Keeping students engaged in the online classroom

By Alex Quinn

Our well-being, both that of the students and teacher, affects how well we can contribute to the learning space. According to ‘Wellbeing People’, simple ways to improve our overall wellness are by connecting, being active, taking notice, continuing to learn and giving. 

Here I explore how these can be translated to the online TESOL classroom. 


When we feel someone cares about us, we are more likely to engage. Integrating a check-in at the start of each class can help students and teachers acknowledge how they are feeling. This could be represented by an emoji, colour or animal and a follow-up word or sentence to justify it. Encourage creativity, and remember to include yourself. 

Alternatively, ask the question, ‘What’s made you smile today?’ (eg a funny meme, a phone call with a friend) to encourage students to reflect on their present and set the tone for the class.

Keeping active and low-tech 

Just because we’re in an online classroom, we are not all (immediately) digital learners. In the same way that you might adapt materials in a face-to-face classroom to engage different learner types and vary class dynamics, you can do the same in the virtual classroom. 

Consider integrating movement as a break from, or as part of, an activity. For example, posture has a direct impact on confidence: incorporate instructions that encourage students to move, even if they are sitting: 

  • ‘Make yourself as small/big as possible.’ 
  • ‘How many angles can you create?’ 
  • ‘Reach out and name all the things you can touch right now.’ 

More energetic movement could involve placing a pen and paper on the other side of the room so that students must move away from their devices to complete a task. 

You can also interact with each student’s surroundings by asking them to find something red/old/edible to show and describe. They can search online if mobility or space restricts their movement. 

Encouraging autonomy and exercising choice 

When things become unfamiliar, whether in the world around us or within the online classroom, we like to exercise some control over something. Offering students choices during a class builds confidence, giving them the autonomy to align their learning with their interests. It also leaves room for self-determined differentiation. 

Ideas to promote this include: 

  • Asking students which conversation topic(s) they’d like to discuss in different breakout rooms 
  • Allowing students to choose to work independently or in groups 
  • Voting as a group (using the chat or poll function) on the next activity 
  • Setting an optional number of questions in a given task to complete (eg ‘There are 10 questions. You must answer at least six of them.’)

Seeing surprise situations as learning opportunities 

Take advantage of surprise situations during the class to exploit emerging language as, or soon after, it happens. 

If someone’s cat runs across the screen in the background and the students all notice, ask what verbs we could use to describe its movement (dash, jump, pounce, skulk). When a student must answer the door, elicit, and add to some set phrases we use to politely excuse ourselves from a conversation. In this way, we help fill any language gaps students have that will be useful in everyday, real-life situations at the point of need. This makes these little interruptions perfect learning moments. 

Remembering learning is messy  

When you learnt to ride a bike did you fall off? Teaching and learning anything can be messy (often that’s where the best learning takes place!). Background noises, interruptions, unstable internet connections and different levels of digital literacy can all make online learning just as messy as face-to-face classes. 

Both students and teachers can become frustrated, especially when the technology lets us down, but these things happen to all of us, so don’t take them too hard and remain calm. 

On a practical level, having documents or relevant pages and/or programs you plan to use already open, means that you can easily locate and transition between them, keeping students on task. Encourage your students to do the same if it is relevant.  

Be honest with yourself about your experience and comfort levels with the technology and avoid overwhelming yourself with too much at once. Aiming to try one new thing a week is more than enough. 

Overall, remember to breathe, move, and have fun!


Trinity Teach English Online 

You can find further ideas on the above, and more, in the following Trinity Teach English Online units: 

  • Unit 1.1 Introduction to online teaching 
  • Unit 1.3 Classroom management techniques 
  • Unit 3.1 Tasks and activities 

To get an idea of what the course is like, try our free sample unit containing examples of videos, interactive tasks, texts, and lesson packs from across the 10 units. 

Take your teaching to the next level with our online teaching course and qualification:

Full course of 10 units plus
CertOT qualification entry - £299.99

Alternatively, you can take just the modules or individual course units.


Article by Alex Quinn
Alex is an ESOL teacher and Pilates instructor who made the jump and stretch to the online world after eight years in the face-to-face classroom and studio in the UK and Colombia.

Keep in touch

Make sure you don’t miss the latest news from Trinity College London. Sign up for email updates about your subject area.

Back to top