The fall 2020 semester was a learning experience for educators worldwide. With the COVID-19 pandemic moving face-to-face classes online, student enrollment took a hit. But as found in Top Hat’s survey of over 3,400 students in higher education, community building and active learning practices play an essential role in student retention.1 Since learning no longer takes place in a physical classroom, the need to increase student engagement through active learning is of utmost importance in online course delivery. Here are our top tips for ensuring students don’t check out of your synchronous class in the winter term.

Top Hat’s 2021 Online Teaching Toolkit gives you all the tools you need to build a virtual learning community. Get free access today.

Three ways to keep students motivated from a distance

1. Arrive to your real-time online class 10 minutes early

Consider joining your synchronous online class 10 minutes before it starts so students can get to know you informally. In a study2 of a large undergraduate biology course in a traditional classroom environment, learning names made students feel more valued and comfortable seeking help from their professor. Make community building a pillar of your online classroom by actively getting to know the names and unique backgrounds of students, which you can do by showing up early—and letting them know you’ll be there—on a consistent basis.

2. Explain that online student engagement goes beyond webcam use

The importance of flexibility in online course delivery cannot be overstated. As per Karen Costa, Faculty Development Facilitator at Lumen Learning and founder of 100 Faculty: do not force solutions upon students, but rather, let students explore their options on their own. Put simply, online learners should be able to decide whether they want to have their webcam on or not. Allowing students to have their webcams off, or permitting virtual backdrops while using video conferencing software, shows empathy and concern for students’ non-academic lives. Plus, it can help combat Zoom fatigue after a full day of online learning.

3. Humanize online learning with asynchronous pedagogy

Humanizing learning, as Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Faculty Mentor, Online Teaching and Learning at the California Community College system, puts it, is where instructors increase the relevance of coursework that motivates students to attend class week over week. Humanizing the classroom may also increase online student engagement and retention rates.

To do this, consider incorporating some asynchronous e-learning elements that students can view on their own. Share a lively welcome video at the start of the week or make a course announcement in your learning management system (LMS) prior to the first day of online class. Your announcement might discuss your background, your availability to meet via office hours and how students can contact you. You may also want to share a fun fact or two about yourself and a call to action for students before the live class starts—like asking them to come prepared with a fact about themselves or one thing they want to get out of your class.

Three ways to be a community manager in your virtual classroom

1. Icebreakers can improve online student engagement

With distance learning, students can’t sit in groups and get to know one another in common areas on campus. Icebreaker activities not only allow you to learn about student histories and interests, they can help facilitate peer-to-peer interactions. Icebreakers such as ‘collaborative resume,’ where groups of 4–6 record their educational backgrounds, hobbies, knowledge about course content and more, help students get to know one another informally through discussion forums. Once students form allies in their classes, they may be more confident engaging with course material and more open to the idea of synchronous teaching and learning.

2. Use breakout rooms for case studies and group projects

Discussion boards and timely case study exercises will help create online student engagement in your synchronous class. As Joshua Eyler, Director of Faculty Development at the University of Mississippi, notes, breakout rooms can be a more effective alternative to managing group discussions with 100+ students. Break students into small groups with the understanding that they will need to report back shortly after. Student responses can be shared synchronously via instant messaging or asynchronously via a discussion forum or your class’s social media hashtag. Enabling students to communicate among themselves and receive immediate feedback from their peers will strengthen relationship building and allow for student interaction.

3. There is no such thing as too much discussion in remote learning environments

When it comes to interspersing opportunities for retrieval practice in your live class, don’t hesitate. Mix class time with lecture blocks and check-in questions for students to apply what they have learned—which may additionally expose gaps in their learning. Facilitating discussion questions part way through class also makes it difficult for students to tune out, and instead strengthens the need to be present in order to participate in your polls and discussions. Ensure you anonymize poll responses—a function offered by Top Hat—so that all students feel comfortable participating in front of their peers while in a live class.


  1. Top Hat (2020). Top Hat Field Report: Higher Ed Students Grade the Fall 2020 Semester.
  2. Cooper, K. M. et al. (2017). What’s in a name? The importance of students perceiving that an instructor knows their names in a high-enrollment biology classroom. Life Sciences Education, 16(1).

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