Engaging Students Online: Enhancing Student Engagement in an Online Environment: Some Considerations

by Blog Facilitators, featuring Cao Feng and Susan Lee


Student engagement is a key factor that contributes to the success of an online learning environment. In a language or communication course, students may view engagement in the form of interaction or socialization that supports the development of academic and interpersonal skills, as well as content knowledge (e.g. Tratnik, Urh, & Jereb, 2019). To optimize student engagement, instructors would need to consider, among other things, creating and managing well-timed tasks and feedback. A task needs to be timed well, so that students can complete it within a reasonable period of time (Rooij & Zirkle, 2016). Feedback that is timely, understandable, and supportive of students’ affect can also encourage students’ better engagement with a task (Zhang, 2017) and with their instructors (Grieve, Padgett, & Moffitt, 2016).

Besides considerations for tasks and feedback, instructors must also recognize other factors that can compromise the online learning environment. A crucial factor is student engagement – an affective factor situated within and beyond the learning environment. For example, students’ engagement may be influenced by the immediacy of an instructor (Bolliger & Martin, 2018). Their engagement in a course may also be determined by tasks or assessments from other courses (Muir et al., 2019). Moreover, student engagement can be influenced by the ‘findabilty’ in an online learning environment, that is, the ease for a student to obtain course-related knowledge and information in the new learning setting (Simunich, Robins, & Kelly, 2015). It must be recognized, however, that the successful execution of and immersion in online lessons hinges on institutional support (McGee, Windes, & Torres, 2017). Other affective factors such as student perception of teacher presence and instructor satisfaction can also impede or enhance the quality of online lessons. All of these factors and their relationships are illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Some factors affecting student engagement in an online learning environment

To ensure that instructors’ efforts are well received, with the understanding that student engagement is a dynamic construct shaped by various factors, there needs to be an equitable approach to creating and managing the online learning environment. In this reflective post, some of our CELC colleagues share their strategies and thoughts on this matter. It is hoped that this can help our teaching community and beyond in taking calculated steps that do not compromise student engagement and the quality of our teaching.


Recognizing Translanguaging

Cao Feng, ES5101 

Due to Covid-19, ES5101 (Technical Communication for Engineers) had to turn to online mode over the second half of the past semester. One major assignment requires students to give a short oral presentation (OP) of a research project. The OP will be pitched to their colleagues working in the same fields and a more general audience from related fields who might be interested in their topics.

To better prepare students for their OPs, I assigned students to work in small groups of 2-3 and rehearse their presentation with peers. In this online peer review task, every student gave a mini-presentation, reviewed each other’s work and provided feedback in terms of content, organization, delivery skills and visual design of their OPs. Zoom breakout rooms afford students online space for collaboration and discussion. As a tutor, I joined different breakout rooms from time to time to facilitate their discussion and participated to various degrees in students’ online discussion in these breakout groups.

Some groups went well, with each student taking turns to rehearse, and then providing and receiving feedback according to guidelines. In such cases, students showed a high-level of engagement and I was mostly an observer in the breakout rooms. Other groups, however, had quite different dynamics. Some just kept silent in their rooms without much discussion. On this occasion, I had to encourage students to start talking just by introducing their research projects and by anticipating what their audience need to know. Some other groups finished their discussion very quickly and I learnt that they might not have given each other effective feedback because they were from different subfields of engineering and did not understand each other’s research topic well enough. What I could do then was to guide them to focus less on the content of the presentation but more on other aspects such as organization and delivery skills.

There were a few occasions where I found students in breakout rooms interacting with their L1 languages (mostly Chinese). Although our course focuses on communication in English, considering the recent development in Translanguaging in language education, I did not intervene in their use of L1. Interestingly, the students immediately switched back into English as soon as they discovered my presence in the breakout rooms. The students may have realized that this was an English class and it would better if they used only English before their tutor. I feel, however, further research is needed to find out the roles of L1 in students’ online discussion and peer review practice.


Status: In class_Online_At home

Susan Lee, ES2007D

 While Professional Communication discusses videoconferencing skills, I am under no illusion that the pandemic-driven online teaching has only made me reflect on improving my professional engagement online. Here are some thoughts on being in class online, at home.

The teacher at home

I used to hold videoconferences in front of a safe, plain wall. But In the coming semester, I plan to reveal part of my home to my classes to share a little personality and hopefully, build rapport with new students I will be engaging entirely online. I would also like to open each session with small talk, especially with early joiners. Topics could range from the choice of virtual backgrounds, assignments, leisure and a little about myself. Self-disclosure is not easy for me as an introvert, but it does break the ice and creates a welcoming and open learning space.

