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How Do You Know if They're Engaged

Page history last edited by Anne McKinney 15 years ago



The Instructor as Manager: Instructor/Student Communication

The following statement by Randy Bass describes how difficult it can be for an instructor to recognize when learning isn't happening:


Teaching, by nature, is an egocentric profession in the sense Piaget used the term: we find it difficult to see when our teaching isn't clear or adequate. We don't easily imagine how what is so obvious and important to us cannot be equally so to novices. Combined with our strong desire to cause learning and to find any evidence of success, we are prone to unending self-deception. How easily we hear what we want and need to hear in a student answer or question; how quickly we assume that if a few intelligent comments are made, all students get the point. This is the tragic flaw inherent in trying hard, and for the right reasons, to get people to understand and value what we understand and value. It then often doesn't occur to us that students are trying equally hard to appear knowledgeable (5).[1]

 See bottom of page for photo information.

As instructors, one of our biggest challenges is in communicating with our students - understanding not just what they are telling us in words, but reading between the lines to understand when they really "get it" and when they just want us to believe that they do. This is also a big part of student engagement, because if students are struggling to grasp what we are teaching, we risk losing them. How, then, do we communicate effectively and understand our students in an online environment without the benefit of nonverbal cues we rely on in f2f classrooms?


Student engagement: how do you know if they're engaged?

Participation in the discussion forums can answer that question to an extent. If students are actively engaged in discussion, they are more likely to post more messages than the minimum required for the grade. If they're not participating or completing the discussion assignments, that's an indicator that you're losing them!


Here are a few suggestions to keep them in the game:


  • Email students who are not participating or fall behind. A private, personalized message will help them feel less isolated, and make you look more like a human being than an automated robot instructor.


  • Use discussions to generate conversations in the subject matter, promote student/student communication and collaborative learning.


  • Group projects: with the right incentives, students can be motivated to enjoy interacting and learning with their group mates. (We will discuss methods for group exercises at the end of this module.)


  • Post relevant external links in your messages and encourage other students to pull in links in their messages. This is an advantage online courses have over f2f! This can add to discussion by combining on-topic student learning with supplemental resources, and allowing mini-breaks from reading the posts to quickly visit the other sites and back.


  • Encourage off-topic conversations in other forums. Some courses include a "coffee shop" forum or off-site social networking group where students can enjoy casual interaction with their classmates without being graded on their participation or academic writing skill. Providing a venue like this will also prevent discussion from veering off-topic in your curriculum-based forums.


Photo on this page: Creative Commons licensed photo via Flickr, Apples Make Us Happy by TheGiantVermin




  1. Wiggins, Grant. "Embracing Accountability." New Schools, New Communities 12. 2 (Winter 1996): 4-10. Quoted in "The Scholarship of Teaching: What's the Problem?" by Randy Bass http://www.doiiit.gmu.edu/Archives/feb98/randybass_3.htm

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