Increasing Student-to-Student Engagement: Applying Conrad and Donaldson’s "Phases of Engagement" in the Online Classroom
By Jessica A. Cannon, Associate Professor of History and Instructional Designer Liaison for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, University of Central Missouri
Figure 1. Social Engagement in Online Learning (from Pixabay)
One of the most challenging aspects of developing an online course is finding authentic ways to build student-student interactions into a course. Students often do not want to participate in traditional discussion board activities. Moreover, working collaboratively in groups is a critical career skill, but including group work or activities in a course (face-to-face or online) seems to rank somewhere beyond a root canal on students’ perceived pain scale. Even faculty sometimes struggle to find new ways to incorporate active learning and student interaction online.
While it may be tempting to minimize these activities to appease students, building a sense of community in a course is important. Doing so allows students the opportunity to see how others perceive and engage with the course content, as well as to practice constructively engaging in discussion themselves, both core elements of any university classroom experience. This type of engagement with peers builds metacognitive as well as communication skills as students learn how to: reflect on the learning process itself, measure their own learning, evaluate their own ideas and perceptions, and to give and receive constructive criticism.
Building community through student-student engagement also contributes to student motivation. When students are engaged collaboratively in applying course ideas to solve real world problems, most students persist with an activity (or course) because they perceive it as more relevant to their interests and goals. Students also feel a greater sense of accountability to their classmates in the learning community, particularly if others are counting on them for a project or study group. Clarity in explaining the purpose of the collaborative activities and designing them to be authentic or meaningful to students further enhances students’ interest and willingness to engage. Beyond seeing other ways to think about or solve a problem, or finding the activity more applicable to their interests and lives, individual students feel like they are not alone on the learning journey—something especially important to address in the online setting where students can quickly feel isolated behind a computer screen.
The benefits for student motivation, retention, and academic success are reason enough to try to incorporate more peer engagement in online courses. But it is also best practice: student-student interaction is suggested, if not required, by all leading quality assurance rubrics or standards for higher education, including: Quality Matters, the OSCQR Course Design Review Scorecard from the Online Learning Consortium, and the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC) guidelines (C-RAC is the standard used by the Higher Learning Commission for accreditation in the Midwest region). While some courses or disciplines may seem to be inappropriate for peer work—mathematics is an example that is occasionally mentioned—more than likely there are some ways to add peer-review or similar student-student activities to most courses either through formal assignments or informal study and review groups.
In a recent pedagogy workshop series held at the University of Central Missouri—co-sponsored by the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and the College of Education—one framework that helped faculty reimagine student-student engagement in their online courses was the Phases of Engagement model developed by Conrad and Donaldson (2012). This article will summarize that model and provide examples of ways to incorporate or increase student-student engagement in the online setting.
The Phases of Engagement Model
At its heart, the Phases of Engagement helps design activities that build trust and facilitate the growth of an active-learning community during the course of a semester. (Figure 2) Activities are designed to first get students comfortable talking to one another in low-stakes assignments. Students get to know classmates, and the instructor has an opportunity to explain the value of active-learning strategies. As the weeks progress, course activities increasingly focus on the application of course content during collaborative assignments like peer-review and small group work. By the end of the semester, students cooperate to create new content or new solutions to course issues.
Figure 2. Summary Flow Chart of Conrad and Donaldson’s Phases of Engagement
Although not described as such by Conrad and Donaldson (2012), the model can also be viewed in terms of the skills progression within a program as well as across their collegiate experience. For course design purposes, specific courses may focus more heavily on activities and skills centered in one or two of the phases, as noted in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Visual Representation of Ways to Apply the Phases to Different Levels of Courses
For example, phases 3 and 4 work particularly well as types of activities for upper-level and graduate-level courses, where students may lead discussions or develop content for their peers to use (individually or as a group) for a specific topic or lesson. For survey and lower-level undergraduate courses, simply developing a sense of community and beginning to encourage students to view their peers as collaborators (phases 1 and 2) is an achievable goal for online course design. The communication and collaborative skills learned in one online General Education course, for example, will carry over to other courses in the student’s program of study. Throughout the Phases of Engagement students develop metacognitive skills to regulate and assess their own learning processes while also gaining a greater sense of community and engagement in the course. All of these elements benefit long-term retention and student success.
