According to the survey respondents:

The majority of students felt that engagement meant interacting both with their peers and with the instructor, participation in online discussions, and involvement with the subject matter. Students often mentioned that timely, meaningful instructor feedback was a part of those interactions, says the report.

“Engaged means to me that I am learning from the instructor, the material, and most importantly, from fellow students,” said one respondent. “The exchange of ideas and experience is most helpful.

Students part of the survey also indicated how important relevance and real-world application was in their course.

“This course has all the right stuff, just lacks us thinking more about current events,” said one student. “I really think this course could embody engagement if we didn’t spend some weeks thinking about the basic concepts by themselves and instead thought about them as applicable to the real world and what is going on around us.”

However, students also noted that it’s not just the course content that keeps them motivated to learn, as instructor enthusiasm was heavily emphasized.

“To be ‘engaged’ in a course is to have a desire both to actively participate in the course work and desire to extract more than is offered through the standard assigned course work,” said one students. “Please note, the word ‘DESIRE.’ The instructor can easily encourage students to extract more information on a small amount of enthusiasm and encouragement. If the instructor has a cold feel when interacting with students this often closes the door for ‘the desire to learn more.”

Students were also asked whether the course they had taken met their definition of engaged learning, not just the University’s. Over 75 percent of students surveyed felt that the courses met their definition of engaged learning, which included an emphasis on personalized feedback.

“The instructor provides meaningful and personalized feedback to my assignments which assist me in determining whether or not I’m on the right track,” noted one student. “It’s not about just getting a good grade and degree for me I genuinely want to learn and have the experience I would have if I were attending class on campus.”

However, some students said they felt engaged not because the instructor had participated in the course, but, again, because of the applicability of the course materials to real-world experiences.

“I said yes because the three projects/assignments/labs which required students to get out there, were really good (if you challenged yourself),” said one student. “The rest of the work could have used more effort from the professor. What is the point in having discussion boards if we do not discuss?”

According to the report, for students who said that their courses did not meet the definition of engaged learning, “the overwhelming consensus was that their instructors were not present in the courses and were late returning graded assignments.”

“We did have discussion posts but nothing that pertained to the class. We had a single group project. For comprehensive problem five, both the teacher and tutor had told the class ahead of time that this was an assignment that most students have difficulty with. If that is the case and instructional staff knows that, I would think that they would have had a blackboard elluminate session or at least more interactive session than what we got, which was ‘Read the text very carefully,’” lamented one student. “In online courses so much depends on the student’s reading comprehension and we accept that going in but we could use some teacher time…out here, we often feel alienated and as though we are left to our own devices.”

“According to the accounts of the students surveyed in the online business program, it was evident that most instructors with relevant professional development applied strategies to engage the students,” concluded the report. “Both quantitative and qualitative data supported the fact that many trained instructors had a positive impact on student engagement…The qualitative data also provided evidence that trained instructors were more actively involved in the courses and provided more timely and meaningful feedback than did untrained instructors.”

Moving forward, Penn State Online’s research team plans to target additional programs in different disciplines as well as programs at the graduate level.

“Although some instructors who had taken either of the professional development courses did successfully engage students, it would be interesting to determine the extent to which this occurred using a larger sample,” noted the authors. “On this point, we do not know whether the non-trained instructors were able to engage the students because these instructors were experienced in the face-to-face and/or online context, because they were trained in pedagogy elsewhere, or for other reasons. There is also the possibility that some instructors are natural-born teachers.”

For more in-depth information on the survey, its results and methodology, read the full report “Measuring Student Engagement in an Online Program.”