Communication Strategies for Student Engagement

What online tools and techniques are available for communicating with students that can contribute to student engagement with the course? How can we retain student attention over the whole semester, and help ensure that students stay on task? Whether you teach face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online classes, there are some common tools and communication strategies that can help foster more engaged students and promote student learning.

View the recording Communication Strategies for Student Engagement webinar co-hosted by Tiffany DeJaynes, Assistant Professor, Middle and High School Education.

Communication Strategies for Student Engagement - The “Why” by Susan Ko, Faculty Development Consultant, Office of Online Education

Communication Strategies for Student Engagement - The “How” by Naliza Sadik, Educational Technologist | Instructional Designer, Office Online Education

Communication Strategies for Student Engagement - The Faculty Experience by Tiffany DeJaynes, Assistant Professor, Middle and High School Education

You can also view the webinar presentation slides and read the overview of the webinar below - prepared by Susan Ko, Faculty Development Consultant, Office of Online Education.

The Why?

There are a number of reasons to formulate a communication strategy for your classes, especially for those that are web-enhanced, hybrid, or online. Some aspects of a communications strategy include 

  • Establishing instructor presence, made tangible to students online through class content (like your presentations and commentary)
  • Interacting with students in online discussion, in feedback on individual and group assignments
  • Managing students expectations for guidance, reminders, and responses/turnaround time for feedback from instructor 
  • Setting up a clear protocol for communications--how, when, where

Communications should be regular and consistent in pattern (e.g., weekly, biweekly, etc.) as well as occasional in response to particular activities in the class such as assignments, relevant news, events, or upcoming deadlines. Faculty should participate and facilitate online discussions not only to demonstrate their presence but also to guide, redirect, ask follow up questions and to encourage meaningful student and peer interaction. 

By establishing an online Q&A forum, rather than relying only on email, faculty can better manage their time, provide a central area for students to ask questions and to respond to issues that may be pertinent to all. Faculty can subscribe to this forum and receive alerts whenever a question has been posted. This is helpful not only for fully online classes, but can also provide students in face-to-face and hybrid classes a way to ask a question in-between the on-campus class meetings, rather than having to wait days or a week to resolve questions. 

Faculty can manage expectations by noting their schedule for checking the Q&A forum and for replying to questions posted there. It is also a best practice to let students know faculty response time for individual email from students and the turn-around time for grades and feedback on assignments. Finally, individual options for face to face or online, real-time office hours should be stated as part of the communication protocol.

Some specific examples of the kinds of key communications faculty might use as part of their overall communications protocol include announcements in Blackboard that are also emailed at the beginning and/or near the end of each week (e.g., each Monday and Friday); a Voicethread providing an overview of the upcoming week, or a student interaction with the instructor Voicethread through commenting; reminders via email or announcements about upcoming due dates; posting of news items relevant to class topics; instructor comments via text or media pointing out issues related to student performance on assignments (private in grade center or publicly addressing global class issues), and rubrics that manage student expectations for their performance as well as provide clarity during the grading process. 

Special attention should be paid to communications during the first week of class. This is a critical time for faculty to make their presence known, to get students oriented to the course, and to help students get to know each other via introductions, ice-breaker exercises, and other means. This is especially important in fully online classes. 

The How

There are a variety of communication tools faculty can use to engage their students throughout the semester. Many of these tools are asynchronous and already integrated in Blackboard. Faculty can send welcome messages, weekly overview/debriefing messages, provide feedback, etc. using the Announcements tool. They also have the option to create multimedia versions of such messages using VoiceThread, a tool provider integrated within Blackboard. For those general course-related questions, faculty can create a Q&A forum using the Discussion Forums and use the Blackboard Email tool or institutional email (Outlook) for private communications with an individual student or a selected group of students. 

Zoom, and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and Microsoft Teams (CUNY video conferencing tools) are synchronous tools that can be used for real-time class sessions, office hours and/or to bring in a guest speaker. WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Slack are some other tools that while not institutionally supported, are easy to use and allow for both asynchronous and synchronous communications.

The Faculty Experience

Tiffany DeJaynes, Assistant Professor of English Education at Lehman College, City University of New York (CUNY) shared insights with us from her course, ESC 721: Literature for Middle & High School Students (“Reading Club”), redesigned as a fully online class for pre-service and in-service English Language Arts teachers. Elements of her communication strategy include short video lectures using VoiceThread to frame the week and to personalize the course; synchronous conversations via “book clubs” using real-time communications via Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom; multimodal reading responses to literature (text, voice, video comments) in VoiceThread; discussion boards for which there are rubrics and consistent prompts for peer response; and weekly updates such as reminders, clarifications, changes. 

DeJaynes emphasized the importance of deciding which pedagogical values one wants to communicate, humanizing the course by making oneself and students visible to one another; intentionally building a learning community in which peer feedback is valued; and constructing a sense of the regular flow through weekly routines and consistent patterns of communication.


Book: Ko, Susan, & Rossen, Steve. Teaching Online: a Practical Guide. Routledge. Recommended: Chapter 11 - Management and Facilitation

To learn about how to communicate and engage students through real-time meetings and/or videos view two of our previous teaching and learning webinars:

Online Office Hours and Online Meetings with Natasha Nurse-Clarke, Assistant Professor, Department of Nursing (September 20, 2018)

Creating and Integrating Engaging Video for Your Course with Mila Burns, Assistant Professor, Department of Latin American and Latino Studies (December 6, 2018)

Blackboard offers a host of communication tools, click on the links below to explore more details about each tool and tutorials for setting them in course:

VoiceThread - Learn more about this interactive tool including instructions on how to set-up VoiceThread in your course.

Microsoft Office 365 for Education - is available free for CUNY faculty and staff. The suite includes Skype for Business, Teams and many more.

Zoom - Explore more about Zoom meetings.

Slack - Learn about how create Slack channels and more