15 min

Student engagement during distance learning

Nataly Bogorad
June 11, 2021
It happens to every teacher eventually. You're in front of a class presenting a lesson when you look around the room and realize that practically none of your students are listening. Some are staring out the windows, some are doodling in their notebooks, while others have whispered conversations.
Student engagement is a challenge for any classroom. This challenge is exacerbated in the virtual classroom. Learning from home presents exponentially more distractions than learning in the traditional classroom. The recent increase in distance learning due to the pandemic has made engagement strategies more important than ever.
Knowing how to engage students is a necessary and invaluable skill for every teacher in 2021. For a list of engagement ideas and techniques, read on.

How to engage students with a student-centered virtual classroom

For any teacher wondering how to keep students engaged, the key is to create a student-centered classroom, whether virtual or traditional. Here are some ways to ensure that your classroom is geared toward student involvement.

Engage with student interests

The easiest way to increase student interest is to connect lessons to something that already attracts their interest. While you can't gear every lesson to tie in with Fortnite, you can still find activities and assignments that reference or involve student's interests outside the classroom.
Students can be encouraged to use math concepts to calculate their statistics in sports or video games. They can write essays about social media figures they follow. They can create TikTok videos offering quick visually-oriented summaries of concepts from their coursework.
Find ways to incorporate the topics, activities, and technology students gravitate toward when they are left to their own devices. Using these elements in learning opportunities is a sure-fire way to keep students interested in the topic at hand.

Have students present their work

The most effective way to put students to sleep is to rely on long blocks of lecture followed by isolated, individual written work. It is essential to hand over the spotlight to students as much as possible during the class period.
Giving students the chance to present their work to the class serves several functions. First, it provides a built-in accountability element for the assignment. When students know they will be expected to share their work with the class, they are more likely to stay on task until the project is completed in an acceptable form.
Second, this technique keeps the focus from lingering on the teacher presenting information for extended periods. Changing presenters regularly helps keep students engaged for more extended periods.

Give students a say

Providing some input on activities, assignments, and even subject matter is an excellent way to make students feel invested in the classroom. This technique works best when you present students with a few options and decide as a group they want to pursue.
Students can decide whether they will work individually or in groups; they can choose an option among a list of writing topics; they can determine whether they will produce a written essay, a video project, or an in-class presentation.
The key here is to give students a sense of control over their classroom experience while maintaining authority and keeping the class on-topic and productive.

Learn to "read the room"

One skill that serves every teacher well is scanning the room (or screen) and picking up on body language cues that students are confused or having trouble following the concepts being presented.
Certain facial expressions and postures make it evident that a student feels lost. These become easier to pick up on with experience in the classroom. In the meantime, a good practice is to "check in" with students regularly. Stop and make sure everyone is following. Ask whether you need to slow down or go back over any concepts you have covered so far.
While some students may be reluctant to ask a question or request clarification at the moment, if you stop and offer a chance to do so, they may feel more comfortable making such requests.

How to engage students through virtual classroom style

Another aspect of the virtual classroom to consider in terms of student engagement is classroom style. A traditional lecture-and-worksheet approach to the classroom can be ineffective even in brick-and-mortar schools; it is sure to fall flat in a virtual environment.
Instead, you want to find ways to make your virtual classroom dynamic to keep your students focused and attentive.

Use group work and collaboration

It is a good idea to break students into groups to work through concepts and material as much as possible. The shift to a virtual classroom can present challenges on this front. Still, most distance learning software offers some form of a chat room or video conferencing tool designed to facilitate group work.
Students benefit when they receive material from multiple voices, engage in discussion and constructive arguments on academic topics with their peers and have the opportunity to present and defend their ideas in group settings.
Exposure to multiple points of view, not just that of the teacher, is also beneficial to deepening students' understanding of a topic. Setting up a classroom style that emphasizes collaborative work enhances students' experience of the material and keeps them involved.

Break assignments into "checkpoints"

A long list of instructions for an assignment can seem intimidating and confusing for students. An excellent way to avoid this confusion is to break a project down into smaller, achievable pieces.
Creating "checkpoints" composed of specific milestones embedded in an assignment offers three benefits.
First, it makes the assignment instructions easier to follow.
Second, it provides natural points for students to touch base with the teacher to ensure they are on the right track.
Finally, it keeps students engaged with shorter blocks of work instead of one large assignment that might cause their eyes to glaze over.

