As a veteran of facilitating online training sessions (some successfully and others not so much), I can tell you firsthand that student engagement is a HUGE component of online teaching. And all three engagement categories are important: behavioral, affective, and cognitive. 

Let me talk through some steps that can generate engagement in online learning.

Behavioral Engagement: Setting Ground Rules for Structure

Boy watching video on laptop

Behavioral engagement in the physical classroom is evident through rules, routines, and procedures. Behavioral engagement can be addressed at the beginning of the year through continual practicing of the expected behaviors and then providing specific feedback on how those behaviors are being performed. 

In remote learning, those same practices should be implemented. Rules, routines, and procedures should be observable, measurable, stated positively, understandable by all students, and always applicable.

These rules, routines, and procedures should be addressed or posted before every interaction or activity that begins the remote learning process. By addressing the behaviors a teacher wishes to see from students, teachers can create norms and provide expectations, which are crucial for establishing structure in this uncertain time. 

Stating clear expectations also allows the teacher to provide specific feedback for students engaged in the expected behaviors and corrective feedback for students that are not. 

Finally, a teacher should overcommunicate the rules, routines, and procedures. In addition to setting clear expectations for students, overcommunication can also benefit the teacher by helping them remember how they want the remote learning environment to look and feel. A teacher should be encouraged to have rules, routines, and procedures handy so they can reference and provide feedback on the expectations as needed. 

Also, I highly encourage a teacher to display these expectations in a way that allows students to see them or reference them easily. This provides a level of accountability for students that will help smooth transitions to online learning.

Affective Engagement: Finding a Spark

I personally think finding that spark in online learning is the hardest part. Remote learning can be difficult to get excited for and difficult to show excitement through.  In these times, some content may seem nonessential with the crisis affecting our communities. Yet, just because it is hard does not mean it is impossible. If done right, affective engagement can be one of the most successful ways to promote remote learning.

Affective engagement, or emotional engagement, is what a teacher does to get students interested in the learning process.  It’s not necessarily about the mental effort they are putting forth or how well they are complying. Instead, affective engagement is about how much they want to be engaged with the activity, strategy, or classroom. 

Turn up your actions

I call affective engagement the movie star indicator because if we think about movies about teachers and teaching, they focus on how effective the teacher is at sparking the joy of learning within students. That holds true for remote learning. Yet it’s going to be different in the online environment.

Think about a person you know who was interviewed for TV news. Did that person’s personality shine through on camera? A lot of times, the answer is no. For people who aren’t used to being in front of a camera, cameras tend to cause nerves and discomfort that can diminish personality.

So, one tip for remote learning is to turn up your normal actions a bit. For instance, exaggerate voice inflections, exaggerate hand movements, become more active in speaking. It might feel weird and unnatural, but it will also show up on students’ screens as conversational and more engaging.

I do – We do – You do

Another way to promote affective engagement is to be more considerate about the I do – we do – you do concept of learning. Think of the I do activities as those that can be done before a live class to enhance the time you spend together. These I do activities might include scripted videos, screen recordings, or step -by-step procedures on how to complete a problem or activity. Then, in the we do portion of learning, use time in a live online class to take students through guided practice. Provide just enough scaffolding so students can do most of the work while the teacher ensures students are completing the necessary steps at a high rate of success. The you do time can be spent by a student on their own independently or in smaller groups. Through I do structures and teacher guidance during the we do time, students will believe they can do the work on their own and will be encouraged to try independently.

Student Autonomy

Another way to promote affective engagement is to provide autonomy for students. I think back to the quote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”  It might seem paradoxical, but as we increase remote learning, it might also be a time to provide for more creativity and individual thought among students.

Think about ways students can meet learning targets or objectives with more freedom and flexibility.  Set up a learning target, provide some ground rules and expectations of the end outcome and timing of completion, and then let students go. While some students will need more structure, the teacher will have set up a framework for independent exploration and a path toward self-efficacy for students. As students come for guidance, remember it is not a failure of teaching but an opportunity to further learning and to meet students at that crucial zone of proximal development. Provide the time and space for independent discussion with students.

Finding Connections

As always, the most affective engagement is going to be connection to student lives. Teachers should make the learning relevant to the lived experiences of students, to the time we are now living in, and to the steps that might come next. There are ample opportunities to make real-world connections to math, science, arts, history, civics, government, and many other areas of content. Find the opportunities for those connections and make the subject matter come alive through the issues the world is currently facing.

Cognitive Engagement: Carrying the Mental Load

Cognitive engagement in the classroom refers to active mental involvement of students in the learning activities or active mental effort, such as meaningful processing, strategy use, concentration, and metacognition.

As teachers are putting together online lessons, they should think through ways that cognitive engagement could be stimulated in the student’s current setting. If teachers conduct online meetings, they can use small-group discussions through breakout rooms and/or interactive questioning via Kahoot, Google Forms, or similar platforms. Those strategies and platforms will help boost cognitive engagement.

Cognitive engagement can also come into play for asynchronous learning by asking challenging questions, building upon previous skills, and connecting content from one discipline to another.

Out of the three forms of engagement, cognitive engagement should be the one that flourishes in remote learning. However, to get students to spend mental effort on independent tasks, the two other engagement components are essential. Students must know and understand the rules, routines and procedures expected of them, and they must be motivated to do the mental work.

Additional Resources

Remote learning brings together all three engagement areas. Combined, they can be powerful in assuring that students still have the best environments for learning and that teachers are creating the supports to continue student success.

Below are additional resources on how to encourage effective remote learning:

For further information, please read through the clarification pages that correspond with NEE Indicator 1.2, 5.1, and 5.2b. Those documents can be found in the NEE Data Tool under the Help and Resources menu by typing in “Classroom Observation.”

If you have other questions or need further clarification, please email us at nee@missouri.edu.

For more COVID-19 support and resources for school leaders, please visit our blog page devoted to this topic.


The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.