Improved Student Engagement in Higher Education’s Next Normal

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Five pandemic-introduced innovative teaching adaptations can improve student engagement in the next normal for higher education.

Improved Student Engagement in Higher Education’s Next Normal
Credit: Ostancov Vladislav / © 2021

For higher education amid the COVID-19 pandemic, spring break 2020 heralded a sharp increase in the scope and pace of change, including social distancing and other controls to limit the spread of the coronavirus. In the span of a mere few days, faculty—in an unprecedented manner—supplanted traditional face-to- face instruction with remote synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning experiences. Out of necessity, teaching practices rapidly embraced technology-based prototypical teaching methods. Faculty and students actively began the largest-ever nontraditional teaching experiment.

The question now is, should any of these innovations and adaptations be retained to form the "next normal" in higher education? We know that disruption historically informs innovation. For an example from the pandemic, a US insurance agency has observed that employees can effectively work remotely and now plans to close six offices: 32 percent of employees (four times more than previously) will work from home.Footnote1 Educators should similarly look beyond the recent negative experiences to identify and cultivate worthy improvements.

Here we suggest five teaching enhancements as possible candidates for continued acceptance. All of these pandemic-introduced adaptations improve student engagement. The first four enhance student engagement during class, whereas the fifth offers engagement opportunities outside of class.

Student Engagement Adaptations

We define student engagement as a constructivist approach to teaching and learning: less "sage on the stage" and more learning by doing. The act of engaging students—for example, designing cooperative team assignments, encouraging active learning, providing multiple opportunities for spending time on the content, and respectfully welcoming the talents and ideas of all learners—is considered among the "best practice" principles in undergraduate education.Footnote2 We believe the following five initiatives, introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, should become part of that best practice.

Collaborative Technologies for Sense-Making

COVID-19 has mandated digital collaborations that are rich in student and faculty engagement across different groups of students using technology for sense-making in social settings. Use of collaborative documents, discussion boards, slides, notes, whiteboards, and other file types not only provide a way for collaborative notetakingFootnote3 but also offer students and instructors a view of the process and of the output of all groups participating in an instructional activity.Footnote4

For example, students working online in groups may use discussion boards to post responses to an in-class activity and solicit peer review and feedback. This scenario benefits students who are reticent to speak publicly as well as students who have difficulty formulating spoken thoughts in a second language. Posts could be individual or by group, if desired, with the latter enhancing engagement among students from a communal cultural system.Footnote5 Instructors can monitor activity and take action to facilitate understanding and increase engagement.

Digital collaborative technologies embrace three important student engagement objectives: connecting students with the content, with the instructor, and with one another, within and across groups. Formulating, sharing, and getting feedback on responses benefits all students by increasing the exchange of ideas and approaches to the given prompt, helping students develop critical thinking skills through thoughtful peer review and analysis, and engaging them with timely feedback from expert instructors. Retaining these "blended learning" practices and additional affordances post-pandemic is worthwhile as we move to the next normal.

Student Experts for Learning and Technology Support

During the pandemic, faculty and staff were thinly stretched to meet the growing and diverse learning and technology needs of students. We have found undergraduate student experts to be a key resource. In fact, undergraduate experts are useful not only to their peers but also to their instructors.

Before the spread of the coronavirus, we learned—from the assessment of peer assistant programs—the critical role that student-to-student interactions play in helping with learning. In one study, the use of learning assistants was shown to increase scores on higher-order exam questions. The use of these learning assistants also benefited underrepresented minority students in science.Footnote6

During the pandemic, learning assistants have adapted their work to meet remote requirements and the changing needs of students. In one course, to better serve their peers' learning needs, the learning assistants across all sections combined efforts to share virtual office hours for students, sending reminders before each scheduled office hour. The course instructor reported having never seen so many students make use of office hours—his own or his assistants'.

