Engagement Strategies for use in SMU Flex Environment

The Pedagogical Partners Engagement Strategies Pod explored and tried on many strategies for encouraging student engagement in the SMU Flex Environment.  This pod includes Ann Batenburg, Francesca Jones, Stephanie Langin-Hooper, Monnie McGee, and Amy Richardson.  Engagement strategies explored by the pod for use in the SMU Flex environment include:

  • Check-in Methods
  • Discussion Boards
  • Use of Chat
  • ·Grading Systems and Assignments

Findings related to each strategy as well as a list of helpful links follow.


Check-in Methods


For those of us with smaller classes, the absence of small talk before the beginning of each class has been challenging to overcome.  This time before class was previously a moment when we would connect with students and find out how they were going both in and outside of our class.  We used the following methods to check in with students this semester:

  • Check conversations/questions- These questions might range from how are you doing to what’s the strangest thing that happened this week?  We found that offering students the option to check-in verbally or in the chat with the whole group or privately with the professor yielded strong responses and feelings of connection.
  • Check-in Jamboards- The professor who used this method specifically asked students to share gratitude lists.  This assignment was closely related to the content of the class, but the method could be tweaked for different courses.
  • Individual checks- when students were absent, quiet, or we had a particular concern or question for a student.  Students appreciated these individual touchpoints.


Discussion Boards and Class Discussions


Every professor in our pod used discussion boards.  We experienced the following learnings about discussion boards:

  • Discussion boards were less active if there was no grade assigned or clear professor presence.
  • The use of discussion boards helped students prepare for small and large group class discussions by cutting through some of the awkwardness created by the Zoom/Flex environment.
  • A strong approach proved to be a short discussion board post on the due just before class followed by breakout rooms in zoom during class.  Each group member understands that they may be called on after the discussion at random by the professor. 
  • Discussion boards helped solve one issue that we continued to struggle with related breakout room observation.  When professors join the room, the peer-to-peer conversation usually stops and centers on the professor. Discussion board commentary is typically more substantive than in-class discussion, so some of us plan to keep using this method next year. 


Chat and Class Discussions

  • We have found that the chat feature of Zoom beneficial during class. Students can answer quickly, and there is more "talk" when we employ the chat feature.
  • Professors who teach large lecture-style classes found that beginning class with a question or image related to past learnings and asking students to respond in the chat increased engagement significantly.  It also helped the professor understand key learnings or recurring themes.
  • Chat is a great tool to encourage student participation, validate knowledge, and also correct any misunderstandings about the material.
  • Far more students are willing to do this (Stephanie Langin-Hooper routinely gets 20-30 comments) than are willing to raise their hand in a large lecture hall.


Grading systems and Assignments

  • A grading system that encourages engagement and risk-taking, and choice is helpful in this situation.  Some group members used grading systems that allowed students to choose assignments based on different point values
  • Some grading and assignment systems allowed students the opportunity to create their own project or challenge.  Students can do this project in a group; therefore, it could work for a large class. 
  • Allow students time to try again on assignments was key.  Requiring students to meet with the professor before doing the work again was vital.  These meetings helped the professor check the understanding and also helped the professor and students better know what was and was not clear about assignments.


Useful Links

  • Facing History has a plethora of teaching strategies for engagement, some specifically modified for online learning.
  • This pre-pandemic resource from eLearning Online helped to give our group some direction as we approached this work. 
  • Edutopia has many resources, including this article that outlines strategies to improve participation in virtual classrooms.
  • Early in the pandemic, the Chronicle of Higher Education released this article that outlined engagement strategies for online learning.