A Positive Environment of Engagement and Retention in the Online Learning Environment – Faculty Focus

According to The Glossary of Education Reform (2016), engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion students show when they are learning or being taught. Engagement can extend to the level of motivation students learn during the process of learning. Students inspired by learning trends and faculty guidance have the opportunity to be positively engaged in the online classroom.   

The online learning environment consists of a web-based learning atmosphere where student and faculty experiences and positions are located in separate geographical locations. Within an online learning environment, students will develop professionally and personally with a variety of experiences that empower, encourage, and engage each learner (Martin, 2023). Through the use of engaging techniques, it is possible (and essential) to create a positive learning environment across the distance!  

Student engagement in an online environment can be achieved through various forms of interaction, including behavioral, emotional, and cognitive formats (Hollister et al., 2022). Engagement itself is truly the glue that holds a positive teaching and learning experience together, and as a faculty member, it is our responsibility to provide an environment of positive learning and engagement for our students. Students who make a strong effort to understand the material will incorporate new knowledge into their daily lives, practice, and/or profession (Campbell, 2023).  As faculty, we must do our best to not only observe engaged practices but include them within the online environment of today. 

Forms of engagement 

Behavioral engagement  

Through behavioral engagement, the student will show great effort. They will ask questions, pay attention, participate in activities, follow the rubric-guided instruction, and maintain positive behaviors in the online classroom environment. A behaviorally engaged student will show participation, persistence, and positive conduct within the online course (Hollister et al., 2022).  

Emotional engagement 

When a student is emotionally engaged, the student will collaborate positively with peers within the classroom setting and build trusting relationships with faculty. The student will experience positive emotions such as happiness, enjoyment, feelings of pride, and a sense of belonging. Negative episodes of emotional engagement can include negative student attitudes toward peers, a poor perception of the classroom environment, and a lack of connection with faculty. Emotional engagement is essential for students who will go out into the workforce and discuss their schooling experiences with peers. Did they get the support they needed? Did they feel that faculty truly cared about their needs? 

Cognitive engagement  

When students experience cognitive engagement, they are present for challenges, they go above and beyond the requirements of an assignment or application of faculty feedback, and they focus on the needs for success within the course. A student who has attained cognitive engagement will be able to constructively apply their new knowledge, understanding, and skills while critically thinking in learning. Cognitive engagement can be displayed through deep learning, self-regulation, and understanding of the material that has been discussed during the course (Hollister et al., 2022). 

It can be very difficult for a student to transition from in-person to an online learning environment.  The unfamiliarity of technology and virtual learning can be a large barrier to learning and engagement. As faculty, we must set expectations for our students.  Classroom expectations, netiquette, positive relationship formation, and the need for ongoing communication should be a priority shared on day one. These expectations should be clear and concise so students cannot take them in another way. Assignment due dates should be available for the term through the syllabi and listed within the course. This process will allow students to embrace scheduled deadlines and due dates. The development of an organizational timeline will be a visual guide for engaged students and help foster success. It is the responsibility of the faculty to close the proximity between faculty and student and encourage engagement to review assignments closely, read announcements often, and positively influence the outcome of the student (Flinn & Hermann, 2023). 

Offer office hours online with varied availability to meet the needs of the student. Utilize virtual resources and communication platforms, such as Zoom, to connect with students. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, communication was held mainly through emails and phone calls. The inclusion of a communication platform has become a positively implemented tool in creating an ongoing and trusting faculty-student relationship. Do not hesitate to set up one-on-one meetings with your online students.  Building positive, engaging relationships through real time spent together can be invaluable and be truly inspirational to each student. Students who meet with their faculty become engaged; thus, they succeed academically and feel optimistic about learning and their future.  

Faculty can share information about themselves with their students. Show students that their faculty is a real person and is committed to helping them earn success. Develop a positive and trusting relationship, as this will engage the student in prioritizing success and confidence. In turn, ask the students to share information about themselves. Discuss their needs, priorities, and find common ground. Most importantly, empower them to engage in their work with pride and your support. By increasing engagement in the online learning environment, positive outcomes can be expected.  When the student becomes engaged, we will see an increase in the student’s performance, attitudes towards others, improved communication, and long-term commitment to their collegiate environment and studies. Engagement aligns with confidence and pride which is a great place for our students to stand.  

Student disengagement concerns 

Distance learning is very independent 

Perceptions may often lean towards online learning programs seeming less rigorous than traditional in-person courses. In reality, online program students must work harder to be independent, autonomous, organized, motivated, and have higher confidence levels to complete their work and meet the course outcomes (Dickson, 2016).  

Online learning platforms allow students to continue their education while continuing the responsibilities of working and living life outside of school but do require students to be organized and disciplined. The expectations of the student should be discussed concisely by faculty during day one of the course. Deadlines, extensions, communication needs, and office hours are some ways that faculty can make sure the student is aware of boundaries within the course. Asynchronous assignments can help students become engaged in coursework on their own time and encourage them to reply to other peers in between school, work, and other life responsibilities. Ghasemi et al. (2018) report that asynchronous discussion boards can help students have a deeper learning of the content and help students become more engaged in analysis, synthesis, decision-making, and use of knowledge.  

