Top Ten Ways to Engage Students in Deeper Learning during COVID

Dr. Loretta Goodwin,
AYPF Deputy Director

Staying engaged amidst this pandemic is difficult for us all – and especially so for students. The disruption to the learning environments in K-12 and postsecondary has been profound, and for many students what their schooling will look like in the months to come remains uncertain. Yet there are ways to continue deeper learning and engagement despite these challenges. (For more on deeper learning, check out our information hub.) Here are some considerations as to how educators can help students remain engaged, motivated, and enthusiastically learning.

Take advantage of professional development and online resources

District leaders recognize that the teaching environment for many educators is different than what they had been trained for. Some teachers are having to teach online for the first time; others are grappling with how to instruct both in person and online. Many districts are providing professional development to teachers focused on best practices related to virtual learning as well as using trauma-informed practices. Educational organizations are offering virtual symposia on how to build trauma-sensitive schools. It is also important to note the importance of these supports being provided as part of multi-tiered systems of support (from state to district to school to educator levels) as expounded in this article. This cascading system of supports includes teacher professional development as these are the individuals most directly working with students and ensuring they remain engaged in their learning. It is also heartening to see examples of teacher preparation programs getting innovative about how to support students. Teachers also have access to webinars (either viewed live, or via recordings) such as this one written up on the CompetencyWorks blog that explicitly address how to promote equity and student agency, as well as to increase student engagement by improving the learning environments students now find themselves in.

Create a welcoming environment

Whether students are receiving instruction in person or online, or a hybrid, they are more likely to engage in learning if they feel welcome and believe that teachers are truly invested in their learning and growth. Greeting each student with a smile and thanking them for showing up is more vital than ever, as we know for many students the school day now includes the very real physical barriers such as face masks and plastic dividers in classrooms or, in the case of online instruction, having to engage via a screen. I teach an online class where I make a concerted effort to greet each student by name as I admit them into the Zoom classroom. I also sent them all a welcome email when they signed up for the class. Furthermore, there is valid concern about an increase in student absenteeism or districts simply not being able to reach all students. As I recently saw on Twitter, some students are just not that interested in attending each day. One colleague shared his son’s declaration: “I am not going to school. I am going to eat a klondike bar.” Another noted, “If she had her way, our five-year-old would opt in only to the ‘snack break’ parts of online school.”

Focus on building strong relationships with students

To keep students excited about their learning, teachers need to invest the time and energy in really getting to know their students. This means taking the time to ask them questions, to check on how they are feeling, and to provide sufficient time for them to respond. The way I have done this in the online career management strategy class I am teaching at George Washington University is to create breakout rooms with small groups of students, and then to drop into all of those rooms to join in on conversations, asking students questions about what interests and excites them, and also sharing some of my lived reality during COVID. I take notes as students speak, and during the ensuing classes I follow up with them: “How are things going with the puppy’s training? Are you still being kept out of sleep?!” It matters to students that teachers care about what they are grappling with or excited about. This is particularly pertinent at present as students, especially disadvantaged populations, are at risk of severe learning loss and a range of challenges, as detailed in our COVID-19 Response Information Hub.

Communicate constantly

Staying in touch with students can take a variety of forms: talking to the entire group of students while in class, sending group or individual emails, encouraging conversation on a discussion board, or soliciting feedback via surveys from students and their families. Online breakout sessions that are structured for students to capture their thinking and share that back in the main room with the teacher also offer an opportunity for continued communication and provides the teacher with insight into what students are grappling with – especially when the teacher is not able to drop into each breakout session.  Other educators, tasked with teaching online and in person, are meeting outside with students who are on campus, to get to know them a bit better. They are also setting up additional Zoom video calls with their students who are studying remotely, to spend time just getting to know them. Additional tips, from the Illinois Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning, for building and maintaining student learning and engagement in an online environment can be found here.

Listen to students

Reaching out to students is important – and so is really listening to their responses, passions, and ideas. When we speak about personalizing learning for each and every student, we need to begin with listening. At Big Picture Learning schools, student learning is personalized based on each student’s passion and interests. That commitment to personalization continues during this pandemic, with students being encouraged to stay in contact with their internship mentors, and to conduct independent studies on the impact of the pandemic on their spheres of interest. We also need to be mindful that students may be experiencing disruptions at home. As one middle school student, Luke, on our recent webinar shared, getting distracted is a very real challenge: “My phone is always tempting to look at. My brothers are a distraction sometimes, too. So, I just had to learn to walk away from distraction.”

