Student Engagement Is Often Missing During Online Learning

Student engagement is waning from virtual learning because several key elements to engagement are missing, but it is possible for educators and parents to recreate and supplement these important components.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, screen time for children meant playing Minecraft, rewatching Trolls 2, and giggling over humorous pet videos on YouTube. Last spring, it was novel to begin using these same screens for school. However, almost a year into the virtual learning landscape, distraction and entertainment have now been replaced with passive, repetitive tasks. Watching this downward spiral taking place, children’s lack of engagement is not surprising to parents and teachers, but it is still disturbing.

Sadly, virtual school has become more like clicking your car into neutral before entering the car wash: once locked in, students remove themselves from the academic screen, stretch their legs out, and allow their minds to wander from assigned prerecorded lessons and academic chore lists. Additionally, live streaming and independent work are much more passive than interactions students typically experience in the classroom.

Student engagement is waning because several key elements to engagement are missing, but it is possible for educators and parents to recreate and supplement these important components. The following lists offer a variety of suggestions on how to recover engagement.


  •  Help students set learning goals and monitor themselves. These might be daily, weekly, or long-term goals. Expressing these goals publicly with a learning partner or small group helps with accountability. In this case, screens are used to provide an audience and to make connections with the teacher. 
  • Students feel more involved with their own learning when they play an active role in goal setting. 
  • Along with goal setting, allowing opportunities for student choice or learning options will also promote a higher level of self-motivation.


  • Student opportunities for partnering and small-group interactions around learning have virtual alternatives that can replicate how this might work in the classroom. 
  • When students anticipate dialogue around a topic or shared text, suddenly they have a reason to become more involved in their work. Both teachers and parents can arrange times for student collaboration.
    • There are many online platforms to help create an authentic audience to share book recommendations, provide opinions, or share writing; the possibilities are endless.


  • Students learning face-to-face and virtually need help in seeing the relatedness of day-to-day learning. 
  • Short whole-group synchronous meetings may be used to assist students in connecting new learning to their lives. Purpose matters.
  • Teachers modeling new content online and allowing a quiet time for all students to practice may save hours of confusion for students tackling new content independently. Those needing more practice may choose to continue working with the teacher. 
  • Small-group check-ins should also be arranged throughout the day to monitor for understanding.


  • Students need feedback from their teachers, not a score. 
  • In order for children to move from simpler to more complex reading texts or to accomplish new writing strategies, teachers must continue to hold high expectations but also must provide coaching. This continues to be valuable for student learning virtually. 
  • Setting up times to meet individually or with small groups of students with similar needs continues to be valuable for virtual learners as well.
    • Share this feedback with parents along with the next steps their students are ready to take.

Consider Alternatives

  • Integrate content-area subjects into the teaching of reading and writing standards, rather than teaching each subject separately. 
  • Streamline and simplify, and you will keep students engaged. 
  • Consider an ongoing project or artifact students continue adding to throughout a unit of study. 
  • Provide baggies of physical books families may sign out. 
  • Encourage curbside pick-up from libraries by providing book lists for families.

How we teach virtually is going to look and feel different than classroom teaching, but planning for engaging students remains essential.

Kim Doele has spent over thirty-five years teaching ELA in a K–12 classroom setting. She has served on the ELA Committee of the East Grand Rapids Public Schools Board and the Kent County Reading Council in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is a member of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the Michigan Reading Association (MRA), and the International Literacy Association (ILA). She received her MA in The Teaching of Reading K–12 from Western Michigan University and her BA in Learning Disabilities K–12 and Elementary Education from Hope College. Currently, she is an instructor at Hope College and Grand Valley State University.