Missing a personal connection

Making sure students are aware of who their faculty member is and how to get in touch with them is crucial. At the beginning of every semester, it is important to not only post a welcome announcement within the course, but to hold a meeting through Zoom or Google Meet to help personalize your welcome. It allows online students to speak to the faculty member and ask questions about the course or their faculty’s previous work experiences. Having a personal connection with your faculty will help students trust their faculty and build a rapport throughout the semester. These meetings don’t have to stop at the first week of courses. Faculty can continue to hold these meetings on a weekly or bi-weekly basis throughout the semester which will allow student/faculty rapport to build. Some virtual office hours can be open for students to come and go as they please where they can speak to their faculty more so than if they went through email.  

Recognize personal needs  

Faculty need to acknowledge that students have other responsibilities besides school. Not that this is an excuse for not doing work, but emergencies do arise and faculty need to be accepting and work with the student. Our ultimate goal is to have successful students within our programs but even the most goal-oriented, engaged, eager students have struggles in life. Students are people and faculty are people first. We need to work together as a team to create successful students within the course.  

Boundaries 

While it is important to ensure that students are engaged in online learning, boundaries need to be set to establish a positive and engaging learning environment. Schwartz (2020) states the relationship between faculty and students is one of a power differential, and it is important to set boundaries for the benefit of both parties. Boundaries are beneficial for students to ensure a clear understanding of their role and to assist them in future endeavors in their careers. Faculty need to set clear boundaries to ensure they do not abuse their power regarding giving more time to one student than another, as well as maintaining their work-life balance. Setting boundaries early in a course will allow faculty and students to have a clear understanding of expectations. For faculty, it is important to maintain the boundaries that have been established to ensure there continues to be a positive student connection. 

Implications for the future  

The future is bright! Our responsibility as faculty is to the student. It is our job and priority to create successful students. Making sure our students are engaged within each course is essential. Students need to be behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively engaged throughout each of their courses to have a great experience. These are feasible and should be routine for faculty for every course!  

As more and more nontraditional students go back to school to further their education, we will find that online programs are going to continue to rise in demand. We need to make sure our students rise to meet the high standards of our institutions and continue to strive to develop the most successful students possible.  


Dr. Laura Flinn earned her BSN (2008) at Bradley University, MSN (2013) at Illinois State University and DNP (2022) with an emphasis in leadership from Bradley University in Peoria, IL. Dr. Laura Flinn currently works as the family nurse practitioner program director at Bradley University and an assistant professor in the Department of Nursing at Bradley University, Peoria, IL. She also continues to work as a family nurse practitioner at OSF St. Francis Medical Group in Peoria, IL. Her focus is teaching in the graduate courses including a variety of health assessment, FNP practicum courses, diagnostic reasoning, and professional aspects of advanced nursing practice.

Dr. Kelly Fogelmark earned her ADN (2004) from Northland Pioneer College in Show Low, AZ. She earned her BSN (2007), MSN (2010), and DNP (2019), with a leadership emphasis from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing in Peoria, IL. Dr. Fogelmark currently works in the Department of Nursing at Bradley University, Peoria, IL, as an assistant professor. She teaches in the graduate courses with a concentration in ethics, healthcare policy, leadership, nursing theory, and mentoring students in the creation and implementation of DNP Projects.

Dr. Maureen Hermann earned her BSN (1995), MSN (2011) and DNP (2016) with an emphasis in leadership from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing in Peoria, IL. Dr. Maureen Hermann currently works as an assistant professor in the Department of Nursing at Bradley University, Peoria, IL. Her focus is teaching in the graduate courses including a variety of health promotion, healthcare policy, leadership, ethics, and DNP project courses.

References 

Campbell, A. (2023).  10 powerful ways to cultivate student engagement for academic success.  Turnitin.  Retrieved from https://www.turnitin.com/blog/10-powerful-ways-to-cultivate-student-engagement-for-academic-success 

Dickson, C. (2016). Considerations for Introducing Asynchronous Discussion to Enhance Postgraduate Online Learner Engagement. Nursing Education Perspectives, 37 (6), 349-351. doi: 10.1097/01.NEP.0000000000000056. 

Flinn, L., & Hermann, M. (2023). My Faculty is a Real Person! Overcoming Struggles in an Asynchronous Learning Environment. Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-course-delivery-and-instruction/my-faculty-is-a-real-person-overcoming-struggles-in-an-asynchronous-learning-environment/ 

Ghasemi, M. R., Moonaghi, H. K., & Heydari, A. (2020). Strategies for sustaining and enhancing nursing students’ engagement in academic and clinical settings: a narrative review. Korean journal of medical education, 32(2), 103–117. https://doi.org/10.3946/kjme.2020.159 

Great Schools Partnership. (2016).  Student Engagement. The Glossary of Education Reform. Retrieved from https://www.edglossary.org/student-engagement/ 

Hollister, B., Nair, P., Hill-Lindsay, S., & Chukoskie, L. (2022). Engagement in Online Learning: Student Attitudes and Behavior During COVID-19. Frontiers in Education, 7. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feduc.2022.851019 

Martin, D. (2023).  Engagement:  The secret sauce to effective faculty professional development, Faculty Focus, Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/academic-leadership/engagement-the-secret-sauce-to-effective-faculty-professional-development/ 

Schwartz, H. (2020). Role Clarity: How Faculty Can Map Their Own Boundaries. https://www.nea.org/sites/default/files/2020-08/How%20faculty%20can%20map%20their%20own%20boundaries.pdf 

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