How to Boost Student Engagement—Even Online

five red hot

July 29, 2020


The recent New York Times op-ed about how to make online courses more engaging got me thinking about course redesign generally, especially as it applies in the current COVID-driven environment. Readers may recall my blogs on pruning unneeded courses and rebalancing program portfolios. When done well, these actions can allow the institution to cut costs and boost revenues while minimizing the adverse impacts on student learning and faculty workloads. As noted in the “rebalancing” blog, they fall into the set of four such actions shown at the right. Course redesign is element 3 of this action set.

The op-ed points out that it’s harder to maintain student engagement in on-line courses than it is with on-ground ones. It suggests how the “classic tutorial system,” used at British universities like Oxford and Cambridge and a few small U.S. colleges like Williams and Sarah Lawrence, might be adapted to boost online engagement. In this scenario, students attend a few large lectures, do reading and other homework, and then meet in small classes with their professor. Engagement is high, both because the small classes are very interactive and because students are held accountable for their out-of-class learning. (Getting these results with larger classes is possible, but it requires a high degree of professorial skill and dedication.) The idea’s main downside is the extra work required from faculty. The op-ed notes that “extra work beats furloughs and layoffs,” but I believe the problem can be mitigated by smart planning.

The following flowchart, published in 2003 as an outgrowth of my work at the National Center for Postsecondary Improvement (NCPI), illustrates how the tutorial concept can be enhanced with modern technology and applied cost-effectively to either on-line or on-ground courses. It depicts one module of a hypothetical course—say, introductory economics. Three or four such modules could be placed end-to-end to build a semester-long course, or they could be configured as a competency-based system. I call the scheme “high-engagement teaching.”

Adapted from Massy, Honoring the Trust, Figure 5.3.

Beyond the Flipped Classroom

Let’s unpack the scheme and compare it with the “flipped classroom” approach that has been adopted by many institutions and faculty. This economics module begins synchronously, with a motivating lecture about where the material fits into the field’s paradigm and why it is important. The lecture would be given by a seasoned and charismatic professor, who would put considerable effort into its preparation. To generate excitement, I originally envisioned it in a large lecture hall with capacity for films and special effects, but it also could be an online video. (That’s why it spans the two kinds of spaces.) Either way, the goal is to orient and excite the student rather than to teach detailed content.

Content learning proceeds asynchronously, as students work with course software (“learning objects”) and other resources such as assigned readings, videos and peer-to-peer sessions. The infrastructure for sharing learning objects and videos is growing in many fields, and this will accelerate with the growth of online teaching. The asynchronous phase is overseen by teaching assistants (TAs) who answer questions and intervene if the student’s online record begins to signal an emergent problem. TAs often do better than faculty in this role because they have more time and can relate more closely to the students. Combining technology with proactive hands-on assistance generates engagement, and learning, for most participants.

Students progress to small-group synchronous seminars with faculty when, and only when, they have demonstrated competence with the detailed content. (These interactive meetings are similar to the tutorials discussed earlier.) Because students are well prepared, the professor can facilitate deep discussion rather than answering basic questions and repeating material that students should have mastered already. The seminars may be supplemented with written assignments and projects that are performed asynchronously and may be overseen by TAs instead of faculty.

Flipped classrooms also strive for better student preparation and, therefore, deeper faculty-led discussions. By actively calling upon students to discuss the asynchronous assignments before moving on to faculty-led discussions, they limit students’ ability to hide in class or wait to learn “on the fly” during the session. However, the format remains of one instructor in front of a class for most or all of a semester. There is no division of labor for basic content-learning, and the danger that the faculty-led deep discussions will be crowded out of class time always remains present.

The Cost of High-Engagement Teaching

Boosting student engagement through small classes is not a new idea, but cost has generally limited its applicability. The high-engagement solution presented above pairs the expensive interactive seminars with a suite of inexpensive activities—which actually serve their purpose better than the conventional activities they replace. The leverage on regular faculty time (by far the most expensive resource) is illustrated by this simplified example.


  • The interactive seminars are offered on the same schedule as the conventional classes (e.g., 3 times per week for 1 hour) during half the weeks of the academic term. The weeks need not be consecutive.
  • The motivating lecture is already on video and the software for independent study is at hand.
  • The TA requirements are the same as for the conventional course.

This configuration will allow class sizes to be cut in half with no increase in cost. Moreover, economies in faculty preparation due to replication of sections and better student preparation may allow class size to be reduced even further. The more intensive faculty work while the interactive seminars are in progress is offset by an equal time where the duties are light.

The above is similar to the “bar-bell” strategy of offsetting the cost of small seminars with large lecture courses, but it’s more flexible and almost certainly more effective. There will be startup expenses, but the all-important budget base cost need not be materially increased.

Simple calculations like the ones illustrated above will suffice for applying the high-engagement principle to a few courses, but deployment at scale cries out for a more data-informed and systematic approach. The direct instructional economics models described throughout this blog series provide the needed data: specifically, on the highlighted variables shown below. Fortunately, the time and expense of installing such models are low enough to make the endeavor practical even in today’s constrained circumstances. The models also provide platforms on which departments can test alternative high-engagement designs for both on-line and hybrid versions of on-ground courses. Perhaps equally important, the experience of using such models for conventional courses provides a baseline for facilitating the design of high-engagement alternatives. I hope to explore these ideas in future blogs.

Gray Associates

Gray Associates, Inc. provides the best available data, software, and facilitated processes to help higher education institutions make high-stakes decisions regarding academic programs, pricing, and locations.

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