Strategies for Online Engagement: A Conversation with Dr. Melissa Thomeczek

March 22, 2018

By Matt Schmitz

Thank you to everyone who attended last week's MidWeek Mentor session "What Three Things Should I Do Each Week to Engage Online Students?" Dr. Melissa Thomeczek, faculty in the School of Education, Health, and Human Behavior's Educational Leadership department, was one of the moderators for the session. Melissa has also taught online at SIUE for many years so I asked her about personal experience engaging with students in the online environment.

Matt Schmitz: During the MidWeek Mentor video, Jean Mandernach discussed the importance of engaging with students and provided several great suggestions. However, I'm curious what strategies you've used in your online courses to engage with students. What do you think has worked or not worked with the approaches you've tried?

Melissa Thomeczek: One simple but important strategy is clearly communicating expectations at the beginning of the semester. The times when students have been the most displeased with me is when they don’t know what communication is coming from me. For example, I typically have one or two major projects in a semester, intermingled with smaller activities that connect to the larger project. So, I let them know that they can expect detailed feedback from me on the big project, but the smaller activities may get a whole class response like “Most of you were on track with…" or "There were two misconceptions that I saw and I want to clear those up…” By letting them know that they won’t get detailed feedback on every single thing they do in the class, it manages their expectations and they do not feel forgotten or ignored.

Another important strategy related to expectations is to model the behavior you want the students to express. Staying informal is important to me and I want the students to understand this at the start of the course. For example, I don’t want students worrying about grammar or spelling errors in informal writing like discussion forums. I don’t care about and won’t be grading on that and I let the students know that. I’m looking for ideas, connections to the content, and creativity in their designs. I don’t care if there’s a comma splice or if they used “affect” instead of “effect” as long as they make a valuable contribution to the discussion. I ask students to write in discussion boards the way that they would talk in a classroom. Say what you are thinking and don’t worry about making it “publishable quality.” Communicating this expectation and freeing the students from worrying about those errors has led to very robust discussions where students engage with me, their classmates, and the content. I guess it gets back to communicating your expectations (which is my number one point).

MS: That's a fantastic approach! Sounds like that would really help students focus on what they're writing instead of how they're writing. Aside from communicating expectations, what are some other approaches that have worked with your online students?

MT: Sharing information and allowing time seem like pretty simple strategies but they're incredibly important. For example, I have found that students will use whatever tools you want them to use. However, you have to give them adequate time and clear directions; they need an opportunity to explore a platform before you go "live." So you should not tell students on Monday that you are doing a Zoom video conference session -- using a tool they're previously unfamiliar with -- on Wednesday of the same week. They need time to explore and that exploration needs to be low stakes. The same approach can be applied to assessments and activities in the LMS; if they are trying something unfamiliar, give them as much information as possible about the new technology or approach and let them test it without a grade-related "consequence." These are all personal preferences but they've worked pretty well with my students.

(Some of Melissa's former students are employees in IDLT and fully agree that these approaches are beneficial and successful!)

Have questions about engaging with your online, hybrid, or face-to-face students? Contact the ITS Instructional Design & Learning Technologies group to schedule a consultation or reach out to an IDLT instructional designer via phone (618-650-5500) or email (

Categories: All Categories, Classroom, Students