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My Students Won't Engage, Now What?

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

Right now, teachers everywhere are wondering how to get their students to engage with them virtually.

Engagement seems easy when we're all face-to-face because we know how to use physical presence to get attention (we've been doing that since we were babies). We also know how to read expressions and body language. It's natural for us to sit down with a child who is struggling and explain things differently. But, how do we do all that virtually?

It’s not about a single activity or magic tool that will instantly engage learners. It is about building a culture that fosters engagement. It will take time, but if we continually honor these 4 factors of engagement in our virtual classes, we will build that culture, and our learners will engage.

Wondering how to take your face-to-face engagement strategies to the virtual world?

Tweak some of the same strategies you already use. This lead4ward Strategies Playlist supports VIRTUAL instruction and promotes maximum student engagement. The playlist is adapted from the Playlist of Non-virtual Strategies.

More Engagement Ideas for Live Sessions (synchronous):

Make it active! Get students to DO something besides just listen.

  • Relatedness: Have students chat, write on slides, speak, show a found object, collaborate on a Jamboard or Padlet board.

  • Competence: Use the live time for reviews or game-based challenges (Kahoot, Quizlet Live, BreakoutEDU). This not only builds rapport, but it helps students feel more confident in upcoming assignments.

  • Relevance: Save time for kids to tell stories if they choose. This helps us really know our learners and makes it easier for us to tailor learning for them in future sessions.

Check out this recorded webinar to see some live session ideas in action, by Virtual Learning Specialist, Anita Young of the World of Learning Institute: Engaging Learners in Live Sessions- Elementary & Secondary Experiences.


More Engagement Ideas for Non-live (asynchronous) Lessons:

Keep it short, simple, and focused.

  • Relatedness: Record your own 3-5 minute videos using a screencast tool, like Screecastify or Screencast-o-Matic, so that students can hear your voice. This helps them feel more connected to you.

  • Competence: Add interactive activities with Quizlet, Quizizz, or Google Slides so students can interact directly with the content.

  • Autonomy: Offer a digital choice board to give students some autonomy over their activities or the order in which they do them. See many subject-specific examples here.

You may not know how many students will be in your classroom tomorrow or if you'll be teaching from school or home, but you can be ready for either situation. Help your students engage from anywhere! What do you do to keep your virtual students engaged? We'd love to hear your ideas!


Need some pre-made lessons? Explore our Customized Learning Experiences collection.



Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.


Christine Davis is a Virtual Learning Specialist with Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8. In her role, she guides teachers in developing online courses, provides professional learning about virtual teaching practices, and supports educators in all their blended and online learning efforts.

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