class

Class too big? Make it smaller—here’s how.

A study by Elison-Bowers et al. (2011) from Boise State University found a number of ways to make the class more engaging—not to mention manageable—and one of the best ideas is to break the class up into smaller groups.

But first, have students get to know each other. Whether synchronously, in real time, or via a discussion board, students can introduce themselves and tell a bit about themselves—what they are studying, their interests and hobbies, and so on. Make this a graded requirement! If you as the teacher take but a moment to respond, however simply, to each student, that will go far in keeping them engaged. And as students get to know each other, this is going to plant the seeds for collaboration later. It’s important, they point out, to make an activity like this not only a requirement but directly related to the course—anything that reeks of “busy work” only serves to turn a student off.

small-group-network-hRScHZGXkTA-unsplash (2)Now, it is doubtful that you will have the luck of securing teaching assistants to take on these small groups—a TA, I mean—but you could still break the large group into smaller groups. Though the authors of the study use a class of 150 as an example, you could easily do this with a group of 24, where you could break it up into groups of 8 students. Without a TA, why not designate one of the students a “leader,” and have them switch up that role periodically throughout the course? The student leader can facilitate discussions, for example. And with peer evaluation, you can see how the students can become their own “TA.”

“As online education evolves,” the authors conclude, “instructors must be prepared to teach not only the very large online classes of today but those of the future.” They wrote this in 2011—a decade ago! This is the future they envisioned, and they were correct in their prophecies.

Some online classes will grow larger, and online classes in general will proliferate for the foreseeable future. So how can you be prepared to engage students in these large online classes? The big ideas that the research suggests is giving students responsibilities, getting them social, and getting them active in their own evaluation. And those are only a few ideas. There are plenty of directions for you to do research yourself, and now is the time, as you’re cultivating your own online adjunct teaching career, to be the student yourself.



Hew, K.F. (2018). Unpacking the strategies of ten highly rated MOOCs: Implications for engaging students in large online courses. Teachers College Record, 120(1), 1-40.

Kulkarni, C., Wei, K., Le, H., Chia, D., Papadopoulos, K., Cheng, J., Koller, D., & Klemmer, S. Peer and self assessment in massive online classes. Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 20(6), Article 33.

Elison-Bowers, P., Sand, J., Barlow, M.R., & Wing, T. (2011). Strategies for managing large online classes. The International Journal of Learning, 18(2), 57-66.

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