Online Learning

Six Secrets to Creating Online Learning Experiences that Promote Engagement and Retention

Posted in Blog on 30 September 2015

So you want to teach online? There are some key points you should consider to have a sound instructional design for student engagement and retention.

The quality of online courses can be quite disparate. We want to share with you some of the common strategies and best practices to consider when developing online, student-centered courses. Using these practices can help develop confidence, comfort, and experience in teaching online.

In the last ten years, the number of higher education students who participate in online learning in the United States has grown dramatically and there are no signs that growth in online learning is slowing down (Allen & Seaman, 2011, 2012, 2013). In fact, 65% of all higher education institutions report online learning is critical to their long-term strategy (Allen & Seaman, 2012).

Scientists at the University of Illinois created the first virtual classroom in the 1960s, and today, 46% of college students take at least one class online.

So why are students turning to online courses? Convenience, learning styles, access to higher standards and faculty (depending on where they are located), and accessibility are some of the reasons why online learning is growing exponentially.

This raises the question about course integrity and retention. There are some common strategies and best practices shared in literature and across institutions that deepen learning and create engaging experiences.

Let’s look at what they are.

1.Create Community and Promote the exchange of ideas and information

Online students need to feel that they are part of a community, their contributions to the course are acknowledged and incorporated, and their participation and insights are valued. A sense of class community requires student accountability in response to their peers and the instructor. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, including the use of synchronous software solutions that allow chat and video, allowing students to personalize the interaction in the course. Because the format necessitates inherent geographical distance, it is important for instructors to design, require, and facilitate student participation using a variety of tools and strategies (Stear & Mensch, 2012). Essay peer reviews, small-group work, discussion forums, teacher videos, student polls, an overall open learning environment that encourages respect and trust to foster dialogue and collaboration are all great opportunities for expanding community. Also consider the balance of interaction of student-to-student, student-to-faculty, and student-to-content.

Here are three ideas that you can use to encourage student-to-student engagement.

  • Post personal introductions… yours and the students. Create some categories to share information on (some can be serious and some can be fun!). Highlight your philosophies and personality!
  • Encourage use of student forums and discussion boards
  • Set up peer tutoring groups

2. Clear course expectations and objectives

The syllabus should include course objectives and learning outcomes; assignments and evaluation methods, including student participation requirements or expectations; textbook information; responsibilities of faculty and students; a detailed class schedule that outlines estimated time to complete tasks/assignments; grading criteria, rubrics, and other related policies and course requirements. It should also include instructor contact information and availability, course communication instructions and guidelines (i.e., instructor contact information), and set appropriate standards for instructor responsiveness and availability (e.g., response time, assignment feedback). Make this information clear, easy to find, and as consistent as possible across programs of study.

3. Identify and employ the best online tools for interaction

Activities for participation are tantamount to achieve learning outcomes. Guided tasks, interactive videos, learning objects that promote authentic learning and real-world scenarios, and discussion forums increase engagement and deepen students’ sense of community and real-world application. Instructors could consider virtual meeting times using Skype or similar software programs. Faculty can also leverage these tools to post commonly asked questions that are student generated and answered. Use both synchronous and asynchronous activities. Sometimes there is nothing more effective than a real-time, collaborative experience. These synchronous events can also be recorded and become additional opportunities for reinforcement of learning. The more variety of activities make it possible to appeal to all learning styles. Balance real-time sessions with effective, asynchronous content and learners will enjoy the course that much more.

4. Provide timely and relevant feedback

Feedback on student work should be constructive and individualized, indicating concrete steps that students can take to improve their knowledge and skills going forward. It should contain an appropriate balance of positive feedback and thorough explanation and concrete examples of how the student can improve it, and describe what steps the student can take to complete future assignments successfully. Rubrics should be used for all writing assignments so students clearly understand the expectations prior to starting the assignment. Students should receive feedback on an assignment with enough time to apply it to the next one. Bottom-line here: be present, be timely, and be constructive.

5. Create a student-centered and constructivist learning environment

A key element is flexibility and an understanding of who your audience is. The majority of students that gravitate towards online courses have varying work, school, and life schedules. They turned to an online format for the flexibility and are managing many things to complete their degree. Be careful how many constraints and face-to-face requirements you put on them. As more adult learners re-enter college, this becomes key for retention and a positive experience. Faculty should be as ‘hands-on’ as possible; reaching out to students, creating authentic assessments, and interacting with students to better understand their needs to facilitate successful outcomes that can be replicated. Students want content to mirror current events as much as possible; they seek relevancy and immediate connections to real-life. The good news is when students research and use technology as a learning tool, retention seems to increase. Encourage digital literacy as there are a lot of great simulations, tutorials, and resources out there.

6. Ask For Feedback

Novel idea right? Why not ask students “how is the course going?” Don’t wait for the end of the course to do this. Do it early enough that you can make adjustments as needed. Send a survey, provide a discussion prompt, or take this opportunity to reach out to each student individually. Remember, this is about the student’s experience, increasing retention and satisfaction. Course evaluations, at the end of the course, will be more meaningful if you took steps on the front-end to elicit feedback. And by all means, if you receive feedback that necessitates a change in your teaching style or content, be sure to act on it.


Research to identify online learning course development best practices will continue to evolve as the populations of degree seeking students change. Military, adult learners, and learning disabled students bring about their own set of unique needs. What is apparent, is that the desire for online learning is increasing and there is a wealth of information out there to help faculty have successful outcomes…for students, faculty and the institutions alike.


Sources for information on best practices:

  • Distance Learning Manual, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
  • Quality Matters Peer Course Review Rubric, Maryland Online
  • ADEC Guiding Principles for Distance Teaching and Learning, The American Distance Education Consortium



Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2011). Going the distance: Online education in the United States, 2011. Retrieved from ex.asp

Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2012). Changing course: Ten years of tracking online education in the United States, 2012. Retrieved from index.asp

Stear, S., & Mensch, S. (2012). Online learning tools for distant education. Global Education Journal, 2012(3), 57-64.

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