Creating Emotional Engagement in Online Learning

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Higher education educators play a pivotal role in supporting students' emotional engagement with online course content.

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Credit: / © 2020

As educators who deliver online courses in a teacher education program, we wanted to find the most effective ways to facilitate online learning and teaching. We collected survey data and conducted interviews with three hundred university students about how they engaged with their online courses and found that, above all else, teachers help students feel connected and supported in their online studies and are essential to students' emotional engagement.

With the increasing use of online course delivery in higher education, it is important to identify aspects of the online course that students consider essential to engage in learning. Typically, a student's engagement within a course is measured by their performance, their access to the course content, or the time and effort they invest in the course.1 Previous studies have focused on course design and the use of technology to enhance student engagement.2 While these things are important, a framework for online student engagement developed in 2018 by Petrea Redmond and colleagues suggests that students engage in learning via five dimensions: cognitive, behavioral, social, collaborative, and emotional.3 This means that rather than focusing only on student access to the content and the course design, educators also need to facilitate social and collaborative interaction to ensure students are emotionally connected within the course. Elizabeth Reyes-Fournier et al. found that emotional engagement is a crucial aspect of online teaching effectiveness.4

The following advice can help higher education faculties facilitate student engagement in the online learning environment.

1. Focus on the teacher-student relationship.

The online students we surveyed said they "often felt isolated . . . but [the teacher] helped to ensure we had a community of support to enable [us] to succeed." The factors underpinning heightened disengagement risk among online students are anxiety and feelings of disconnectedness. By finding ways to connect with students and facilitate connections among students and their peers, teachers play a significant role in boosting student retention and helping them fully engage within their academic degree program.5

We cultivated emotional engagement in our courses by offering warm messages of encouragement and interacting with students through online check-ins, videoconferencing, or telephone calls. One of the students we surveyed offered the following comment: "I enjoyed thoroughly how interact[ive] and fun the [online] sessions were. . . . I enjoyed doing group work, watching videos, and just having fun."

2. Organize the online platform clearly and logically.

Students told us that the location of materials and how the materials are organized are important. "Everything was clear to understand, and the layout of the [learning platform] was easy to navigate," one student noted. Clear and logical organization visibly influences the quality of the online learning experience, positively impacts students' performance, and helps students to feel like the experience they have accessing the course content and activities is important to the lecturer.6 In their 2017 article titled "Design Thinking Pedagogy: The Educational Design Ladder," Cara Wrigley and Kara Straker suggest that a well-structured course positively impacts a student's emotional connection to the learning community.7 This was also found in our research. "Sometimes, people just throw it up there, and there's no order," one respondent wrote. "You've got to have the information there, and you've got to have it ordered." Students wanted to access course material easily and feel like they were part of our online learning environment.

3. Let students know that you care about their progress.

Finally, our students expressed that they wanted teachers to be aware of their progress. They sought out feedback to help them understand their performance as it related to the learning objectives of a course.

Students also wanted teachers to be aware of their progress when working online. As one student explained, "I like when [teachers] contact me and say, 'Look. How are you doing? How's everything tracking? Are you feeling good with where you're going?' I feel like that personal touch and their investment . . . in our education and our development . . . really makes the difference."

Online learning management systems use tools such as badges and activity- and task-completion tools to track and monitor student progress. These tools helped our students know that we were aware of their progress and guided them in what to do next. As a result, students felt like their progress was important to us, which in turn created emotional engagement within the course. 

Ultimately, 74 percent of student responses identified emotional engagement as the most valued part of an online course. While emotional engagement is not easy to quantify through cognitive or behavioral analytics,8 we dubbed this element the "X factor" (owing to the way the students appeared to value it as the "special something" that aided their overall engagement with the course). The "X factor" seemed to represent the teacher's ability to design a course and deliver it with an ethic of care that connected students to the course, their peers, and their desire to learn.9 "I felt I was supported, and it encouraged me to be involved as much as possible," one of our students wrote.

Similar to the framework developed by Redmond et al., our student responses show that engagement occurs when support is provided across the dimensions of content, learning behaviors, student collaboration, and social and emotional interactions.10 Significantly, our study highlighted the students' needs to feel emotionally connected to the course in order to engage more meaningfully. Successful online teaching includes providing content in a clear and accessible way and showing students that we care through thoughtful and deliberate course design.

While it is currently important to get content online quickly, we encourage educators to prioritize connecting with students and ensuring opportunities for emotional interactions within their courses to help students engage in their learning.

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and Student Success web pages.

The Transforming Higher Ed blog editors welcome submissions. Please contact us at [email protected].


  1. Kerri-Less Krause and Hamish Coates, "Students' Engagement in First‐Year University," Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 33, no. 5 (September 2008): 493–505.
  2. Papia Bawa, "Retention in Online Courses: Exploring Issues and Solutions—A Literature Review," SAGE Open, January 5, 2016; Andrei Dacko, Lester Leung, Mazhar Mohad, Mariel Vandeloo, Mariel, "Making It Personal: Understanding the Online Learning Experience to Enable Design of an Inclusive, Integrated E-Learning Solution for Students," eLearning Papers 42, no. 1 (2015): 1–14; Robert A Ellis and Ana-Marie Bliuc, "Exploring New Elements of the Student Approaches to Learning Framework: The Role of Online Learning Technologies in Student Learning," Active Learning in Higher Education 20, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 11–24.
  3. Petrea Redmond, Amanda Heffernan, Lindy-Anne Abawi, Alice Brown, and Robyn Henderson, "An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education," Online Learning 22, no 1 (2018): 183–204.
  4. Elizabeth Reyes-Fournier, Edward J. Cumella, Michelle March, Jennifer Pedersen, and Gabrielle Blackman, "Development and Validation of the Purdue Global Online Teaching Effectiveness Scale," Online Learning 24, no. 2 (2020): 111–127.
  5. Nathalie Roland, Mariane Frenay, Gentiane Boudrenghien, "Understanding Academic Persistence through the Theory of Planned Behavior: Normative Factors under Investigation," Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice 20, no. 2, (July 2016): 215–235; Sarah O'Shea, "Older, Online and First: Recommendations for Retention and Success," Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 35, no. 1 (2019); Redmond et al., "An Online Engagement Framework," 183–204; Eric Bettinger and Susanna Loeb, Promises and Pitfalls of Online Education, research report, (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, June 9, 2017).
  6. Ella R. Kahu and Karen, "Student Engagement in the Educational Interface: Understanding the Mechanisms of Student Success," Higher Education Research & Development 37, no. 1 (2018): 58–71.
  7. Cara Wrigley and Kara Straker, "Design Thinking Pedagogy: The Educational Design Ladder," Innovations in Education and Teaching International 54, no. 4 (2017): 374–385.
  8. Reyes-Fournier et al., "Development and Validation," 111–127.
  9. Nel Noddings, "Moral Education and Caring," Theory and Research in Education 8, no. 2 (2010): 145-151.
  10. Redmond et al., "An Online Engagement Framework," 183–204.

Melissa Fanshawe is a Lecturer of Mathematics Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of Southern Queensland.

Katie Burke is a Lecturer of Arts Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of Southern Queensland.

Eseta Tualaulelei is a Lecturer of Early Childhood Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of Southern Queensland.

Cathy Cameron is an Educational Designer at the University of Southern Queensland.

© 2020 Melissa Fanshawe, Katie Burke, Eseta Tualaulelei, and Cathy Cameron. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 International License.