Ep. 258: How to Increase Online Student Engagement

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Dr. Unnati Narang, Assistant Professor of Marketing at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, joins the podcast to discuss the first week of class prompt that improved student engagement by 30%. She also shares insight into other pedagogical tests that didn’t move the needle at all and how to make sure we’re all learning off each other’s online pedagogy experiment curves.

Just a nudge?

‘Nudging’ is a term coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein that begs the question: can you introduce subtle changes in a system or environment that influences how people make decisions without making it mandatory?

This theory continues to be experimented and explored within education in hopes of finding a way to tackle barriers to engagement and enrollment. 

Regarding tuition, nudging experiments have been made in the form of fliers or texts offering students loans and financial aid options so that they understand their affordability pathway, above on beyond the sometimes scary sticker price. However, the results of these experiments have been mixed to date, and disappointing to many.

Narang explains the results of a recent study. Researchers sent financial aid texts to 800,000 students. However, little to no effect on enrollment or the number of students applying for financial aid. This shows that context matters when it comes to a ‘nudge.’

“Student heterogeneity really matters because every learner is different. So you can’t expect the exact same nudge to work in every setting for every type of individual. And how these effects scale up is something researchers really have to think hard about,” explains Dr. Narang.

How the online environment lends to better education research 

Dr. Narang says that randomization is the key to finding solutions for educational engagement. However, reaching proper randomization in a traditional classroom has proven difficult. 

Randomized testing has proven to be much cheaper and easier to implement in an online classroom than in a traditional, in-person classroom. Many more factors can be closely studied in an online setting to reach a valid conclusion.

With an online course, instructors can see things such as when a student starts watching a video, when they pause it, whether or not they speed up the video or come back to it and rewatch it, and if multiple attempts at an assessment are being made. While some systems allow for educators to track more than others, each offers a quantitative reflection of factors that may not be available in a traditional classroom. 

These recorded factors provide a fascinating insight into the different types of learners and what works to drive engagement within the online course. The overlap has proven significant when this data is utilized to develop tools and systems to incorporate into university-level classes.

“Online education seems to be increasing access to traditional education also. So, when University is looking at learner types or demographic, there is the applicability of what we learned from the online world into the degree programs,” explains Dr. Narang.

The first-week class prompt that boosted student engagement 

The first week of class is usually brimming with class introductions and ice breakers, activities that students either love or loathe. Instructors typically employ these activities to introduce a sense of belonging and community within the classroom. But how well do these attempts work in an online setting?

Dr. Narang put this to the test. Within an online marketing course, she designed two optional discussion posts and assigned two groups of students to one or the other. 

In the first group, the discussion post included a 30-second video of an instructor introducing themselves and asking that the students also introduce themselves and share something about themselves with the class. 

Researchers showed the second group a 30-second video of an instructor introducing themselves and asking the students to introduce themselves and share their thoughts on how the digital world and digital marketing were shaping firms and consumers. 

To Dr. Narang’s surprise, the group that was asked to share their ideas on the digital marketing world showed 30% more engagement in the course in both how many videos they watched and how many assessments they successfully completed. 

Leveraging data to increase online classroom engagement

Dr. Narang stresses the importance of learning from the results of educational studies and implementing them to change the future of online engagement.

In this case, Dr. Narang would suggest kicking off the online learning environment with a first-week class activity incorporating class premise to spark related discussion and pique interest. Moving away from the traditional two-facts-and-a-lie approach and digging in deep can benefit online engagement, according to data. Dr. Narang suggests utilizing it.

She suggests that the future of education is heading towards more adaptive learning, artificial intelligence utilization, and personalized learning.  

There has not been a definitive study that suggests a way of learning that works for all students in the online space. Therefore, cultivating a unique experience for each student by utilizing the resources that an online classroom setting provides is crucial for increasing engagement.

But the volume of students and the volume of data points that online education uniquely offers will get us to a better engaging future faster.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Unnati Narang, Assistant Professor of Marketing at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

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