<span class='p-name'>Towards a New Normal: Motivation & engagement in digital spaces</span>

Towards a New Normal: Motivation & engagement in digital spaces

During the past year and half, many educators across the board have had to make a shift to teaching online due to the global pandemic. As a result, educators have been both challenged and inspired in the online classroom. As we learn to live with a new normal, many questions remain as we attempt to navigate life beyond COVID-19.

A part of a session at AERA 2022, we’re exploring the ins and outs of online teaching and learning for graduate students and early career scholars. We’ll discuss opportunities to apply the strategies, tools, tips and tricks for teaching online. Session presenters focused on online teaching and learning, student motivation and engagement, and how to navigate online education beyond COVID-19.

My section focused on student motivation and engagement. This post will serve as a supplement to that session. The slide deck for the session is embedded below.

What is normal?!?!

As we entered the pandemic, we operated in a sense of “normalcy” as things appeared to just work. COVID stripped away all most of the connective tissue that we believed made society work, and we all recognized the failures in our systems.

In educational spaces, we knew this day would come. As the Internet changed most aspects of our daily interactions, it did little to change what happens in our classrooms. Research and praxis moved on from digital literacies and practices to cycle back to previous areas of interest. All the time, our facility with digital pedagogies, a focus on digital infrastructure, and a desire to innovate all stagnated and festered. COVID gave us a glimpse of just how behind we were…and still are.

As we proceed through…and hopefully out…of COVID, I hear a lot of individuals seeking an opportunity to go back to normal. The thing to remember is that normal wasn’t working for everyone. The pandemic gave us a look at students sitting in cars in library parking lots to connect to online classrooms. The pandemic laid bare most of the connective and support services that our schools provide for students. These include mental health, breakfast and lunch, or just time to socialize with others. The pandemic also exposed the challenges as we scramble into emergency remote teaching.

Why students may not be engaging

Given the current context, there are many reasons why students may not be engaging, or motivated in our learning spaces. Research suggests a number of reasons why students may not be reading and remembering in your courses. 1 2

There is no easy way to understand challenges as students are learning to read, or flipping the switch to read to learn in our classes. It is inappropriate to suggest “kids these days” and blame it on the use of the Internet and social media in our lives.

Literacy and learning have changed drastically in the last couple of decades. Pedagogy needs to change as well.

Towards a new normal

There are a variety of strategies to help students engage and connect with others and the content. Listed below are research-tested ways to have students collaborate, stay motivated, and keep organized. 3

Be intentional about the value of the readings. Take time in class to highlight the important connections between in-class activities, learning process, work product, and grades. This is especially important if students do not read the syllabus. 😉

Use informal, quick formative assessments to identify difficult content or gaps in prior knowledge. Students may be unaware of gaps in their background knowledge or comprehension skills.

Use reading logs to monitor comprehension and a space for students to document learning. A reading log is a space for students to document what they learned, and where they learned it. One of my favorite tools to use is Hypothesis to have discussions about the text, baked into the text.

Have an expanded view of text in your course materials. Use more multimodal content to support learners. This includes sharing websites, videos, podcasts, animations, memes, and other materials that may say the same thing, or augment what they’re already learning.

Have students do something as they read. Our brains are not sponges. We do not learn simply by soaking up content. We need to actively construct knowledge to understand & connect. There are multiple opportunities to make this happen.

  • Have students rephrase, synthesize, evaluate, prioritize ideas and themes in readings.
  • Use word cloud tools or mindmapping software (e.g., Coggle) to have students summarize readings & notes of the week.
  • Invite students to serve as discussion directors and lead their peers in discussion and begin class with their presentations of the themes of the week.
  • Create a class wiki. Write a short summary, edit/comment on summary across one class, or multiple semesters.
  • Identify an illustration, GIF, meme, or create an illustration that indicates what students learn and have them provide some explanation/justification.
  • Map out content over time from the readings/text. Use online tools, whiteboard, or chart paper in the classroom to sketch out what we’ve learned and where we learned

Utilize before, during, and after reading strategies. Just having students read a chapter doesn’t mean that they’ll complete the activity and grok everything. There are a number of reading strategies (e.g., Think-Pair-Share, Jigsaw, and Tea Party/Chillin’ With Scholars) that would help students as they verbalize what they’ve learned.

Use questions to determine what students learned or missed. Post questions about the readings a couple of hours before class begins. This allows students to anticipate instruction, assist with motivation, and instructors to identify learning needs. Alternatively, have students present questions about the readings to the instructor to be used for class discussion, lectures, or one-on-one discussions. This lets students know that you’re listening…and feel valued.

Make it happen

The first step in this process is the hardest, being honest with yourself that the current process is not working. This now opens up space for some healthy reflection about teaching practices and how to better support students as we open up spaces for them in our classrooms.

A culture of inquiry instills a climate of trust and validation where students understand the need for questions and the excitement of chasing answers. Inquiry can be a powerful component in the classroom as we build student motivation while validating the passions and interests of our students.

Instead of focusing on one specific learning pathway, instruction should be provocative, exciting, open-ended, aligned to the discipline, but also welcoming. McTighe & Wiggins identify this space as opening the doors for student understanding. 4

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash


  1. Hoeft, Mary E. (2012) “Why University Students Don’t Read: What Professors Can Do To Increase Compliance,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 6: No. 2, Article 12
  2. Kerr, M. M., & Frese, K. M. (2017). Reading to learn or learning to read? Engaging college students in course readings. College teaching, 65(1), 28-31.
  3. Weimer, M. (Ed.). (2010). Faculty focus special report: 11 strategies for getting students to read what’s assigned. Madison, WI: Magna Publications. Available from https://www.facultyfocus.com/free-reports/11-strategies-for-getting-students-to-read-whats-assigned/ Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Ascd.
  4. McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Ascd.

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