Phases 1 and 2: Connect and Communicate
Figure 2 shows a summary of the five phases. Phase 1, spanning the first week or two of the semester, seeks to establish connections and allow students to explore and become comfortable with the online environment. There are four elements to concentrate on in this phase: first, students should be given a chance to introduce themselves to their classmates and find commonalities in their interests, career goals, or academic studies. Second, the instructor should also provide a self-introduction and engage with the students’ posts. Where possible, instructors can use this time to also implement formative assessments or skills inventory assignments to better understand where students are beginning the course in terms of knowledge and skills. Last, instructors need to establish the expectations for the course, including introducing concepts like netiquette and explaining concepts like active-learning so that students understand when and how they should engage during the course. Rubrics can provide outlines of expected performance or specific examples for students to model. Remember not all students have taken online courses or experienced active-learning classrooms, so models, anonymous exemplar student work from previous semesters, and rubrics can be crucial to student success.
Phase 2 spans the third and fourth weeks of the semester. The focus here is for students to experience lively but respectful discourse. Students may not have experienced an environment where differing ideas and positions on issues are expressed and challenged in a respectful manner, and the instructor’s goal is to introduce this type of discourse and set standards for discussion in the course. Instructors can do this by pairing students based on shared interests or goals identified in phase 1, and by encouraging the pairs (or the class at large through presentations by the pairs) to explore differing ideas or positions and to come to a consensus. If students have completed an online course before using the Phases of Engagement model, or students are more advanced in the program of study, the instructor may even pair those students together and ask them to lead the activity by modeling open discussion and consensus building in an early post for other students to see.
Some useful technology and techniques for Phase 1 and 2 activities include:
- a traditional discussion board in the LMS;
- Padlet or Flipgrid as alternative, interactive ways to post introductions or share content and allow comments from classmates;
- adapting traditional ice-breaker activities for online like this example from the University of Wisconsin;
- Screencastify or Screencast-o-matic to create videos that help students navigate the course;
- Google Forms to create surveys for skills assessment;
- Remind.com as a way to create regular (even pre-scheduled) announcements or communication from the instructor in the course;
- Google Meet, Skype, or Zoom as ways to meet for online office hours or have student groups synchronously if needed;
- assigning peer review of student work with a rubric on an early low-stakes assignment so that partners practice giving and crafting constructive feedback;
- assigning one perspective or aspect of an issue to the pairs for research, then incorporating those elements into a larger class discussion;
- and analysis or critique of an external work in the student pairs.
Phases 3 and 4: Collaborate and Co-Facilitate
Phase 3 is focused on small group activities during weeks five and six. Instructors use the information they have learned about students thus far to create groups of 3 to 5 students each. These groups then form the basis of collaborative work for the remainder of the semester. The instructor should designate a leader to start, even if the role will rotate later, and try to assign at least one tech-savvy student to each group. Including prior student pairings as much as possible is ideal, although the balance of students’ skills within the groups (leadership, technical skill, content knowledge, detail or schedule- oriented, etc.) is most important.
Instructors can allow teams an opportunity to set their own expectations for group work, working collaboratively to describe when and how they will communicate, set deadlines, and set alternatives for if a student is not able to meet a deadline. The instructor’s role is to guide and facilitate this discussion by including a rubric and explanation for the group project. To help lessen frustration and stress, in addition to establishing clear contracts or written expectations within the groups and explaining how the project or assignment will be graded, instructors can also consider including a peer review process at the end of the course. Outlining these details at the start helps students feel more at ease about how their individual grade may relate to the group’s final project or assignment and including peer review allows students to relate concerns to the instructor. Establishing clear expectations can assist in allaying common concerns about group work.
Finally, in phase 3 it is important for the instructor to design a final project or assignment for the groups that is authentic. Ideally the groups define the final parameters of the topic or product, although wherever possible the instructor should guide the groups towards projects that and can be implemented or useful after the course ends—this can be tasks or elements of the final product or the final product itself that can be incorporated into the students’ current or future employment. For a lower-level undergraduate course, the collaborative phase may be as far as the course is designed to develop student-student engagement, and the course can focus on working in groups on a class debate, role-playing exercise, or similar activity.
Phase 4 focuses on moving students towards being co-facilitators of their own learning experience. During the last eight to nine weeks of the course groups are focused on the projects they defined collaboratively in phase 3. The instructor guides the groups’ progress but acts in more of a subject matter expert role as students take on more responsibility for locating, evaluating, analyzing, and incorporating information for the final assignment or project. Project-based learning is an ideal example of one approach to creating phase 4 activities.
Some useful technology and techniques for phase 3 and 4 activities include:
- wikis, Google sites, or wix.com for creating and publishing projects on the web;
- YouTube videos, podcasts, or augmented reality displays or posters (using QR codes or the HP Reveal app) for organizations or museums as the final project;
- Adobe Spark to create resources that can be used after the course has ended;
- group debates or research presentations at institutional or regional scholarly conferences;
- user manuals, guides, or portfolios for professional work that students can use after graduation;
- and Google Drive for a collaborative workspace outside the LMS.
