Engaging Students in Meaningful Learning Activities

In this In Focus Blog Post, Dr. Joan Kang Shin and Dr. Jered Borup share their first six tips for engaging students in meaningful learning activities. Stay tuned for the next six tips, coming soon!

Tips #1-6

Are you looking for new ways to engage your students online in meaningful learning activities? Perhaps it is in response to a global health crisis or maybe you are interested in integrating technology more into your English language instruction. Simply digitizing what you have always done in your in-person classrooms can leave you and your students feeling frustrated because activities that work in person too often fail to engage students online. The online learning environment is different, and so the ways you teach should be different too. Here are six tips that you can use to create a better online learning environment for your students.

Tip #1: Teach Differently 

The online environment requires teachers to teach differently. Teachers who attempt to simply digitize everything that they did in their in-person courses will likely find that the activities are less effective online. The online learning environment is very different from the in-person environment so it only stands to reason that the learning activities should be different as well. When taking learning activities online, online technology can be used to replace, amplify, or transform the activity. For instance, if in an in-person course you had your students hand write an essay, in your online course you could do one of the following:

  • Replace the activity by having them type the essay on the computer
  • Amplify the activity by having them write a blog post with photos and videos
  • Transform the activity by having them create a video (Kimmons et al., 2020)

Tip #2: Engage Students in Multiple Ways 

Our courses learning activities should engage students in multiple ways. Kimmons et al. (2020) explained that when students are learning online their learning can be one of the following:

  • Passive (e.g., watching a video, listening to a podcast)
  • Interactive (e.g. playing a game, using a simulation, communicating with others)
  • Creative.(e.g. creating original works and artifacts such as an essay, video, or poster) 

Combining Tips 1 and 2, create the PIC-RAT model (Kimmons et al., 2020). Any activity can be placed on the graph below. For instance, having students passively watch a video lecture would be placed on the PR square because the activity only requires passive participation and simply replaces the in-person lecture. In contrast, transforming an assignment by having students create a video rather than writing an essay would be placed on the CT square because it requires the students to create something that transforms the activity. 

Image adapted from Kimmons et al., (2020)

For English teachers moving from an in-person class to an online learning environment, you could consider assigning creative activity and amplify it in the online environment.

See a page from the Student’s Book from Our World, published by National Geographic Learning. The activity modeled is a brochure about an extreme sports camp that can be created with paper in hard copy format. However, the assignment gives students a choice to make a brochure, like the one the girl on the page is holding, or a web page about the camp. 

Students can create a simple web page or blog about an extreme sports camp. Or students could amplify the brochure into an electronic flyer to share with classmates. Below is an example of an electronic flyer created using a simple drawing app.

You can also allow other creative works by students and transform the activity into another form, like a video. As long as the product demonstrates mastery of your learning objective, students should be allowed to find new and original ways to complete an activity. 

A great example comes from a teacher in Greece named Anastasia Metallinou whose students wanted to make a video about an extreme sport called highlining. They used Vyond to make it. Watch the video to see what two 12-year-old students in Greece were inspired to create.

To learn more about this activity, see this In Focus blog about using projects with young learners of English.

Tip #3: Reexamine Your Exams 

Just as we need to reconsider the ways we teach and engage students, when teaching online we also need to reexamine our exams. For instance, in-person teachers frequently have students take an exam while they are being monitored to prevent cheating. Obviously these types of assessments are difficult to have in an online environment because the teacher isn’t there to monitor students. Furthermore, exams focus on what students know but don’t show teachers what they can do. Alternative assessments allow students to create original, creative artifacts that allow instructors to assess both what students know and what they can do. 

Let’s consider a simple lesson about animals. In this unit called Awesome Animals, the learning outcomes are stated at the beginning:

In this unit, I will…

  • name animals.
  • describe animals.
  • talk about what animals can and can’t do.

Students can easily do the activities in the book to show they can identify animals and show comprehension of what they can and can’t do. For example, below is a typical example of an activity to practice the language and check comprehension of content about animals. This is something that can be collected easily as it is written work.

However, the final assessment for this unit should show students can name, describe, and talk about animals in a meaningful context. The project encourages students to choose their own animal, do research on it, make an animal card with pictures, and write a description of the animal in complete sentences. 

In an in-person class, students can create a poster and present it to the class. How can we do this activity in an online learning environment? First, let’s be sure students meet the expected learning outcomes. These are expressed in the “Now I can” statement at the top of the page, which match the learning outcomes stated at the beginning of the unit.

Now I can…

  • name animals.
  • describe animals.
  • talk about what animals can and can’t do.

