Observing vs. Participating: Online Synchronous Learning for Engagement

Kelly Nelson-Danley
Kelly Nelson-Danley
Assistant elementary school principal; Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction
Two siblings working at a desk together during online learning.

Online Synchronous learning for engagement is a way to make learning available for students to engage in various access points such as student-student, student-content, and student-instructor. This is a key part of efforts to get students motivated and support their learning and exploration of relationships across content. In online synchronous learning, the use of online learning tools and teacher facilitation and presence can go hand and hand toward establishing a learning environment that helps students feel like they are a part of a learning community. Students often find themselves feeling motivated to participate more when both teacher presence and the use of ed-tech tools work together.

Why is Only Observing Instruction Less Effective?

Participating in learning compared to observation only is always a better learning opportunity for students. Research shows that engaging students in the learning process improves their focus and attention, while motivating them to use their critical thinking skills (University of Washington, 2021). Facilitators who approach learning in amore student-centered way help increase opportunities for students to become engaged with material and have a more meaningful learning experience.

When students are only observing, they are missing out on the opportunity to collaborate with their peers and see information from more than one perspective. The promotion of active learning requires students to participate as opposed to just ‘sitting and getting’. Participation in online learning is just as important. Students who do not engage actively with online learning may fall through the cracks and be passed along without gaining vital information.

How Does Student Participation Impact Learning?

Student participation impacts learning tremendously. This goes for in person learning and online learning. Getting students to participate online is not always easy. It takes some work on the part of the facilitator to plan and implement engaging activities and lessons. Participation increases interest. When students are interested in what they are learning, it is easier to maintain focus and attention. It also helps students understand multiple perspectives and teaches them how to collaborate in a learning environment. Students are more likely to retain knowledge when they participate actively in learning. Being able to interact with the curriculum and their peers virtually is key to increasing motivation and helping students retain what they are learning.

Strategies to Foster Student Engagement and Participation

There are many ways to engage students in online learning and increase their participation. One of the ways to do so is to use participation features online tools offer. Such features include hand raising on online collaboration platforms such as Zoom, utilization of the chatroom, collaboration on online tools such as Google Slideshows, and Pear Deck. The following are other useful strategies that can be used to engage reluctant students and increase participation, especially during online instruction.

Plan Dynamic Discussions – Teachers can put thought into the questions they pose to students and plan questions that will peak student interest and foster interesting and productive discussions. 

Incorporate Writing – Asking students to write is a way to get them to engage naturally. Instructors can ask students to write in many forms blogs, essays, journal entries, etc. Writing forces students to engage and helps students move from observing to participating.

Survey Students – Asking students how they would like to participate in learning is a great resource. When teachers become aware of learning preferences, they can better differentiate for their students.

Pair Students Up – Utilize the breakout room feature to encourage students to collaborate with one another.

Use Online Brainstorming Tools – Search out and use online brainstorming tools such as Padlet.

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