Expert Tips for Improving Remote Classroom Engagement


With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to transform how college educators teach and students learn, distance learning is becoming a new normal. Many instructors have eased this transformation with “flipped” or “asynchronous” courses, in which they behave more as coaches than instructors. Using this approach, a professor may record an hour-long lecture for her students to watch at home, then make herself available during certain times of the week to answer questions and offer additional instruction.

While flipped courses can be a great way for students to learn remotely, they can also hinder student engagement if they lack the right incentives, according to Professor Chandralekha Singh, director of the Science Education Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Last year, the education news site Inside Higher Education performed hour-long interviews with 37 science majors who received remote instruction at the University of Pittsburgh. The interviews found that students enrolled in flipped courses stopped performing weekly activities early in the semester if they were not offered incentives for completing the work or if their instructors posted solutions to the course site after class. Rather, they crammed the video lectures and related materials right before test days.

“In general, these students were very dissatisfied with their learning in the asynchronous course,” Singh wrote in Inside Higher Education. “The dissatisfaction did not stem from lack of effort on the part of the instructors, who in good faith spent a tremendous amount of time and effort to make customized flipped videos for their course. Rather, it resulted from the structure of the course, which was not conducive to effective instruction.”

According to Singh, instructors should incentivize students to stay engaged by including assignments or other graded activities with lower point values throughout the course. This structure is more likely to keep students engaged throughout the semester as opposed to basing their grades solely on final exams or midterm papers.

“Such incentives are vital for ensuring that instructors’ efforts in remote instruction bear fruit and students learn and benefit from engaging with course materials throughout the term,” she wrote.

How Three Simple Rules Can Increase Remote Classroom Engagement

While grade incentives are important, instructors will need to do a lot more to keep students engaged. According to J. Mark McFadden, an English and public speaking instructor at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut, there are three techniques educators can adopt to make distance learning a success:

1) Institute a student code of “netiquette”:
Make students aware that there are certain rules of etiquette they need to follow in remote classrooms, just as they would in a physical classroom. Such rules can include logging into class early, no multitasking, and encouraging students to work in a private area of their homes that will be free of disruptions when possible.

2) Reduce in-class screen time with show-and-tell projects:
A major downside of distance learning is that it forces students to spend much of their time behind a screen, which can increase their stress levels. To help them reduce screen time, consider including fun activities. For example, you could have students  spend around ten minutes looking for something in their workspace that has “high emotional value” for them. Instead of a usual show-and-tell type activity, ask that the object relate to a reading assignment for the course. For STEM courses, the item could be an innovation they created or something that helps solve a problem. Require students to write a short essay about the object and share it with the class. This show-and-tell portion of the project will give students a fun opportunity to learn more about one another.

3) Mix up your breakout rooms:
When students are allowed to choose their own breakout rooms, they often end up among friends. However, this often turns breakout sessions into echo chambers of like-minded students. To make breakout rooms more interesting, mix up your breakout rooms with students who have different types of knowledge, skills, and interests. What you task the breakout rooms with accomplishing is also important. For example, McFadden writes that STEM instructors can task students with “solving one or two habitually challenging problems.”

Distance learning poses numerous challenges to students and instructors alike. By taking the right steps to keep their students engaged, instructors can create successful remote learning environments that aid their students’ success.

Free On-Demand Events to Help You Transition to Distance Learning

Check out these informative webinars to learn how to better manage the transition to online learning and e-curriculums. Guest speakers include professors, university librarians, and publishers, who provide tips on how to engage with students in these unusual circumstances. Explore now!

Effective Remote Instruction: Reimagining the Engineering Student Experience:

University faculty and department leaders from around the world were invited to this free virtual conference at the end of July 2020 to learn best practices for remote instruction, share their experiences, and network virtually. Watch the recorded sessions on demand. Taught by experienced university engineering educators and researchers, session topics included hosting effective labs online, managing remote student teams, and self-assessing your remote teaching methods.

Following the successful completion of an event assessment, attendees are eligible to earn an IEEE digital certificate (including CEU and PDH credits). If you successfully complete all five assessments, you qualify to earn a digital badge!

Watch now!


Singh, Chandralekha. (20 January 2021). Why Flipped Classes Often Flop. Inside Higher Education. 

McFadden, J. Mark. (2020 November 2020). 3 More Tips for Teaching in a Virtual Classroom. Inside Higher Ed.

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