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This content initially appeared at APUEdge.com. 

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenAssociate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education 

Student engagement is a critical part of learning. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses how to improve student engagement in the online classroom using available metrics and data. Learn how educators can use that information to adjust assignments to help improve student engagement.

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Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents, who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m here to talk with you a little bit about student engagement in online education. The word “engagement” is commonly known when you’re in love with someone, you’re thinking about marrying them. And engagement means you’re connected; you have a goal of doing something together. It also means maybe a military encounter between two different forces.

Now, something that engages people online is sort of along those lines: We’re coming together, we’re interacting, we have plans of doing something together, and we want it to be meaningful. The online education definition of engagement isn’t really the formal agreement to get married, or just an arrangement to do something, or go somewhere at a certain time. It’s not even a battle plan. Really, engagement in online education is about the ways in which students and faculty members engage with—or interact with—the content, each other, and the ideas.

There can be student engagement with the textbook, the videos that you put in your online class. There can be student engagement with each other; so, there’s some kind of dialogue or maybe there’s even live chat happening or live video happening.

There could be student-to-faculty engagement, or faculty to student. So, we’ve got messaging, we’ve got discussion areas, we’ve got live video or live chat. All of these different things fall into the category of engagement in online education. Engagement really is kind of this buzzword that we use a lot in online education because we need some way of talking about people showing up.

In a live class, in a face-to-face setting, you can walk into the room and see people there. You can also look at the gradebook and see whether students have submitted work, what their scoring is. You can find out how often or how much the faculty member has lectured or taught in that class. And all of those would be live engagement in a face-to-face setting.

Using Metrics and Data to Assess Student Engagement

Online education is a little bit different because we can look at metrics, we can actually look at login data, we can look at the number of times people have accessed particular content. We can look at how many times, how frequently, and how substantially they have posted in that discussion forum. All of those things help us to know about the engagement in online learning.

Now, in online learning, student engagement is all about figuring out what’s working, whether people are learning, and whether they’re really being taught and transformed in that experience. There are some kinds of engagement statistics online educators should know about. And if you’re teaching online right now, these could be very interesting to take a look at. On the very basic level, something in your learning management system will track or measure the days and the length of time that your students have logged into the platform.

If they’re going to read things offline, like if they have a physical textbook, of course, you can’t track that, you don’t know exactly how much time they’re spending in that content. But you can see when they’re in the classroom, how many times they’ve clicked into the classroom, during the week, and how many minutes they have spent.

Some learning management systems will also let you know which parts of the content students have accessed. So, maybe you can see, did they open the lesson? Did they open the test? Did they go into a quiz? Did they go into the discussion? Did they reply first and then post that initial response or post the initial response and then come back? A lot of this information, as an online educator, helps you get a sense of where your students really are spending their time, and how engaged they are in the class itself.

As you look at these trends of students clicking in and spending time, you can get a sense for what’s working, what kind of content you’ve put into that class, and whether or not something might need to be modified. Or maybe there needs to be more material added or too much material.

Looking at those on a very basic level just helps you understand the quality of the course and the quality of your teaching at kind of at a basic level. Now, as students start to engage in the discussion or interact in the discussion space, reading what they’ve written, you can also see things like what they’re understanding, the degree to which they can use some of the terms in the course, you can notice those things in the discussion. And notice how they’re using the words and start to know whether or not they’re really understanding the concepts.

How as this helps you? As an online faculty member, you can look at what students have posted in that discussion and start to ask a lot of questions. You can give some additional guidance or examples. And if you really participate throughout the week and read what they’re writing, they’ll come back, and they’ll respond to you again and again.

So, it helps to notice the real time or asynchronous, somewhat real-time engagement, throughout the week and see what’s happening in that discussion and be part of it and respond to it and interact with it. This will help students engage with each other a lot more, engage with the content more, and engage with you. And they’ll even get to know you a little bit, which will help them to trust you, and feel confident turning in those assignments.

How Understanding Engagement Levels Can Help with Course Design

Now, another thing that you can do to look at engagement in an online course, is to look at the way they’re filling out their assignments and submitting them. Sometimes you’ll get a student who really is off the mark on their assignment. And then looking at that first type of engagement, just how much they’re in the course, what they’re accessing, what they’re reading, you can kind of tell, have they gone through the parts of the course where they should have learned that? Have they spent the time there?

