Best Practices for Engaging Learners in Large Online Classrooms
person smiling in front of computer

We all know online learning is about a lot more than uploading a pre-recorded lecture. It’s about student engagement and community. Last week I shared the best tech tools for managing your large online classroom. This week I wanted to share best practices for keeping your students engaged. After seven years of teaching groups of over 150 students in an online environment, here are the practices I lean on daily in my virtual classroom. 

  1. The Power of a Name

This is one of the simplest tools to engage learners, and one that has become a critical part of my teaching strategy. Calling a student by name will automatically activate their engagement and also put all the other students on alert. The power of a name cannot be understated in its ability to create overall classroom engagement. 

  1. Teach to One Person

It is impossible to be able to teach to over 150 students at one time in an online class, so take it down to an individual person. Try focusing on only one student’s square and their facial expressions and reactions to your teaching material. You can then use this as a way to check for engagement and make sure your teaching is effective. 

  1. Timebox Everything

Online learning comes with many distractions and students will struggle to stay engaged for long stretches of time. Have a clear lesson plan and set strict time restrictions for each section. For example, if you have five minutes for questions, set a timer and stop answering questions when the timer ends, even if you haven’t got through everything. This will build trust with your students as they will see you are paying attention and sticking to your word. If you don’t keep within time limits, students' engagement will fall by the wayside and you’ll become a talking head. 

  1. Design Better Breaks 

Building breaks into your lesson plan is essential. In an online environment, the best way to create breaks is to screen share a timer so students can physically see how much time is left. When it’s break time, be sure to turn off your video and audio on Zoom. This will signal to students that you are also on a break and won’t be taking any questions during this time. That way, students know it’s a true break in learning and they won’t miss anything during that time. 

  1. I Do, We Do, You Do Teaching Strategy 

At Lambda, we use a skills-based learning model that guides students through a gradual release of responsibility, commonly referred to as “I do, we do, you do” (IWY). During “I do” the instructor shares a clear example and path to success using the learning objective. Next is “We do” when the instructor guides learners through an exercise to give them hands-on experience with a concept. And finally, “you do” is when the instructor designs a self-guided project for the learner to demonstrate their new knowledge without any assistance.  

  1. Teach and Encourage a Growth Mindset

We teach a growth mindset to Lambda students starting on their first day of class, which encourages students to learn to think like a developer or a data scientist (depending on the course they’re enrolled in). Students need to see themselves as that person with those skills now on the path to greater success. This shift in their thinking paradigm makes them better learners: Their attitude will no longer include statements like “math is too hard” or “I’m not smart” but rather, “I’m a developer, I can do these things.” I’ve personally seen this mindset work for thousands of students. 

If you’re interested in hearing more about online tools or ideas for engaging learners from this blog series, check out my webinar on managing large virtual classrooms:


About Josh 

Josh Knell is the Head of Learning at Lambda School, the live, skills-based online school that removes barriers typically in the way of pursuing higher education and a better career. In this role, Josh leads live lectures with 150+ students. He also works with instructors and program leads to build, implement, and ensure high-quality teaching and curriculum across all of Lambda School’s remote course offerings. Josh is also an Adjunct Instructor at Utah Valley University, teaching web tools and frameworks, web essentials, and introduction to web languages. Josh holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Utah Valley University and Master’s Degree in Educational/Instructional Technology from University of Utah.

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