Be vulnerable

Author and researcher, Brené Brown talked about the importance of vulnerability and empathy in human connection (2010). The pandemic-induced reality gives us a reason to be vulnerable as we learn authentically in front of students. I have found it helpful to speak aloud when accessing tools on videoconferencing platforms and other sources. This includes speaking aloud when I encountered problems.

Think Interactivity

Besides group discussions, reading and video-watching, using tools like Google, PollEverywhere, Mentimeter and Padlet to energise classroom participation through anonymous polling and quizzing. Provide clear instructions and explain your purpose. Pique their curiosity by showing and commenting on the results. Relate their input to an objective source to further the discussion and learning.

For quick check-ins, I invite students to smile, wave, show a thumbs-up or other gestures at the camera. I made the intentional attempt to emphasize the importance of responding with our body language when making a connection (Cossar & Navarro 2020) because this is fundamental in interpersonal communication on any medium and, like choosing appropriate (virtual) backgrounds, makes a relevant teaching point.

Connect from their Perspectives

Consider students’ visual perspectives. It takes getting used to when I tried to speak to the camera to ‘make eye contact’ while checking students’ facial expressions on their videos simultaneously. Having eye contact makes us feel ‘spoken with’. This is especially important when engaging individual students. Similarly, we should provide instructions described from students’ perspective, for instance, of a platform. Effective communication always starts from considering what they can see.

As my view of students virtually shrank into video frames, I have since learnt to avoid making presumptuous statements based on my limited perception. A question like, “You look sleepy, are you okay?” sounded more hurtful because I could not read the students’ body language fully. And sometimes, it is the internet connection that is lagging, not students’ focus.

Lastly, engage in sharing of perspectives by pausing and eliciting input often with open questions like, “What are your thoughts about …?”, “What are some things that come to mind when we talk about …?”, “What are your comments on …”

Go visual 

Learning through video-watching is preferred among students (Genota 2018). I plan to introduce the course with a welcome video and create 2-3 min topic overview videos that highlight learning aims, key resources and upcoming assignments for LumiNUS Learning Flow.



The reflections of Cao Feng and Susan can certainly resonate with our experiences last semester. These reflections also highlight our current circumstance and the anticipation for the new academic year, where we are presented with a ‘new-normal’ teaching and learning mode that requires a re-evaluation of variables – some of which may have been placed on the fringes in a face-to-face setting. One of such variables, Translanguaging, was mentioned by Cao Feng, where students’ L1 use may be needed to support learning processes in an unfamiliar terrain. Studies have reported that Translanguaging cultivates a positive social rapport. This may be significant to establish social presence in an online classroom, given the physical divide we expect in the upcoming semester (e.g. Jiang & Zhang, 2020). Closely related to Translanguaging is the significance of students’ perspective. Taking in students’ perspectives was brought up by Susan, and it has been shown to be effective in classroom contexts where interactive discourse contributes to a better understanding of learning content (e.g. Morell, 2007). Encouraging students’ articulation of their perspectives is also crucial in the forming of social presence and a sense of community in an online learning mode, where the problem of ‘othering’ may be avoided (Phirangee & Malec, 2017).

Indeed, the need to teach online presents an opportunity for us to venture into the hyper-connected world where many of our students reside. It also compels us to reconfigure our professional personas within the online learning environment we create for our students, in addition to our physical classroom performativity. We hope that this post will prompt all of us to reflect on possibilities and challenges we may encounter as we spend the upcoming semester online. We look forward to receiving your comments to this post!



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Grieve, R., Padgett, C. R., Moffitt, R. L. (2016). Assignments 2.0: The role of social presence and computer attitudes in student preferences for online versus offline marking. Internet and Higher Education28, 8-16.

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Morell, T. (2007). What enhances EFL students’ participation in lecture discourse? Student, lecturer and discourse perspectives. Journal of English for academic Purposes6(3), 222-237.

Muir, T. et al. (2019). Chronicling engagement: Students’ experience of online learning over time. Distance Education40(2), 262-277.

Phirangee, K., & Malec, A. (2017). Othering in online learning: An examination of social presence, identity, and sense of community. Distance Education38(2), 160-172.

Simunich, B., Robins, D. B., & Kelly, V. (2015). The Impact of Findability on Student Motivation, Self-Efficacy, and Perceptions of Online Course Quality. American Journal of Distance Education29(3), 174-185.

Tratnik, A., Urh, M., & Jereb, E. (2019). Student satisfaction with an online and a face-to-face Business English course in a higher education context. Innovations in Education and Teaching International56(1)1, 36-45.

Van Rooij, S. W., & Zirkle, L. (2016). Balancing pedagogy, student readiness and accessibility: A case study I collaborative online course development. Internet and Higher Education28, 1-7.

Zhang, Z. (2017). Student engagement with computer-generated feedback: a case study. ELT Journal71(3), 317-328.

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