Explicitly teach students how to self-regulate

We all know how difficult it is to avoid distractions. Students are no exception. Yet deeper learning environments help students learn how to learn, as well as how to self-regulate. Jonathan Vander Els, Director of Innovative Projects at the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, in a recent AYPF webinar provided background on the implementation of the work-study practices in New Hampshire four years ago including: communication, collaboration, creativity, and self-direction. As Vander Els interviewed students and teachers during the webinar, he noted that Sanborn Regional Middle School (SRMS) and Souhegan High School (SHS) have long used work-study and metacognitive practices, which made the transition to online learning less disruptive during COVID-19. Teachers at these schools explicitly provided strategies for students to manage their time in the classroom and have adapted self-reflection forms for online usage. As one teacher commented, she believes explicit instruction on self-direction in schools is needed to increase confidence and independence among students.

Consider asynchronous and synchronous learning options

It is critical that we pay attention to equity issues regarding access to learning at this time.

Not all students attempting to learn online will be able to tune in live, and thus teachers need to be able to provide both synchronous and asynchronous learning options (as explored in this research article, which also includes a range of district-level supports for students). Ensuring that lessons are recorded, or creating video content provides students with more flexibility to access learning, as they can watch when favorable family conditions prevail, or when they are not competing with multiple other household members for access to a device. I was heartened to hear from some of my university students that many are using their increased ‘free’ time to watch recorded lessons, so that they could gain a deeper understanding of the content.

Screen for those who need additional support

Despite educator efforts to engage all students, we know there are students who are falling through the cracks. They are experiencing trauma or may be reluctant to participate in online learning. I know many friends who are worried about their children who refuse to turn on their video or audio during instruction periods. Educators can find out more about potential challenges through surveys and through tracking attendance. Via these methods teachers can remain apprised of the situations their students are coping with, be alerted to hindrances to learning, and can potentially help students stay connected and engaged. Teachers may discover students with WiFi accessibility challenges and can then potentially help solve that problem. They may also need to question their assumptions about family engagement in student learning, as this article from Teaching Tolerance notes. While including caregivers in the virtual curriculum can be a great way to encourage student engagement, this is not always possible as caregivers may not be at home, may themselves be working, or may not understand the assignment’s expectations.

Provide engaging assignments and assessments

The pandemic has made it more difficult, whether in person or online, to provide hands-on learning relevant to students’ lives, but there are districts and schools where, through concerted educator efforts, this is happening. Some districts are delivering kits and equipment to students; others are having students collect necessary materials at school or are arranging for outdoor learning options. Students also continue to be able to show their learning and growth via performance assessments, as our recent webinar revealed. What is evident is that students are able to work on tasks that are relevant to their lives, and the assessments that demonstrate their learning can continue to comprise portfolios, projects, or extended performance tasks. As this article notes, there are a number of ways that educators can increase student engagement in performance-based assessments, including creating authentic tasks, offering students opportunities to collaborate with one another, and incorporating self-assessments.

Give ongoing feedback

Students are more likely to remain engaged in their learning if they are provided with feedback that is timely and actionable. This is an opportune time for teachers to explore more formative assessments that allow for multiple revisions – and for students to receive feedback from teachers and peers. As students work on projects, they can be taught how to provide constructive feedback to one another, making them active participants in their learning, rather than just passively sitting and absorbing. Through receiving and responding to feedback, students have an opportunity to develop their skills around learning how to learn – a skill that is particularly pertinent in this time of ever-changing learning environments. This article provides a helpful example of how the principles of deeper learning, including giving feedback, come together in a lesson.


I recently asked a university freshman what keeps him engaged in his learning. He immediately commented on the professor who encourages students to submit their musical choice, so that each class begins with them hearing a song and learning more about each other that way. Instructors having a sense of humor was mentioned, as well as a willingness to include pop culture references. Lots of pictures during the presentations were key. And then he reflected on his favorite high school teacher, a real believer in student voice and choice. He remembered this teacher offering choice in assignments, not only in which content to explore, but also how to present the learning that occurred. It was not all about essays but included options for students to be creative – to draw, to sculpt, to paint, to sing! We need to remember that personalizing instruction is vitally important at this moment, as we all strive to keep all students focused on and engaged in their learning.


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.