Academic Rigor and Engagement

When adequately challenged, students typically put more time and effort into their online course materials.  As with any course, when students are engaged, there is greater opportunity for learning. When designing content for an online environment, activities and assessments should focus on higher-order learning levels, promote reflective learning, and most importantly, align with and measure course goals and objectives.

Best Practices

Project based learning

  • Well-designed projects create “communities of inquiry to advance mental thinking” (Robinson & Hullinger, 2008).
  • Projects should incorporate higher-order learning tasks so that students must analyze, synthesize, and create together.
  • Check that project aligns with course goals and objectives.
  • Design projects to promote reflection, whether designed as individual student projects, or as group projects.
  • Allow student choice in projects; this can promote increased engagement through situational interest (Flowerday, Schraw, & Stevens, 2004).

Peer Review

  • Helps students make meaning of new information, and to move from surface level to deeper learning.
  • Encourages students to reflect on how their work compares to that of their peers.
  • Peer review should be designed to give students practice at measuring their performance based on stated objectives.


  • Rubrics are a way of ensuring course goals and objectives are being measured. Some research suggests that sharing rubrics with students before an assignment is due is associated with improvements in academic performance (Reddy & Andrade, 2010).
  • Students should be encouraged to use rubrics for self- and peer-assessment.
  • Promote reflection and ensure that students hold each other to the same standards.


  • Write questions to ascertain student knowledge and understanding.
  • Questions should require creative thinking and critical analysis.
  • Use clear precise language.
  • Allow students to question and challenge each others ideas.
  • Discussions encourage student engagement by requiring students to read, reflect, and interact with a topic through writing prompts. Students who spend time on discussion boards in addition to the minimum time necessary to fulfill grading requirements have reported positive impressions of discussions as a type of course content (Paz Dennon, 2007).


  • Breslow, L. (2009). “Engaging students in learning,”RES.TTL-01 Guidelines on Learning that Inform Teaching, Fall 2009. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), available at (Accessed 28 Jan, 2015). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA, 4-9.
  • Combs, K. L., Gibson, S. K., Hays, J. M., Saly, J., & Wendt, J. T. (2008). Enhancing curriculum and delivery: linking assessment to learning objectives, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33:1, 87-102, DOI: 10.1080/02602930601122985 available at [Importance of learning objectives]
  • Dixson, M. D., (2010). Creating effective student engagement in online courses: What do students find engaging? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10:2, 1-13.
  • Flowerday, T., Schraw, G., & Stevens, J. (2004). The role of choice and interest in reader engagement, The Journal of Experimental Education, 72:2, 93-114, DOI: 10.3200/JEXE.72.2.93-114, available at
  • Liu, E. Z-F., Lin, S. S. J., Chiu, C-H., & Yuan, S-M. (2001). Web-based peer review: The learner as both adapter and reviewer. IEEE transactions on education, 44:3, 246-251.
  • Paz Dennen, V. (2008). Pedagogical lurking: Student engagement in non-posting discussion behavior, Computers in Human Behavior, 24, 1624-1633.
  • Reddy, Y. M., & Andrade, H. (2010). A review of rubric use in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35:4, 436-448.
  • Robinson, C. C., & Hullinger, H. (2008). New benchmarks in higher education: Student engagement in online learning, Journal of Education for Business, 84:2, 101-19, DOI: 10.3200/JOEB.84.2.101-109, available at
  • Savery, J. R., & Duffy, T. M. (2001). Problem Based Learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. CRLT Technical Report No. 16-01. Center for Research on Learning and Technology, Indiana University.
  • Zepke, N., & Leach, L. (2010). Improving student engagement: Ten proposals for action. Active learning in higher education. Available at (Refer to proposals 4 and 5 in particular)