Create a multimedia classroom

One advantage of virtual learning is that it makes it easy to incorporate various media into your lessons. Since students have different learning styles - visual, audio, hands-on - using multiple forms of media helps to engage all types of learners.
Instead of relying solely on lectures, try to use videos to illustrate concepts. Incorporate audio recordings and music where appropriate. Encourage students to create graphs and charts to illustrate the concepts they are learning.
Various forms of media can be used for assignments as well as presenting the information. Have students create videos, podcasts, and interactive web pages based on course material.

Laugh a little

One element that many teachers neglect to incorporate in their classrooms is humor. Students respond to things they find funny, and they tend to remember them. Teachers shouldn't aim to be stand-up comedians, but presenting information in a form that elicits laughter can help keep students engaged.
Being open to humor in the classroom also makes it possible for students to relate to their teacher. It can also serve to dissipate tension, a valuable function in a pandemic-era world.

Make your classroom a hands-on learning experience

The passive engagement strategy that focuses on students passively receiving information in the form of lectures has fallen out of favor with good reason. In contrast, the most effective teaching styles encourage hands-on involvement on the part of students.
Find ways to incorporate experiences in your lesson plans, not just information. This approach will cater to students with a hands-on learning style and will keep students engaged.
The virtual classroom may present some challenges in this area – you can't exactly take your class on a field trip or even outside to observe nature – it also opens up opportunities for virtual experiences.

Classroom techniques for engaging students

Once you have created a student-oriented, hands-on classroom, some further techniques will help you keep your students engaged and enhance their learning experience in a virtual classroom.

Mix it up

One useful pedagogical technique is to avoid repeating the same class activity structure from one day to the next. When a class falls into a rut of performing the same activities in the same order day after day, students quickly become bored and drift off mentally.
Instead, find ways to shake things up. Incorporate different ways of conveying materials each day. Change up the kinds of assignments you hand out. Vary the order in which you conduct classroom activities.
While students need a certain sense of stability and structure, keeping them on their toes by regularly changing up the contents of your lesson plans and classroom activities can, in theory, keep them engaged.

Try to "gamify" lessons

Students tend to love games. They're fun, and they can create friendly competition. There's a reason video games and gaming apps are so popular among this demographic.
Finding ways to turn course material into a competition or gaming experience is a certain way to keep students engaged. Be careful to keep the competition friendly, though. Make sure the stakes are low, and the emphasis is on having fun, not winning.
Divide students into groups or allow them to compete individually. Again, don't create the same kinds of games over and over again - mix things up to keep it interesting.

Use thought-provoking writing assignments

Writing assignments aren't just for English class. Writing can be incorporated into every discipline, even math. Have students express their ideas and observations or work through the more complicated aspects of a concept in writing.
Carefully tailored writing assignments can avoid the trap of being tedious and boring. Encourage students to write in ways that engage their creativity, opinions, and experiences. When students connect a lesson to themselves in writing, they are more likely to retain the information and remain engaged.

Fill dead time

Dead time is the mortal enemy of every teacher looking to keep students engaged. Once a student drifts off mentally during a dead spot in class, it is challenging to get that student's attention back.
This is a perfect time to use those thought-provoking writing assignments from the previous technique. When you are busy with one-on-one interactions, give the rest of the class a writing task. You can also provide a multimedia assignment, like a video to watch or a podcast clip to listen to, while you work with students individually.
One way or another, it is essential to fill the dead time, so you don't lose your students' focus for good.

Ask good questions

Asking the right kind of questions is vital for creating productive classroom discussions. Open-ended questions are best. Instead of seeking a yes or no or a specific answer, pose inquiries that encourage your students to think deeply about a topic.

Provide students with time to contemplate

Once you've posed those open-ended questions, it is essential to give students time to ponder before producing an answer. To avoid the dreaded dead time, you can have students journal their thoughts, in writing or through multimedia, for a few minutes, then start the classroom discussion once students have had a chance to think through and refine their responses.

Connect class material to the real world

One of the most effective ways to keep students engaged in the topic at hand is to connect that topic to the real world. Instead of presenting disembodied facts and statistics, explain how that information affects students' everyday lives.
Find connections to current events and trends. Encourage students to identify relevance in television, music, video games, and other media they consume. The more relevant students find the course material, the more engaged they will be, and the better they will retain the information.


Student engagement in a virtual classroom can be challenging. Keeping students focused and on-task is often a struggle in a traditional classroom, much less in distance learning.
By creating a student-centered virtual classroom, gearing your classroom style toward student engagement, and following some techniques designed to keep your students interested in the course material, you can overcome the challenges of distance learning student engagement. Your classes will run much more smoothly, and, most importantly, your students will learn more effectively.