Engaging Student Series provides valuable lessons to faculty

June 14, 2021

Born out of the Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) BlendLT program, the Engaging Students Series has been an instrumental resource for faculty to drive student engagement in the online space.

BlendLT offers a series of faculty engagement opportunities and resources that support converting traditional residential courses to a blended (face-to-face and online) format. Since its inception during the 2015-16 academic year, the program has assisted faculty-designed blended courses.

"We took the basis of the BlendLT program and adapted it to create the Engaging Students Series to help faculty figure out how to engage their students in this new online environment — especially for faculty who had never taught in an online format before,” said Erica Fleming, an instructional designer for TLT.

The Engaging Students Series was launched early during the pandemic to support Penn State instructors preparing to teach their summer 2020 courses online and was found to be such a popular and valuable resource that it has continued since. In addition, it has helped countless faculty who may or may not have already been familiar with teaching in an online environment. Past resources can be found in the Engaging Students Series Pressbook.

One such faculty member is Kelly Karpa, assistant dean of Interprofessional Education and a professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the Penn State College of Medicine. Karpa, who is responsible for engaging learners from 36 schools that have physical therapy, occupational therapy and pharmacy programs, never taught in an online format previous to the pandemic.

"Having the TLT folks walk through these different tools and options was hugely enlightening for those of us who had never taught online before and suddenly found ourselves thrust into that environment,” Karpa said. "Now, students are definitely more engaged than they would have been if it was just someone lecturing to them. There are now tools they can use to stay engaged in the course."

Some of Karpa’s most significant takeaways from attending the Engaging Students Series sessions were learning various ways to incorporate Zoom and Canvas into courses. Before the remote transition, the College of Medicine had not used Canvas for pre-clinical courses. Other tools to drive student engagement in her courses included breakout rooms in Zoom, the chat feature in Canvas, and Google Docs for small-group collaboration.

Another faculty member new to teaching online (and participating in Zoom meetings) who sought out resources like the Engaging Students Series is Judith Newman, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Abington. "I began teaching in 1977, so I was around 70 when the pandemic pushed us into remote teaching,” Newman said. “I was very old school in regard to technology; I had a lot to learn."

Some of the most valuable takeaways for Newman included making Zoom polls and the resources available on online exams and academic integrity. "Finding ways to engage students was certainly more difficult in a remote environment,” she said. “But I began to get more and more confident that there were things I could do that I had not done before."

Despite the return to normal on the horizon, TLT plans to continue to offer more workshops in the Engaging Students Series, focusing on engaging students in online environments while also incorporating more strategies for engaging students online while teaching in-person classes. TLT will be announcing dates in July for future sessions. 

Fleming said, "Engaging students in online spaces does not stop when we go back to in-person classes. Faculty can take the lessons they've learned from the remote teaching and learning period and incorporate those to create more engaging, successful, and inclusive spaces for their students when we're back to in-person teaching and learning."

Last Updated June 14, 2021