Some students will just misinterpret instructions and some will find helpful things on the internet, and just scoop those up and translate them into their assignments without really processing them. So, it’s helpful to notice the pattern of how they participated in the class, and then what’s going on in their assignments.

Some of the engagement in assignments will give you a lot of insight about what could be altered in your course. And also, what’s working in your course. I know one of my approaches in a class was to really zero in on the academic vocabulary. So, as I was teaching the students, I teach music appreciation, so as I’m teaching them the music terms, I’m looking for the way they use those terms in that discussion. And then the feedback I’m giving them is specifically about the kind of way they’re using the terms. How they’re using them in a sentence, what they’re describing in the music, whether it’s true, whether it’s accurate, whether they’re using those terms knowingly or just kind of throwing them all into a sentence together without any examples.

So, as I look at assignments, I also look at those terms and how they’ve engaged with the concepts. Are they able to demonstrate what they know? Are they able to talk about it in an intelligent or informed way? Online student engagement can be demonstrated in a lot of different ways. There are indicators in the quality of their responses, the frequency of their responses, and their access to the course. And, also, the depth of cognitive presence that they’re demonstrating.

Whatever metrics are available for you in your learning management system, I encourage you to take a look at those and to review them and determine which of these metrics helps you to fully understand what students are actually doing in the class, and which seem related to their performance on the actual assignments and in the discussions.

Once you’ve done that, the next place you can look to see after the fact how students have engaged or how they experienced this, is in their end-of-course evaluations. That little bit of data might have some free response answers. I know in my case, I used to use end-of-course survey data to evaluate my own teaching. And sometimes students would give me suggestions about modifying an assignment, or comments about whether or not they liked particular assignments. And I would look at those scores and comments, and then look at my class and find interesting and creative ways to make modifications for future sections.

Over time, that allowed me to create a group project. And as that group project played out, session after session, I would change little things about it based on student feedback, to see them engage even more and engage better and interact with each other better. For example, their end-of-course survey comments prompted me to intentionally design the groups in certain ways.

I would choose to make sure there was someone in the group that knew something about music coming into it, so they could kind of support the others, and that there was a diversity of student voices represented. In my university, there are a lot of military students and not as many civilian students. And so, I would kind of group those accordingly. I would have a little mixture in each group so we had some diversity of thought and diversity of experiences, so they could also learn from each other.

I also tried this with random groupings. And I got a lot of feedback from students about that, too. It seemed like the intentional grouping was the way to go. So, noticing their feedback, and then looking in on how they actually participated in the group project was a really helpful way to modify what I was doing as the faculty member.

In your own work, I encourage you to look at end-of-course survey feedback if you have that available. If you don’t, get those responses and if the institution you work at does survey students, perhaps there’s someone you can ask, maybe an assessment department or a data department that can share it with you. Your end-of-course survey feedback is going to give you a lot of insight into the way students engage and also what they loved and what they learned from, and what they didn’t love and didn’t learn from in your class.

All of these different pieces of data, the logins, the performance on assessments, just the observations in the discussion space, and the way they use terminology, and also your end-of-course surveys, all of these are data points for you as a faculty member, to help you refine your teaching and understand your students even better and connect to them better.

And lastly, I want to just encourage you to add a few metacognitive questions throughout your course that help you gather even more insights from your students. One that I really like to use is just a question of “how does this apply to your life or work right now? How might it apply to your life or work in the future?” It’s a fairly generic question but it can yield a lot of insight where students can find ways to connect with their learning right now with what they’re doing today or will do in the future. That can really help students engage more fully more deeply in the content and find connections to what they want to do or are doing.

Perhaps you have some ideas about ways to enhance student engagement, ways you can look at metrics to see what it is, or ways that you might measure it. I’d love to hear from you. Stop by my website, BethanieHansen.com/request, and let us know what’s working for you, what you’ve tried, what we should add to this list of student engagement information. And I hope that you’ll try something new in terms of looking around and seeing what students are doing, and how they’re interacting. Maybe a new space you haven’t explored like a piece of data, or revisit those end-of-course surveys. Thank you for considering student engagement with me today here on the Online Teaching Lounge. I wish you all the best in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.