What do we mean?
  • Assessment for Learning (AfL): feedback-based process by which lecturers elicit evidence of students’ learning via informal evaluation strategies.
  • Asynchronous: not taking place simultaneously in real time
  • Synchronous: taking place simultaneously in real time.

Engaging Students Online

The Importance of Engagement

In order for students to have a high quality learning experience, meaningful engagement with the tutor, with peers, and with learning activities is of paramount importance, but how do we define 'engagement'? A useful definition of engagement is “the amount, type, and intensity of investment students make in their educational experiences.”

Both synchronous and asynchronous online learning activities can foster engagement through keeping to some core principles - an engaging learning experience is also inherently:

  • Personal
  • Accessible
  • Active
  • Social
  • (with) Opportunities for Self-Assessment
  • (with) Timely and Relevant Feedback


The importance of feeling part of the online learning community can't be overestimated, and the good news is that online learning experiences can be surprisingly personal when designed in the right way. Regular communication with students from faculty alongside opportunities for small group and whole class discussion can help add the human factors students value. At the outset of the course, a quick talking-head video intro and icebreaker activities can go a long way.

"Faculty–student communication creates a sense of online community that is initiated through emails, introductions, faculty and student biographies, and photos. Jones et al. (2009) found that video introductions by faculty and students, emails and video calls, online chats and discussion boards improved students’ experiences in the online class despite differences in language, culture and time zone. In Martin and Bolliger’s (2018) study, students found icebreakers used at the beginning of the term to be a highly beneficial engagement activity." (Tanis, 2020).

"There needs to be a personal element. Gaining knowledge is important, but so is human interaction and engagement". (Ibid)


Learning opportunities should be inclusive and available to all students regardless of their mode of study and learning needs.  It's essential therefore that all students can access their teaching and learning activities and resources in order to engage fully with and participate in their course. Accessible design ensures that everyone can access content easily – be it unassisted, or via assistive technologies (such as screen readers and electronic braille). 

However what is sometimes missed is that when content (such as MS Word and PowerPoint presentationsis accessible, all learners can benefit from finding and processing information more easily, making the learning experience deeper and more engaging (Connect, 2018).

Key design considerations 

  • Identifying and anticipating student needs in advance so that they can be embedded in course and content design 
  • Learning and teaching activities are aligned with the technology that students have available 
  • Ensuring all students can interact and contribute in teaching activities 
  • Awareness of accessibility legislation and copyright guidance 
  • Consulting with relevant services such as the Library to ensure appropriate numbers of online resource and software licences are available 

Key benefits 

  • Accessible content is inclusive, enabling students to work at their own pace and go back over material in their own time, developing their independence and ability to take responsibility for their own learning 
  • Well-designed blended provision can provide enhanced flexibility for all students and staff 
  • Blended provision can overcome many of the barriers to accessibility faced on campus.


Active learning is about finding teaching and learning methods that engage students through meaningful activities that put them in charge of their own learning. Active learning will ask students to engage with materials and collaborate with their peers and tutors. Although students may not be able to get out and about as they usually would to undertake active learning activities, they can still be active through participation in hand-on learning tasks. Case studies, group projects and opportunities to work on real-world projects - perhaps through online interviews with alumni or local and business partners - can help ensure that students stay active and engaged.


It's especially important within an online learning context to provide opportunities for group work and to foster a sense of community amongst students who may have to contend with limited face to face interaction with each other due to travel or social distancing restrictions. Social learning theories also argue that social interactions play a crucial role in cognitive development and the acquisition of new knowledge and skills.

Opportunities for Self-Assessment

Self-Assessment supports engagement by encouraging students to take ownership of their learning. Formative quizzes, e-portfolio activities, or learning diaries are all useful ways in which students can engage in self-assessment activities and receive formative feedback. Peer review/assessment also provides opportunities for active engagement, and can be particularly useful where there are concerns about the capacity for tutors to provide timely formative feedback on top of the demands of summative assessment.

Assessment for Learning (AfL) encourages student engagement by building formative assessments and regular feedback, into the learning process, helping students to grow in confidence in what they are expected to learn and understand.

Timely and Relevant Feedback

Naturally the timeliness of feedback for formative assessment activities is essential to giving students the opportunity to put that feedback into action ahead of subsequent summative assessments, but the quality and relevance of the feedback must also foster learning opportunities. Individual students and groups of learners often require tailored feedback to realise specific benefits.

"Feedback can occur before and after assessment submission, but needs to be useful in order for students to improve their subsequent performance. Arguably, undergraduate students, and particularly international, online and new students, are especially in need of feedback to effectively engage in academic and disciplinary expectations."(Henderson et al, 2019).

More generally, the timeliness of tutor responses to student questions and forum posts also plays a key role in engagement, with students frequently reporting that prompt and encouraging responses help to motivate them.

Practical Tips  

The video below offers some practical suggestions for promoting engagement online:


Updated on: 3rd July 2020