Advice from students on creating engaging virtual classrooms

While educators have had time to develop new strategies, many are still struggling to replicate the familiar physical classroom engagement. We spoke with a small pool of students in different areas of study from schools across Canada to hear how some professors have successfully kept them engaged, as well as what isn’t working for them. Keep reading to hear what they had to say.
February 24, 2021
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For nearly a year now, educators around the world have had to adapt their usual routines to accommodate for virtual learning, with one of the biggest struggles being keeping students engaged in a virtual format. In July of 2020, TopHat conducted a survey on faculty preparedness which found that 58% of educators were concerned about their ability to create engaging learning experiences for their students. 

While educators have had time to develop new strategies, many are still struggling to replicate the familiar physical classroom engagement. We spoke with a small pool of students in different areas of study from schools across Canada to hear how some professors have successfully kept them engaged, as well as what isn’t working for them. Keep reading to hear what they had to say.

Students on “the do’s” of virtual classes

We asked students: "What makes virtual courses feel more engaging for you?"

“It’s engaging when the whole class is live with cameras on. In my program, which is a smaller cohort, [the school] revised the schedule to have morning and end of day check-ins which helped keep people on track and made us more accountable. The teachers have all been very supportive and are all open to helping students outside of class time and they’re always reminding students of this. Also, [professors] have been more understanding of excuses and in their critiques of assignments.”- Emma, 4th Year Design and Visual Communication Student, Capilano University

“Engaging classes put strategies in place to be fair with grading, due to the online format. It’s also helpful when there are Q&A sessions at the end of classes for additional support. We had a midterm where the entire class didn’t do well, and the professor created a separate meeting on his own time to go through the questions. I think offering this support is very important. Receiving email updates and reminders from professors throughout the week also helps me feel more connected and mindful of deadlines.” - George, 4th Year Business Administration Student, Wilfrid Laurier University

“I find myself more engaged in classes that are synchronous. I enjoyed one class’s structure where we worked in pre-assigned teams every class. In these teams we would have activities and discussions to do during the class together. Class material like readings were meant to be done outside of class and class time was used for discussion and activities either with the class or in our teams.” - Vivian, 3rd Year Business Administration Student, Simon Fraser University

Students on “the don’ts” of virtual classes

We asked students: "What makes some classes less engaging for you?"

“Pre-recorded courses are less engaging, and when there aren’t live sessions at all, it can be hard to feel engaged. It’s usually harder to get in touch with a TA or professor for help in less engaging courses. Some professors will upload hours worth of Youtube videos and only show up for one live session every week, leading to nobody showing up to the live session. Also, some professors seem to be assigning more work than should be required, maybe because they believe students have more time at home.” - Dawson, 4th Year Computer Science Student, Simon Fraser University

“I appreciate when lecturers offer blended classes with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous options. Having some recorded lectures is useful because I can rewatch the lectures. One thing I’ve noticed is the longer online learning drags on, the more work we are being assigned. I think maybe this is because a lot of lecturers are trying new things and students are getting work that isn’t directly useful to our learning as a result, only adding to our workload.” - Gerrard, 3rd Year Psychology Student, University of Lethbridge

“In our university, the length of our classes has changed. Normally classes are three hours but now our classes are an hour and a half. The hour and a half is with a teacher and the other hour and a half we previously had is done by ourselves, meant for watching recorded lectures or doing assignments. This means less time with teachers and we are spending more time on our own. It’s hard to be motivated because it feels like we have less to do but we actually have the same amount of work, just with less supervision. We have less opportunities to ask teachers questions as a result so this has impacted our learning a bit.” - Gabriel, 1st Year English and Intercultural Studies Student, Université de Sherbrooke

Student engagement key findings

Trends across interviews regarding what has helped students feel more engaged strongly relate to feeling sufficiently supported and having a sense of community within the class.

  • Provide strong support.
    Students strongly appreciated when educators were empathetic to their virtual learning struggles and made time to go over difficult material. Pausing between material to ask whether there are any questions can help encourage students to seek the extra support they need.

  • Create a community.
    Being stuck at home, many students desire for more interaction. While there are privacy concerns surrounding having a “cameras on” class, there are alternatives for creating similar interactions, such as including small group activities where students may not need cameras on but must verbally communicate still. Another option is encouraging the use of discussion boards to have students introduce themselves, or taking the first few minutes of each class for students to answer a non-class related prompt, such as their ideal travel location.

With many schools still evaluating the global environment before deciding when in-person learning will return, educators continue to adjust to help support students through these unprecedented times. While many eagerly await the return to in-person learning, creating an engaging virtual experience can help students stay focused and create a sense of connection even from a distance. We hope hearing directly from the students above help give you an idea of what students want and need to inform your own classrooms!  


If you would like to explore other classroom engagement options, such as introducing company engagement with in class projects, learn more about connecting your students with real businesses on our website. Stay connected with Riipen through our Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook.

About the author:

Aaron Chang is a Marketing Intern at Riipen, as well as a fourth-year Business student at Simon Fraser University. He is passionate about spreading positivity and creating connections with others. When he has the time, he loves writing short stories, binging anime, and having a little too much chocolate.

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