Undergraduate learning assistants have also been called on to assist instructors in facilitating hybrid and remote instruction. They monitor questions in chat, bolster conversation in discussion forums, assist with student technology issues, and test new courseware. In another course, the assistants suggested using VoiceThread, a tool previously unknown to the instructor, so that students could upload slide presentations and submit their recorded remarks along with the slides. Other students who were enrolled in the course could then leave comments by phone, video camera, or text.

Some colleges and universities have increased their budget for student experts hired specifically to assist faculty in learning new technologies required for teaching during the pandemic. At our institution, instructors gave high praise for the expanded "Tech TA" program, which served any instructors needing assistance in getting their course technology up and running.

As we move to the next normal, higher education leaders should consider expanded roles for undergraduate experts who assist with learning and technology support. Further, leaders should diversify the population of students hired for these positions. A diverse staff of highly engaged students would be uniquely poised to know what their peers need, and as digital natives, they would be well-equipped for lending instructors a hand with setting up and using technology to expand and enrich learning opportunities for all students.

Back Channels for Informal Communication

During the pandemic, Zoom's chat feature, along with other tools, provided back-channel opportunities to connect with students. Uses include immediately capturing student responses, coaching question-asking, and suggesting alternative critical ideas or perspectives.Footnote7 This medium is familiar to the texting generation and can be appropriated by instructors to strike a less formal and often more approachable tone in teaching.

Instructors have always been challenged to find ways to promote student participation in medium-size and large courses. We find that online students are as unlikely to unmute and share ideas in a large remote synchronous course as in-person students are to raise their hand in a live lecture. Online students are, however, willing to use digital chat and emojis, communication modes with which they are familiar and use daily to connect socially.

Chat permits instructors to engage less formally and to communicate approachability: "Are you with me, or do we need to review? If we're good, type 'yes' in chat. If my explanation missed the mark, type 'no.'" Chat interactions also invite participation in ways that seem less risky: "Did you find the assigned podcast clarifying?" or "Was the assigned problem-set a bit easier to do this week, now that we've got the basics?" As students chime in, the skillful instructor may capitalize on the momentum by asking, "What were the trickiest ideas to grasp?" Some instructors use their undergraduate course assistants to pose questions about what they recall struggling with in previous years, removing the stigma of asking a "stupid question" and paving the way for additional questions.

One colleague cleverly prerecorded lectures and then watched the recordings synchronously with the students while participating in chat. She modeled critical thinking by providing brief critiques of examples in her lecture (e.g., "That was less clear than I expected—here's a better way to put it…"), and she posted links to ads, images, headlines, movie references, and memes that pertained to the content. She reported that students engaged regularly, often offering their own examples in chat.

When used purposefully and with inclusive and respectful communication guidelines, back channels that are visible to all course participants, including the instructor, offer an important communication mode for students to interact with ideas, the instructor, and one another. We believe that back channels are valuable instructional tools, whether for learning during a pandemic or for learning in our next normal.

Digital Breakout Rooms for Collaborative Learning

During COVID-19 teaching, breakout rooms have provided fertile environments for collaborative learning by offering students opportunities to engage.Footnote8 At the start of a class, breakout room activities stimulate students' prior knowledge: instructors can ask students to talk with others in their breakout room and bring forth one question or concern about the upcoming topic of the day. In the middle of a class, breakout sessions provide avenues for sense-making: instructors can assign a problem to solve, a case study to summarize, a situation to analyze, a decision to critique, or any other number of collaborative activities to further students' understanding. At the end of a class, breakout rooms prompt students to distill main ideas and identify points of confusion.

While the skillful use of breakout sessions promotes engagement and learning,Footnote9 the breakout room environment itself offers the additional benefit of digital tools (e.g., whiteboards, chat, screen sharing, internet searching). Even in socially distanced classrooms, students easily don headphones and get to work with all the tools that breakout rooms provide. Instructors can pop in and out of rooms, answering questions and getting a sense of how students are thinking. This richer, digital learning environment allows more meaningful activities, leading to potentially deeper learning. This combination of interpersonal and digital collaboration will likely continue to advance learning in the next normal.

