Student engagement starts with the instructor. A teacher can set a tone for a class that is warm, welcoming, and an exciting place to learn; or a teacher can make a course seem intimidating, boring, or unwelcoming. While every instructor has a different style, there are many things that can be done to make students feel like a course is worth the effort and like the instructor cares about their progress and learning.

Best Practices

The best way to create a course where students feel invited to learn is by demonstrating that you respect them. This can be as simple as memorizing their names, using the correct pronouns for each student, and practicing the pronunciation of names. Practicing friendliness and compassion builds trust and helps create an environment in which students feel comfortable sharing their perspectives and experiences.

Another consideration is whether students feel like the instructor is invested in their learning. One way to display this investment is by asking for feedback on how well students think they are doing and how they feel the class is going. Giving one or two feedback surveys throughout the semester can allow the professor to tailor instruction to each specific group of students. Surveys can ask if they are learning the material, if they understand instructor instructions, if they have enough time to respond to questions in class, or anything else that could help the instructor make teaching decisions. Reminding the class about office hours and presenting it as something positive for both the instructor and student can make you seem more approachable and can encourage students to ask for help. Finally, showing enthusiasm for the topic can get the students excited about what they’re learning. If something is especially interesting or exciting to you, don’t be afraid to communicate that to the class.

One way instructors can accidentally make a class less welcoming is by causing stress or anxiety over high-stakes assessments. This can make students – especially students from historically marginalized groups – perform worse. Luckily, it’s easily ameliorated by reframing the way you talk about the assignments: Presenting an assignment as a weed-out test or a good measure of someone’s intelligence or fitness for a field could skew the results. Instead, presenting an assessment as a good way for a student to see what they know and what they need to practice more will help even the playing field and give the instructor more accurate results to judge student progress.

Similarly, the way an instructor gives feedback on assessments can make a big difference in whether a student feels like they can improve. Frame feedback constructively, focus on how improvements can be made, and try to include a compliment on what the student did well.


Online Interaction

Some additional challenges can arise in online courses where it’s harder to interact with students and show that you are interested in their learning. However, with a little planning and consistency, online students can feel connected and engaged with the instructor. Instructor-to-student communication is a key way to encourage student engagement with online courses [1].

Online connections can start with a welcome video explaining course policies, introducing the instructor, and providing information about how to be successful in the course. Scheduling virtual office hours or optional, synchronous sessions can also help students feel like an instructor really wants them to do well.

It’s also beneficial to reach out to students individually. Many learning management systems allow an instructor to message students from the gradebook so they can easily check in and express concern for students who are falling behind or congratulate students who excelled on an assignment.

In addition to structured interaction, frequent and informal communication is also welcoming and engaging. Instructors can participate in discussion boards by highlighting quality posts, asking thought-provoking questions, and encouraging students. Occasional announcements also make students feel like the instructor is paying attention to the course. These can be text announcements, but video announcements can convey tone and facial expressions.  

Non-verbal Interaction

Sometimes instructors communicate with students without saying a word. There are a lot of factors that influence how students feel about a course and an instructor, so it is worth considering non-verbal communication.

In a classroom, this can be as simple as walking around and weighing in on small-group discussions. If you’re nervous in front of a group or a camera, try to relax and be yourself. This will show in your body language and make you seem more approachable. You don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not, but it can be useful to consider your teaching persona and imagine what impression you are giving students about yourself.

The materials students receive also contribute to the general environment of the course. Does the syllabus invite students to learn and get them excited about the course content? Do the materials reflect the diversity of identities students might have? Are videos, documents, and other artifacts accessible to students with disabilities? All of these things can make students feel included or excluded in a course.

References and Additional Resources


[1] 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.

Further Exploration

  • Rovai, A. P. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. Internet and Higher Education, 10, 77 – 88.

Instructional Development