The rubric for this project is:

Why not use assessments that are original and creative. One idea is to use ChatterPix. It is a fun app that allows students to take a photo or use a picture, put a mouth anywhere on the picture, and then record their own voice. Watch these two videos and think about whether or not they meet the expected learning outcomes.

Of course, both examples of student work can be the final assessments for this unit. They both show the students did research, used pictures, described their animals, and wrote in complete sentences. For #2, you could require that students submit their video plus their written sentences.

Tip #4: Focus on Feedback 

It’s difficult to overstate how important feedback is to students learning. This is especially true in online learning environments. However, not all feedback is helpful. To make sure that your feedback helps students, make sure that your feedback is: 

  • Timely: teachers should provide their feedback relatively soon after students’ performance 
  • Friendly: teachers should provide feedback in a friendly manner even when they are correcting students’ performance
  • Specific: teachers’ feedback comments should describe specific strengths and weaknesses

Using the example above with the ChatterPix animal activity, you can send feedback on the first video, which has a picture of the girl holding her poster with sentences about penguins. Feedback can be sent by email to the student (or the parent) with specific feedback that matches the rubric. Notice that it is kid-friendly with emojis and is encouraging. It is specific and even gives one correction to help the student punctuate the sentence correctly.

Tip #5: Focus on Engaging Videos 

Videos can be a helpful tool when teaching English. Teachers can easily find countless videos online. The trick is finding videos that are the best at helping students achieve the target learning outcomes. When evaluating the quality of videos you just need to remember one word–CAMEOS! CAMEOS is an acronym to help you remember to ask the following: 

  • Comprehensible: Is the language comprehensible for your students?
  • Age appropriate: Is the video content appropriate for your students’ age?
  • Meaningful: Is the language in a meaningful context? (Meaningful to students?)
  • Engaging: Is it engaging and interesting for your students?
  • Objectives: Is it aligned with the learning objectives in my lesson?
  • Supportive: Does it support students’ comprehension of language? Are there useful visuals? text or subtitles?

Tip #6: Be Crystal Clear 

When you are with students in an in-person class, it’s easy to provide students with additional clarification and guidance in the moment that they need it. In contrast, in an online environment it’s difficult to know when students are confused and teachers may not know that there were issues with their directions until students start submitting work that doesn’t match the teacher’s expectations. As a result, online teachers and students can avoid a lot of confusion and frustration if teachers are careful, thoughtful, and detailed in the directions that they provide students. 

Remember that our learners may need step-by-step instructions that provide multiple ways to support student success.

  • Break the task into smaller, achievable steps
  • Include visuals of each step
  • Provide an example of final product 

See the example below that provides crystal clear instructions. 

If you are relying on a book activity, you should be sure to provide the scaffolding needed for your online activity. Below is an example of a book review activity. This is a great independent activity your students can do at home. The book gives explicit instructions for this genre, even an example to help students notice the words and expressions needed to write an effective book review.

In order to share the book review and present it orally, students can post the written review online with a video or audio recording. You can create an online group for your students using a mobile chat group, like WeChat or WhatsApp. In the example below, the teacher took a picture of the book review with book cover image and then recorded a reading of the book review right into the chat group.

Click play to hear the audio recorded into the chat group.


Hopefully these six tips are helpful to English teachers who want to engage their students in online learning. Don’t be afraid to teach differently and try out new ideas. Just remember that your goal is for students to achieve the same learning outcomes in a new environment. Transform your teaching and be creative. Then watch as your students transform their learning and be creative!

For more on this topic from Dr. Joan Kang Shin and Dr. Jered Borup, watch their webinar “Engaging Students in Meaningful Learning Activities.”

Author: Joan Kang Shin and Jered Borup

Dr. Joan Kang Shin is an Associate Professor of Education at George Mason University and the Academic Program Coordinator of the Teaching Culturally & Linguistically Diverse & Exceptional Learners (TCLDEL) program. She is a Series Editor of National Geographic Learning’s young learner programs Welcome to Our World, Our World, and Explore Our World, as well as the teen program Impact, and an author of the professional development title Teaching Young Learners English. Dr. Jered Borup is an Associate Professor in the Division of Learning Technologies at George Mason University. In his current position, he is the professor-in-charge of the Blended and Online Learning in Schools Master’s and Certificate programs that are devoted to improving teacher practices in online and blended learning environments.


  1. This is great advice. I have been using tools like eXeLearning to create interactive content for my students but I now see that I have been amplifying more than I have been transforming. Week 2 of the quarantine will find me better prepared, sharper.

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