3 Strategies to Keep Students Engaged When Teaching Online

This pandemic has been incredibly disruptive for the education system, and especially for K-12 students who have found their routines and habits completely upended. Without being able to meet in person, teachers and tutors had to move their teaching online which brought along with it a range of new challenges. The most difficult of which being the constant struggle to hold the attention of your students.

How do you effectively engage a student when you’re teaching online?  

How do you replicate the power of in-person teaching through a screen?

As professional educators, we have relied on using multiple channels to engage our students. In a classroom we could combine traditional lecturing with one-on-one tutoring, interactive activities, multimedia presentations, and so much more. Whether these modes of teaching were visual, auditory or tactile in nature, the ability to combine them together made for much more productive learning environments.

We don’t have that luxury in an online setting.

When teaching virtually, all of those channels are flattened, and you have few tools at your disposal. Teachers have had to shift their paradigm and develop a new range of skills and techniques to engage students wherever they happen to be learning from. Luckily, with everyone going through this simultaneously, there have been some best practices that have emerged. Let’s look at three of them:


  1. Monitoring What Students Write

The ability for a teacher to see what a student is writing is a key component of learning that has been lost as we’ve transitioned to online teaching. Researchers from Princeton and UCLA have demonstrated [https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614524581] just how this can negatively affect learning outcomes.

Without being able to supervise writing, a teacher has no way of holding a student accountable and following how they are applying what is being taught. This is especially problematic in mathematics and other problem-solving subjects where the thought process is as important as the final answer itself.  

In order to combat this, some teachers are asking their students to point their camera at the paper so they can follow along as the student writes.  You can see some examples of this ad hoc solution below:


There are more fundamental approaches like Smaht.io which is a specialized online classroom which allows teachers to see what their students are writing. The additional functionality ensures that an in-person learning experience can be replicated as closely as possible.


  1. Changing Activities Often

The attention span of modern students has been severely impacted by connected devices. This is especially true for K-12 students studying at home, just a few steps away from their TV and phone.

The best online teachers are able to inject enough variability into their lessons to leave no room for boredom and distraction. They are also able to pick up on certain cues that students are drifting and can take swift action to keep them on track.

Their strategy is to change activities often, for some students every 15 minutes. This requires you to break down your lessons into bite-sized chunks which can be more dynamic and engaging.

Also, keep an eye on how students are responding to your lesson. If you see their concentration is waning, ask them to stand up and stretch!


  1. Calling on the Students

When students are outside of the school or library environment, their level of accountability (and honesty) is quite different. It’s crucial that you’re able to pull them out of their comfort zone and get them to engage actively with the material.

In order to do this effectively, you need to call on students regularly.  Without this active participation, you are competing against a YouTube video that the student has open in the next tab – and that’s a battle you are unlikely to win. Ask questions and look for answers to keep your students honest.


These are just three practical examples of how you can improve student engagement when teaching online. This is not an easy task, but by leveraging technology and applying some of these tactics – you’ll be a more effective online tutor.

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