Phase 5: Continue
Phase 5 in Conrad and Donaldson’s model focuses on encouraging students to understand how they have taken on a more active role in their own and others’ learning over the course of the semester. Instructors can encourage the development of this perspective through metacognitive or reflective activities like a journaling assignment. The goal is to help students realize they can be leaders in subsequent courses, and in their program of study, through practicing this type of engagement as they continue in higher education. The next course they take, students may be willing to lead ice-breaker activities at the start of the course. Or, if used in prerequisite courses in a program where student cohorts generally take the same sequence of courses together, it can build a strong sense of community that lasts throughout the students’ experience at the university. And with student cohorts, instructors in subsequent courses can set aside less time for phases 1 and 2 focusing the course more heavily on phase 3 and 4 activities.
Important Considerations When Selecting Educational Technologies
This article includes several examples of technologies that could be useful for increasing student engagement in online courses, especially when paired with the Phases of Engagement model. Most instructors and instructional designers are familiar with the pitfalls and challenges of selecting educational technologies, although concluding with a reminder of four specific considerations may be beneficial.
First, use technology that fits the instructional goals of the course. Remember that students may be new to the website or application, and thus each new technology adds to the overall cognitive load of the course beyond content and assignments. It may not be worth adding a new technology just for variety, unless part of the goals of the course are to expose students to a variety of ways to do something (courses for K-12 educators may want to show students multiple tools, for example). Allow students time to learn to use the website or application within the course too—it is stressful for students to submit a final research project in a completely new portfolio software, for example, so including instructions and asking students to use that software throughout the course helps reduce anxiety for everyone.
Second, it is critical to tell students at the outset about all of the required technologies and technological skills for a course. It is best to include this information in both the course syllabus and a course orientation, so that students have time to acquire the technology or practice the skills in a remedial unit. For example, if students need to record and upload a video, students must have a phone or camera that will allow them to record that video and the ability to format it or upload it into the Learning Management System or other third-party site. Stating this information in a list during the first week, and providing a link to a demonstration video, can help students quickly become fluent and comfortable with the technology.
Third, instructors and instructional designers need to be aware of the accessibility features of any required technology used in a course. Based on recent litigation, court rulings and settlement agreements have set the standard that all contents posted by the instructor as well as all contents created and posted by students in a course needs to be accessible, including transcripts, closed-captioning, or access to equivalent content in an alternative format. If a technology is not accessible and cannot be easily remediated to make it accessible (through transcripts or by providing the content in alternative formats), it may be best to explore other options for that activity.
Lastly, instructors may want to be mindful of requiring students to post their image, especially on external websites (for example, via YouTube and any third-party software or app). Some students have experienced harassment, stalking, or other issues and as a result may be reluctant to post their image. Instructors can easily have an alternative option for participating ready to help those individuals feel more comfortable in the course. For example, instead of requiring students to post a picture of themselves in course introductions, the assignment instructions could allow for students to post an image of something that is important to who they are. Students might find an image of a nurse from the public domain to represent their educational and career goals rather than post an actual image of themselves. Creating avatars is another option.
Student-student interaction is a critical component of the university course experience, and even more so for online students who can feel isolated if instructor-student and student-student engagement are not adequately incorporated into the design and delivery of courses. Conrad and Donaldson’s Phases of Engagement model provides a framework to facilitate active learning strategies and the development of a sense of community. In the online setting, the framework is a methodical way to develop trust and collaboration among students. Through taking responsibility for their own learning, feeling accountable to their classmates while at the same time learning from their peers’ ideas and perspectives, and becoming knowledge leaders and creators, students become more engaged in the course and are more likely to persist and succeed.
Conrad, R. M. & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Conrad, R. M. & Donaldson, J. A. (2012). Continuing to engage the online learner: more activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
About the Author
Jessica A. Cannon is an Associate Professor of History and the Instructional Design Liaison for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Central Missouri. She earned her Ph.D. and M.A. in American History from Rice University, a B.A. from Wake Forest University, and an Associate’s Degree from Frederick Community College in Maryland. She has completed graduate coursework in instructional design at George Washington University, multiple courses through OLC, and is a Quality Matters Master Reviewer. The author would like to thank Chalice Jeffries and Carol Knight for their insights and expertise shared in the Pedagogy Workshop series, as well as Dean Michael Sawyer for his support of the initiative.
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