Supplemental Recording for Expanded Learning Space

Our last teaching innovation offers engagement outside of class. Instructors became aware of the need to record live remote synchronous sessions shortly after spring break 2020, when distributed students encountered technical and time zone obstacles to synchronous class attendance. Supplemental recording (SR) goes beyond traditional classroom flipping. For comparison, SR captures the class session, whether flipped or not, for students unable to attend in person. SR expands and enhances learning spaces, with benefits for both students who need to repeat engagement with course content and instructors who want to review and/or analyze content delivery.

The opportunity to provide "repeat" engagement through SR precedes Covid-19. Since 2019, Edward J. Glantz has experimented with SR in face-to-face classrooms, including serving as a university Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) Fellow in the year before the pandemic. This fellowship was initially motivated by a desire to use SR to include students who missed class for excused absences, including personal and family emergencies, job interviews, group activities, and conferences. Continuing engagement with these students seemed sufficient justification to investigate the use of SR.

The TLT fellowship results were quite useful when many faculty began streaming lectures for teaching during COVID-19. Early on, a colleague worried whether other students might decide not to attend class if recordings were being provided. The answer is that class attendance is not related to the availability of SR, for several reasons.

First, students unable to attend class should not be excluded from content that can readily be recorded and distributed through cloud storage tied to course management systems. In this case, instructors simply click "record to cloud," and the recordings are automatically captured, rendered, and linked to the course. Second, students will attend and/or participate in class based on course expectations and practices. Students with frequent "unexcused" absences were even less likely to utilize SR, relying instead on other approaches (e.g., skimming PowerPoint slides), with limited success. Third, since the fidelity of SR is a derivative of the original classroom experience, whether taught in-residence or online, engaged students opted for SR only during scheduling difficulties and not as a regular substitution for attendance.Footnote10

Although the TLT fellowship initially targeted students who had occasional class conflicts, the beneficiary list expanded to include students who wanted to repeat engagement by reviewing class content, students who needed exam preparation, and English as a Second Language (ESL) students. The same process of remote asynchronous content delivery also permitted students to continue lessons during an instructor's absence. During the pandemic, the list of beneficiaries expanded for spring 2020 blended synchronous (100% remote teaching and learning) and fall 2020 hyflex (merged teaching and learning in-residence with remote learning) teaching modes to support students located across time zones or experiencing device or network conflicts.Footnote11

The TLT fellowship offers a few recommendations to enhance SR success. First, student awareness of SR availability and use should be promoted. Second, students prefer viewing sessions in segments, rather than from beginning to end. Instructors should take advantage of features that improve this experience—for example, displaying timestamps within the recording or even embedding the transcript text within the video. Third, some video platforms (e.g., Kaltura) can provide detailed viewership information and permit embedding questions in the video stream.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated awareness and adoption of SR among faculty teaching online. Hopefully, increased awareness of the convenience and utility of SR in engaging students outside of class will continue in the next normal.

New Traditions

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an opportunity for positive change in traditional teaching methods. These adaptations can redefine engagement in and out of class while allowing learners increased flexibility and offering instructors greater ability to reach their students. These changes help faculty get away from simply measuring attendance, a poor proxy for student engagement. COVID-19 teaching has provided exposure to a host of tools supporting and tracking students' participation and gauging their understanding. Faculty have taken advantage of the disruption to experiment with and discover useful tools and techniques.

Out of necessity, faculty have become more technology-savvy as well as improvisational. This has improved their digital fluency while also increasing discovery of learning possibilities, thus raising the threshold for acceptable use of newly available tools. The urgent need to pivot during the pandemic permitted faculty to find creative ways to leverage tools to both teach course material and connect with students. This accelerated the traditionally lengthy processes required to identify, review, and approve instructional technology tools. Perhaps even more significant, faculty have been willing to share—and in some cases even brag about—their lessons learned.

