e-Learning in Tertiary Education: Tackling the Challenge of Social and Emotional Engagement

Andre Matthias MÜLLER & Charlene GOH
Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health (SSHSPH)

How do you ensure your students are socially and emotionally engaged during a virtual class?
Andre and Charlene discuss some practical measures they incorporated in their module to do so.

Image courtesy of Hatice EROL from Pixabay

When COVID-19 hit and campuses started closing, online learning became the new norm for universities in Singapore and beyond. In fact, e-learning became higher education’s lifeline. Educators had to grapple with a host of  challenges from this change in teaching mode.

Based on 14 in-depth interviews with educators from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health (SSHSPH) and our own teaching experiences, we highlight one key challenge, how we addressed it in the module SPH3404 “Physical Activity for Better Population Health”, and how students felt about our strategies.

The Challenge: Enhancing Online Student Engagement

When educators talk about engagement, they often mean the amount of effort students put into learning, such as studying or preparing for classes. However, engagement is multi-faceted and encompasses social, cognitive, behavioural, collaborative, and emotional dimensions (Redmond et al., 2018) (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Dimensions of engagement (Redmond et al., 2018).

Many educators struggle with promoting engagement when they move their sessions online. In particular, the challenge of facilitating social and emotional engagement seems insurmountable. Building bonds and an emotional commitment to learning are often achieved through rich and dynamic interactions that occur during onsite sessions (Müller et al., 2021). With interactions reduced to screen encounters, many students feel an engagement void. One student remarked, “You don’t really get to see and talk to people. My groupmates didn’t even on [sic] their cameras [during class and group discussions] so I was just talking to names on a screen.”   

What We Did

1. Introductory video on Flipgrid

A week before the module began, we asked students to upload a brief introductory video of themselves on Flipgrid. To ease students into this, we uploaded our light-hearted introductions first and provided some guiding questions (Figure 2). Alternatively, students could upload a written introduction using the LumiNUS forum. We presented a slide showing the diversity of the group (as extracted from the introductions) to highlight that: a) we were interested in who the students are, and b) each student was part of a community (Figure 3). Students valued the opportunity to connect this way.

Figure 2. Screenshot of SPH3404’s Flipgrid space. Students were encouraged to introduce themselves by sharing about their hobbies and other interesting facts using short videos.
Figure 3. Slide showing student diversity in SPH3404, based on introductions submitted.

2. Short polls

To make everything more personable, we started each live session with a short poll. We posed simple questions such as, “How are your stress levels?”, and “How many mooncakes did you eat during the Mooncake Festival?” which triggered friendly chit-chats (Figure 4). This was well received by students and made them feel more connected to their peers. One student recalled,

The polls…were the ones that made a difference to me…they were really fun because you get to see what other people were thinking and feeling.”

Another student also shared this comment,

“We had these little polls at the start which I thought were quite fun because it shows how everyone else is coping…there was this one question about our stress levels and it was fun to see how everyone felt, like ‘oh I’m not the only one that’s dying’.”

Figure 4. Example of a poll we did during the week of the Mooncake Festival.

3. Movement breaks

We also included a 2- to 3-minute movement break (MB) in every tutorial and pre-recorded session to ease things up (Figure 5). Many students commented that they enjoyed the breaks and looked forward to them. After a few weeks, we asked students to lead the MBs during live sessions. This greatly empowered students to engage others. Surprisingly, many switched on their cameras during the MBs, though they usually switched them off right after. A student remarked, “I’ll switch it on to do the exercises together with everyone else since other people switch on their cameras too.”

Figure 5. An example of a movement break we included in a pre-recorded session consisting of simple stretches and exercises. More ideas can be found here.

Key Takeaways

From our experiences, incorporating these simple measures to generate social and emotional engagement online can make a big difference between teaching a group of phantom students and being surrounded by students who are holistically engaged in the module. Interestingly, these measures also promoted cognitive engagement. We could tell that students were more involved in learning—showing greater interest, being more participative and asking good questions. This likely highlights the interrelationship between all domains of engagement. We are currently working on ways to enhance engagement. This will include asking students to focus on certain movements when leading the MBs (e.g., back stretches). Despite the apparent success of our measures, we acknowledge that some may be difficult to implement in larger classes (our class has about 40 students, but it would most likely work even with 60). We encourage colleagues to try out these strategies!


Andre is a lecturer at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health (SSHSPH) where he facilitates learning in modules on health promotion. He obtained his PhD at the University of Malaya, Malaysia where he designed a digital exercise intervention for older adults. He also received postdoctoral training in Behavioral Science in the UK and at NUS. As a trained sport scientist, he loves to get students moving during sessions.

Andre can be reached at ephamm@nus.edu.sg.

Charlene is a Research Apprentice at SSHSPH. She graduated with a Bachelor of Social Sciences (Honours) in Communications and New Media from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. With a keen interest in health communication and public health, she decided to focus her final year research thesis on social media and mental health. Her other research interests include education and online learning.

Charlene can be reached at char.goh@nus.edu.sg


Müller, A. M., Goh, C., Lim, L. Z., & Gao, X. (2021). COVID-19 emergency eLearning and beyond: Experiences and perspectives of university educators. Education Sciences, 11(1), 19. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci11010019

Redmond, P., Heffernan, A., Abawi, L., Brown, A., & Henderson, R. (2018). An online engagement framework for higher education. Online Learning, 22 (1), 183-204. http://dx.doi.org/10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175