How to engage reluctant students in online learning - 21 online teachers share their tips

Online learning is an art, teachers share their ideas.
Jul 13, 2021
How to engage students remotely

The pandemic has meant everyone has had to make adjustments, including a shift to online learning. Some have taken to this mode quite easily. But for reluctant students, it has presented another challenge on their learning journey. With NSW heading back online in the coming days and weeks, and other states merely the next outbreak away from following suit, 21 experienced online teachers from Australian Christian College, which is the nation’s largest non-government distance education provider, share their tips for effectively engaging reluctant students in the online classroom.

David Youngman
Connect and relate to students by showing an interest in their passions, hopes and dreams. Be alongside them online through email, video or audio connections and allow them to ask for help and offer support. Give them constructive and positive feedback as often as possible. Try to make each experience of online learning positive.

Rick Shingles
Just like in a classroom, children respond well to having a rewards system. You know what motivates your child, so play to that. It could be free play on a device after they complete their schoolwork, or something as simple as a sticker chart. For example, give your child one sticker for every task they complete, and provide a reward when they get 20 stickers. Rewards don't have to be gifts – they could be things like a coffee date with you or a play in the park. For best effect, negotiate rewards with your child. Include them in the conversation and set clear boundaries about getting rewards. You could say, ‘when you do this [the task you want them to achieve], you get that [the reward you’ve agreed on]!' Make sure the goals you set are achievable within a day or two to help keep your child motivated.

The same applies with consequences. If your child acts up, refuses to follow your instructions or refuses to do their schoolwork, there needs to be a consequence. This one is totally up to you. As with rewards, you know which consequences will have the most impact. For example, if your child doesn't do their schoolwork or follow your directions, they could lose TV privileges that afternoon.

 As adults, we understand this concept well. If we don't turn up to work, for example, we don't get paid. If we get caught speeding, we get a fine. For children, sowing and reaping (action and reaction) is something they need to experience for themselves to understand. That's why I like involving the child in the rewards and consequences system. That way, they feel like they've had some input and they've agreed to the terms and conditions.

Russell Hunt
Victor Borge perceptively observed that ‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people’. Humour is a powerful way to connect with people, particularly with disengaged online students.

Over time, extrinsic motivators can become intrinsic.

With online students I combine the above two tools into one potently feathered weapon.

Enter – The Marking Chicken! (a red and yellow squawking rubber chicken).

Teacher Russell Hunt and the Marking Chicken
I give video feedback on students’ assessments using The Marking Chicken. A 100% result and she fluffs her feathers and squawks wildly. Lower results receive tamer squawks. She appears silently from the side of the screen and then disappears while I talk seriously, encouraging students about an approaching assessment.

Don Hastie
Discuss work for the next day, the night before. This helps plant seeds and expectations in their minds. Last minute surprises can ruin a day’s work.

Luke Reifler
Plan and agree on your designated ‘school time’ on a timetable visible to both parents and students. Schedule ‘bell times’ using a simple tool like a smartphone alarm to ensure you get breaks from the intensity of screens and study. Make the breaks active and fun with a snack and a game.

Rachel Law
Have a one-to-one chat with the student (and fill their parents in on key notes later). In it, try to diagnose the heart – rather than behaviour – and talk to them about the 'Big V'. The bottom of a V shows two lines side by side, with a small angle between them. Over time though, the gap between the lines widens significantly. The person they are when they get married, finish school etc is the person they've spent their life training to be. Just a little extra effort now, thinking about the end of their 'V' (or the person they'll be in a few years) will make a huge difference.

Lyndall Gluskie
If you are stuck on something, send your teacher a message and move onto something else. Until you get clarity on that task, don’t waste time lingering.

Will Tay
Randomly place quirky Easter eggs into your online videos. At the end of the term, have an Easter egg hunt quiz (with a prize) to determine who was paying attention and recording the eggs.

Diahanna Kwok
With Maths especially, giving students second attempts at quizzes and even assessment tasks helps relieve some anxiety and reluctance about completing Maths lessons and tasks online.

Josh Avenell
Be with your student and be an active part of their learning each day. Learning is inherently a social process, and students are much more likely to engage in the work if they feel they are doing it ‘together’ rather than alone.

Mandy Towle
Dress up, be creative. For example, you could recreate a court scene and dress as a judge, or add music using a song that is relevant to a topic.

Chris Collin
What does a millennial student absorb on a daily basis? YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and everything else on the internet. Therefore, my best tip would be to use what they are already watching for the purposes of your classroom. If you can find a clip from Pewdiepie and use it to explain a modern history concept, go for it!

Zara Di Bella
Establish a routine. In workplaces, routine helps to keep people focused and to achieve small steps towards larger goals. Online learning works in the same fashion. It also helps meet students’ social and emotional needs as they know what will happen next. 

Kendal Slack
Know the child – ask them about and discuss their passions, aspirations, and how they believe they learn best. Then link their passions and aspirations to the course.  And incorporate their learning styles where possible.

Ellen Crank
Use a motivation/incentive chart to help with engagement. It works on one goal at a time (e.g. ‘10 minutes focus’) and provides both short-term feedback and long-term rewards. The reward is (ideally) a negotiated agreement with the student.

Karen Gaffney
Webinars are a great place for learning, especially for those who learn that way – making cerebral connections. Whoever is doing the thinking, is doing the learning! Engage them from the very first webinar and you will have them coming back for more.

Dana Truasheim
Students need their ‘confidence bucket’ filled just like everyone else. Therefore, discuss with them how incredibly able they are, how they need to be confident in themselves, to learn from any mistakes, and to have a go. Sometimes it just takes a teacher believing in a student for the magic to happen.

Karen Timmins
The best way to engage a reluctant learner is to help them set clear, achievable goals. If necessary, break the task up into bite-sized steps. Once they have completed the task, be consistent with praise. Remember the old saying: ‘praise motivates’. Also, get a reluctant student to work towards a longer term reward that REALLY motivates them. What is a reward that makes them come alive?

Rhys Taylor
Studies show that setting 5 and 10 year life goals has a significant impact on university student retention. Even the process of actively thinking about their future has an impact. Sit down with your student and work out where they want to be and what they want to do with their life. Then, backwards-map to how the work they are doing right now will help achieve that goal. They must generate the goal themselves, so they have ownership over the process and destination they want to head towards.

Phil Farmer
It is very easy to always be ‘fixing’ our children by chipping them for everything. When our children struggle, we need to encourage them. If we see that they are getting frustrated, encourage them.

Simon Nichols
Always have your struggling students in mind when you build online courses – the ones who are likely to get lost or overwhelmed by a lot of information and clutter. Limit the amount of information visible at main page level and keep details to specific course content pages. Make sure every lesson and resource is very clearly labelled.

We hope you’ve found something (or several things) you can put in place quickly to help engage your reluctant online learners. And remember, the pandemic won’t go on forever, but your impact on your students can have ripple effects that last a lifetime.