To everyone's benefit, teaching in higher education has become more collaborative. Faculty members and support staff (e.g., learning designers, instructional developers, educational technology consultants, librarians) have had additional opportunities to share and discuss what is working and what needs improvement. Institutions have increased the frequency and availability of workshops, seminars, and one-on-one meetings to address the need for COVID-19 adaptations. These collaborative resources are offered along with traditional resources such as faculty development, instructional design, faculty roundtables, and listserv discussions. Higher education instruction will greatly profit by continuing these sharing opportunities.


The five teaching enhancements/adaptations discussed above—collaborative technologies for sense-making, student experts in learning and technology, back channels, digital breakout rooms, and supplemental recording—are well positioned to expand the definition of "student engagement" beyond traditional roll call and attendance tracking. Opportunities to include students at a distance have permitted inclusion of students who are reticent to speak publicly, students whose first language is not English, students with disabilities, and students less engaged through "traditional" channels.Footnote12 With these new conceptions of engagement in mind, we are prepared to be more inclusive of all students in the next normal of higher education.


  1. Clive Thompson, "What If Working from Home Goes On . . . Forever?" New York Times, June 9, 2020. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education," AAHE Bulletin 39, no. 7 (March 1987). Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.
  3. M. Brielle Harbin, "Collaborative Note-Taking: A Tool for Creating a More Inclusive College Classroom," College Teaching 68, no. 4 (July 1, 2020). Jump back to footnote 3 in the text.
  4. Derek Bruff, "Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms," Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching Resource, June 11, 2020. Jump back to footnote 4 in the text.
  5. Geneva Gay, "Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching," Journal of Teacher Education 53, no. 2 (March 1, 2002). Jump back to footnote 5 in the text.
  6. Nadia Sellami et al., "Implementation of a Learning Assistant Program Improves Student Performance on Higher-Order Assessments," CBE—Life Sciences Education 16, no.  4 (March 15, 2018). See also Rachid Ait Maalem Lahcen, Ram Mohapatra, and Baiyun Chen, "Prioritizing Strategies for a Better Transition to Remote Instruction," EDUCAUSE Review, November 16, 2020. Jump back to footnote 6 in the text.
  7. Rachel Toor, "Turns Out You Can Build Community in a Zoom Classroom," Chronicle of Higher Education, June 23, 2020; Derek Bruff, "Backchannel in Education: Nine Uses," Agile Learning (blog), January 21, 2010. Jump back to footnote 7 in the text.
  8. Stephen Hersh, "Yes, Your Zoom Teaching Can Be First-Rate," Inside Higher Ed, July 8, 2020; Elizabeth Stone, "How to Overcome Classroom Zoom Fatigue," Inside Higher Education, August 19, 2020. Jump back to footnote 8 in the text.
  9. Colleen Flaherty, "The Power of Peer Interaction," Inside Higher Ed, November 3, 2020. Jump back to footnote 9 in the text.
  10. Jessica Hallman, "Well Prepared: TLT Fellowship Equips IST Professor for Shift to Remote Learning," Penn State News, May 27, 2020. Jump back to footnote 10 in the text.
  11. Edward J. Glantz and Chris Gamrat, "The New Post-Pandemic Normal of College Traditions," in SIGITE '20: Proceedings of the 21st Annual Conference on Information Technology Education (New York: Association for Computing Machinery, October 2020). Jump back to footnote 11 in the text.
  12. Beth McMurtrie, "The New Rules of Engagement," Chronicle of Higher Education, October 7, 2020). Jump back to footnote 12 in the text.

Edward J. Glantz is Teaching Professor at The Pennsylvania State University.

Chris Gamrat is Instructional Designer at The Pennsylvania State University.

Lisa Lenze is Director of Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at The Pennsylvania State University.

Jeffrey Bardzell is Associate Dean of Undergraduate and Graduate Studies at The Pennsylvania State University.

© 2021 Edward J. Glantz, Chris Gamrat, Lisa Lenze, and Jeffrey Bardzell. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.