By James Steur, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Since the spread of COVID-19, many universities recognize that online teaching is here to stay. However, the online teaching environment poses its own set of unique challenges around the instructor’s teaching presence and keeping students motivated. The session, “Online Courses & Student Engagement,” represented a wide variety of backgrounds from community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and research universities to discuss challenges around online student engagement. In the end, this session offered three practical tips and considerations that instructors from all backgrounds should consider to maximize learning in the classroom.

1). Consider Your Students’ Backgrounds
Recognize the demographics of students at your university. In particular, adult students who are in mid-life may be juggling a variety of commitments such as raising a family, health problems, and other concerns that younger adult students may not face at the same frequency. Understanding your students’ backgrounds and who they are as learners is critical to keeping their engagement in an online course. Importantly, recognize your own perspective and background. Below are some questions you can ask yourself or your students as you consider online student engagement:

  • What assessments and activities can I include that matter in my students’ day-to-day lives? (For instance, if you’re teaching a political communication class, you could include a unit and assessments around political ads.)
  • What skills or knowledge do my students want to know at the end of the course?
  • What content excites my students?
  • What content do my students dislike?
  • What assumptions and background do I bring as a student/instructor to the classroom?

2). Cultivate an Online Learning Community
Often, online courses tend to cultivate environments that focus on lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy around memorization and explaining basic concepts. This focus on memorization and explaining concepts is important: students should understand concepts like political parties before critiquing them. In order to reach higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, however, students should be discussing the material with each other to produce original work around the topic. To cultivate a learning community, you might start a Slack or Discord channel with threads related to the course along with personal ones. A thread with people’s favorite music or food can help cultivate a community on top-of the course content. Other strategies would include working in online discussion groups over the course of the semester, online group presentations, and renaming “office hours” to something more exciting to maintain student engagement.

3). Create Clear Guidelines Around Participation & Discussion
Politics often involves conflict and heated discussions. Despite the conventional wisdom that you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion, it would be challenging to avoid politics in a political science course. In online courses, include clear guidelines and specific information about how you want students to engage with one another. For example, you may include examples of conversations from past courses that highlight respectful conversation vs. an intellectual beatdown. And, have clear procedures that outline how to manage conflict in the classroom. In my own teaching, I offer a distinction between an argument and discourse for my students. Arguments are about winning and showing you’re right; discourse is having a conversation to further knowledge in a mutually reinforcing environment that helps individuals learn. In the end, be clear about your guidelines for students from the start–don’t wait until a challenging conversation happens to set forth clear guidelines.

Ultimately, regardless of your teaching modality, a commitment to students’ well-being is at the heart of excellent teaching. Your commitment to care and asking questions about your pedagogy in both online and in-person classrooms are what push us to be better instructors for ourselves and our students.

About the Author

James Steur is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  His research  interests include  political psychology, political behavior, and the role of emotions in citizen  decision-making.  He is a first-generation student, passionate coffee drinker, and excited to be blogging (for a third time!) at MPSA. You can find  James on  Twitter at@JamesSteur