How Do I Keep My Students Engaged in Large Online Courses?


Picture of students in large classroom

We know that any interaction or experience we can create in the classroom—regardless of course size or modality—that prompts students to construct knowledge, make connections, and work together makes learning meaningful and engaging (Bonwell & Eison, 199; Bransford et al., 1999). Large online classes pose an interesting challenge to engagement. We consider a class with more than 60 students a large course, but with any size, it’s important to think about how you can make your class “feel smaller.” If you use some of the strategies and examples below in your course, consider including them as part of students’ participation grade to increase their motivation to stay engaged.


Check In with Your Students 

Get to Know Your Students. You can cultivate a sense of belonging among your students, even in large courses. One way you can learn more about your students is asking them to complete an interest inventory at the beginning of the semester using the survey tool in Moodle or Blackboard. In the inventory, you can ask students questions about how they learn best, their prior knowledge on your course content, or what their individual goals are for the course (e.g., one thing they would like to learn or one skill they would like to develop by the end of the course). Think about how you can incorporate this information into your lectures or discussions. For example, you could put your students’ course goals in a word cloud or bar chart and share at the beginning of the semester, talk about how the course will help them achieve these goals, then return to the image mid-semester and at the end so students can see how invested you are in helping them achieve their goals.

Take the Temperature. If you are holding synchronous sessions, consider opening or closing the meeting by asking students to share how their week has been in the chat. Alternatively, ask them to share a high and a low from the course readings or activities so you get a sense of where they are in the moment. If holding asynchronous sessions, you can implement similar approaches in a discussion board forum or Zoom drop-in office hours.

Ask for Feedback. Check in with your students and ask how the course is going, if they feel engaged, or what changes they might suggest to increase engagement. You can do this by creating your own anonymous survey that you ask students to complete. You can consult with the CTL on how to develop your own survey by emailing You could also request a Midterm Assessment Process (MAP) from the Center for Teaching & Learning.

Build in Interactions

Check What They Know. If holding synchronous sessions, consider using Zoom polling or iClicker cloud to prompt students’ concept retrieval. If you’re conducting class asynchronously with recorded lectures or videos, consider making those lectures interactive and posing questions by using HP5 in Moodle

Group Discussions. Students are placed in small groups and given a specific topic, task, or question to work on, sharing different perspectives. Students can collaboratively write a summary synchronously or asynchronously, or an assigned group leader can post the summary for the larger class, and the rest of the class and instructor respond throughout the week. 

Collaborative Concept Mapping/Diagramming. In small groups, students collaboratively creative visuals that show the relationship between different concepts (concept map) or depict a structure or process (diagram). Students share a summary that justifies the connections or processes they perceive. Concept maps or diagrams can be worked on synchronously or asynchronously. 

Bring in the Real World

Social Scavenger Hunt. Students find real-life examples of particular concepts covered in class (images, videos, articles) and share them in a Moodle or Blackboard discussion board or another platform. In their post, they must explain why the example reflects the concept. 

Problem-Solving Activities. In small groups, students can engage in a sequential group problem-solving exercise in a discussion board, starting with an instructor-initiated problem in which students work together to solve by building and improving on previous posts. Alternatively, in small groups students could be given a problem and list of principles used to solve problems in your field. Students then assess and defend what principle to apply in order to solve the problem.

Case Studies. In small groups, ask students to examine a real-life situation that reflects the concepts you’re teaching and its context in depth and produce a summary that determines the key factors that contributed to the outcome. Alternatively, you can ask students to write their own case studies and facilitate the discussion in their small groups. Case studies can be worked on synchronously in breakout rooms or asynchronously in discussion boards or Google Docs. The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science has an extensive collection of case studies in various STEM disciplines, as well as business, economics, education, linguistics, journalism, nursing, and sociology.

You Can’t Spell Team without (Your) TA

Involve TAs in Class Engagement. While TAs provide tremendous assistance with grading, they can also creatively facilitate some of the small group engagement activities described above by joining breakout rooms or monitoring discussion boards, creating FAQ boards or pages, or providing audio or video feedback on student work.

Create a TA Backchannel. If holding synchronous sessions, have your TA monitor the chat function on Zoom (a type of backchannel) by answering any student questions or addressing their comments. By doing so, you’re encouraging interaction during your meetings without having to multitask. For asynchronous courses, you can consider having a more informal communication channel (beyond discussion boards) that your TAs could monitor and help to foster dialogue and community. 

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at 

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Bonwell, C. C., and Eison, J.A. (1991). Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom. ASH#-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1, Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (Eds.) (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

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