What should be included in learner interaction and engagement activities?


Engaging online learners

Research by Johnson (2012) suggests that students are engaged when they show the following behaviors:  paying attention, taking notes, listening, asking questions, responding to questions, reacting, reading critically, creating, planning, problem solving, discussing, debating, asking questions, performing/presenting, inquiring, exploring, explaining, evaluating, experimenting, interacting with other students, gesturing and moving. So the question is, what steps or strategies could instructors adopt to build engaging learning activities in an online course? To answer this question, this knowledge base article offers instructors valuable information, tips, tools, and resources to integrate engaging and aligned activities in their courses.


Align course activities to learning objectives

Let’s look at what we mean by alignment and why it is important.

Alignment is the primary key to a quality online course. Alignment refers to all of the elements in a course working together to support mastery learning objectives. For example, if a learning objective is for students to be able to describe photosynthesis, then the assessment should give the students an opportunity to describe photosynthesis. Instructor may ask a direct question i.e.  Describe the process of photosynthesis. Asking students to list the steps in photosynthesis, or choose one of the steps in photosynthesis from a list of options would create a misalignment between what the objectives say students are expected to do and what they are really doing.

Important elements of alignment                                                 

Learning objectives: Learning objectives are brief, clear, and specific statements of what learners will do at the end of instructional activities.  Generally, they are competency-based because they point out exactly what students need to do to demonstrate mastery of course material with a short time frame (e.g. within a module or unit or \topic.  Learning objectives should be explicitly stated, clear, precise, measurable, and correspond to the course objectives. This is the beginning of creating what is called as ‘alignment’. 

Assessment: After having those learning objectives, next decide how to assess students' mastery of those objectives.  It is natural to want to start designing learning activities, but the activities are intended to support the assessment.  Thus, it is important to decide how to assess the students first. 

Learning activities: After deciding on the assessment, then determine what learning activities students will participate in. Learning activities can be graded or not graded. Learning activities should give students the opportunity to practice mastering the objectives.  The activities should also offer feedback to students so that they can learn how to correct mistakes and improve their skills and/or knowledge comprehension before the assessment. When these learning activities are not aligned to learning objectives or assessments, students may become disengaged or frustrated.

Technology: Technology should never be used for technology’s sake. Instead, technology should be used to further accomplish learning objectives and support the completion of learning activities and assessments. Clear instructions on the technology’s purpose and use are important to include so that students are aware of how the technology applies to learning objectives, activities, and assessments.                

One way to confirm if the course components are aligned or not is to create a concept map that shows connections between the components. Use this curriculum alignment graphic chart to visually demonstrate how course objectives, learning objectives, assessments, learning activities (e.g. interaction/engagement), instructional materials, and technology are aligned.

Source: Kennesaw State University

Provide interaction that supports active learning

Research suggests that active learning improves critical thinking skills (Nelson & Crow, 2014); increases retention and transfer of new information (Kvam, 2000; Prince, 2004); and improves interpersonal skills and motivation (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). To support active learning, instructors should provide opportunities for students to engage with the course content, with the instructor, other students, and course technologies

Active learning strategies

There are four broad categories of learning strategies that instructors might use in an active learning classroom:

  • Individual activities
  • Paired activities
  • Informal small groups
  • Cooperative student projects

Active Learning Continuum below graphically represents the relative complexity of different active learning techniques. It also provides brief descriptions for each of the activities on the continuum.

Source: University of Michigan

Active Learning Continuum below graphically represents the relative complexity of different active learning techniques. It also provides brief descriptions for each of the activities on the continuum.

Source: University of Michigan

Tips And Ideas That Support Active Student Engagement And Learning 

Other Resources 


Engagement with Content

Engagement with the Instructor 

Engagement with other Students 

Engagement with Technology


Video: Using Project Based Learning to Engage Students in Content From Inquire: A Student Handbook for 21st Century Learning (2014) 




Video: Three-minute clip, ‘Interact with Students’ from Penn State University World Campus (2010)  




Article:  Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence — a Practical Experience by Wang (2008)  




Video: Using Technology to Improve Student Engagement and Achievement from Colorado Leeds (2010)    




State instructor's plan on response times for feedback

How quickly should instructors respond to students’ postings, emails, quizzes, and written assignments? 24 hours? 48 hours? 72 hours? One week? Or more?  And what steps could instructor take to plan response times? These are the common questions and dilemmas faced by most instructors. So let’s look at what steps to take to overcome such dilemmas and recognize the need for response times.  

Steps instructors may take to plan response time

  1. Determine a purposeful and realistic response time for answering emails, responding to discussions forums, and other activities that require instructor’s response and feedback.
  2. Tailor the time frame to meet the courses expectations.
  3. Craft grading and response time statements which are clear, concise and fit the length of time needed to give adequate feedback.
  4. Set a time frame that can be realistically met.

Example statements of instructor’s response time

Each week students can expect me to:

  • Respond to questions sent via email or in LMS within 24 hours. However, if students do not hear from me within 24 hours, please contact me again to be sure I’m aware of the initial request sent.
  • Provide feedback on assignments that were submitted on time within 48 hours of submission. If students have questions about the feedback provided, send email to me. I’ll respond within 24 hours.

Why have a response- feedback time?

By establishing realistic response times, instructor helps to:

  • Lower students’ anxiety, which can promote engagement and retention in the course.
  • Lower the number of emails received from students asking when grades and feedback will be available.

Example statement of response times for grading assignments and assessments:

  • Quizzes and Tests: Students can expect immediate feedback on all online quizzes and tests administered in the LMS. For quizzes and tests that have short answer questions, students can expect feedback no later than 5 days after the closing date.
  • Essays: Detailed and thorough comments will be provided on the essays. Students can expect their essays to be returned within 7 days of their due date.
  • Discussion Board: Grades will be posted for discussion board assignments no later than 5 days after the due date of the discussion board assignment.

State expectations for learners

Instructor should clearly state their expectations regarding students’ participation and interactions, including frequency, length, and timeliness. Interactions can include expectations for accepted behavior in online discussions, assignment guidelines, course policies and procedures, guidelines for collaborative meetings, guidelines on group projects. Stating these expectations will help students plan and manage their time in advance.  

Example of statements articulating expectations from learners

  • Students are required to respond to my initial question or comments by Tuesday at 11:00 pm each week and post a reply to at least 2 peer’s responses by Thursday at 9:00 pm.
  • Discussion questions and participation will be graded using the following ‘XYZ’criteria (mention the criteria or attach the evaluation rubric. ( Sample discussion forum rubric)
  • Assignments are due Friday, April 29 by 9:00 pm, unless otherwise noted.
  • Check the grammar, sentence fragments, and spelling errors for any written assignments.
  • Students should not engage in what might be perceived as personal challenges or disparaging remarks to other students. Inflamed, personal rhetoric is not acceptable
  • Read and/or print the syllabus and checklists to become familiar with their contents.

Essentially, inform students of the activity, clearly state the activity instructions i.e. when it is due, number of posts required, expectations of the quality of the post, and expectations of responses.

Tools and Resources