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Written by Brittany Burek, Taisley Isaac & Laurie Faith

This spring, we presented a webinar for LD@school called “In Love with Learning Online: 10 Keys to Delight, Persistence, and Attention in an Online Space.” For this webinar, we highlighted some of the most fundamental ideas from motivational psychology in a one-page “10 Keys” tool that teachers can use to tweak online lessons to increase student engagement. The webinar includes a lot of grounded examples, and we highly recommend that you take a look.

Click here to view the webinar recording of “In Love with Learning Online: 10 Keys to Delight, Persistence, and Attention in an Online Space.

love learning online

Click here to view and download the "Ten Keys to Engagement and Motivation" handout. 

Based on the kinds of questions and comments we received during our webinar, and some fresh research on online learning (Lee et al., 2019), we have developed another tool: the "Checklist for Engagement" . We hope that all teachers, and especially those who have optimized their lessons with the 10 Keys, will find it useful. You can use it to fully see and appreciate all of the forms of engagement that are at play in your virtual (or in-person) classroom.

Firstly, let’s be real. There are a lot of unique challenges to engagement in an online setting. We have all had to change our expectations for ourselves and for our students. During in-person teaching, we didn’t have to compete with “an adult in the immediate background operating power tools” or a “sibling crawling out the window.” And, our students didn’t have constant access to toys and pets. Even something as seemingly benign as the mute button has proven challenging in the online setting: “Okay, friends. Can we all mute now? Jon? Mahir? Sam? …. Jon? Mute, everyone, please. Jon? Thanks.” As educators, we hope and expect that our engaged students will put these distractions aside and be immersed in our lessons. We want them sitting brightly in front of the computer! Enthusiastic! Ready to participate! Our vibrant, sensory experience of being in the classroom has shrunk into a tiny computer screen, so we want our students exactly where we can see them. When cameras are off, questions are met with silence, or we see our students succumbing to distractions in their homes, it can be easy to assume a lack of engagement. When we experience our students as disengaged, it can create a steady stream of frustration and a sense of failure in our daily teaching. To avoid this despair, we have to think differently about engagement in an online setting, zoom out, and make sure we’re not missing evidence that our students are in fact engaged in learning.

Teachers need to learn how to recognize and fully appreciate the wide range of engagement that is already occurring in classrooms and in online spaces. Consider this: you might actually be missing a lot of the student engagement that your hard work and dedication have created. What a waste! The more kinds of engagement you’re looking for, the more you will see. The more different kinds of engagement you can see, the more feelings of success you will experience. The more successful you feel, the more energized and optimistic you will be. The more energized and optimistic you can be, the more protected you will be from feelings of depersonalization and burnout (Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2007). You might be “winning” more than you think - especially if you’ve optimized your lesson using the 10 Keys. Let’s not leave any of that powerful fuel for self-efficacy on the table!

The good news: engagement takes place through a range of on-task behaviours, but it also shows up in students’ thoughts and feelings. Students demonstrate engagement by following instructions and doing what they are asked to do (behaviour), but they also demonstrate engagement by paying attention and engaging thoughtfully with ideas (thinking), and showing emotions like happiness, anger, pride, worry, excitement, and curiosity (feelings; Blumenfeld & Paris, 2004). On our screens, behavioural engagement is so salient (no one is responding in the chat!!!), while emotional or thoughtful engagement is more subtle (grins or ideas whispered/messaged between peers). Consider the different ways we can see student engagement, and experience frustration and success, when we use a broader definition of engagement (Table 1).

Table 1 How a Broader Lens for Engagement Impacts Teacher Observations and Feelings

Ordinary Engagement Lenses “Broader” Engagement Lenses

Teacher Frustration Score

2/3 0/3
Student 1 Student sits in front of the computer every day with a big smile on their face. Teacher observes engagement in student behaviour and feels successful. When student is called on, they often need clarification on the question or the lesson. Regardless, teacher observes engagement in student behaviour and feels successful.
Student 2 Student’s camera is always off and they never volunteer answers. Teacher doesn’t observe engagement in student behaviour and feels frustrated. When student is called on, they will immediately share an extremely thoughtful response. Teacher observes engagement in student thinking and feels successful.
Student 3 Student is constantly playing with toys in their home and running and jumping around. Teacher doesn’t  observe engagement in student behaviour and feels frustrated.

When explaining the work they have done on their project, they are full of enthusiasm and happiness. Teacher observes engagement in student emotions and feels successful.

It can be easy to assume that Student 1 is the most engaged because, in virtual school, behaviour is the easiest and most accessible marker for us to assess. However, if we look more deeply and probe the thoughts and feelings of the same three students, we might see a different story. In fact, Student 2 is engaging in deeply thoughtful responses to the lesson, and Student 3 is full of powerful emotions. When looking through a broader lens, we can see their emotional and thoughtful engagement.

Broadening where we appreciate engagement is particularly important when supporting students with learning disabilities and other exceptionalities. Students’ expressive and receptive language skills, attention and executive functioning profile, and processing speed all impact the way that they demonstrate engagement. For example, you may only be able to see engagement from a student with slow processing speed when you build thinking time into your instruction or when you appreciate that student’s “‘call back” to a previous point of discussion even when it seems like they initially “missed the boat.” What would happen if you reframed the fidgeting and interrupting your students with ADHD often display as behavioural and emotional engagement rather than disruptive behaviour?

The more you can see unexpected or even challenging behaviours as engagement, the more you can feel accepting of your students and validate their approaches. With this new level of understanding, we can say things like, “I see that you’re angry,” or, “I see that you’re finding this funny,” or “You’re challenging me on this… and I’m glad to see that you’re engaged in what I’m saying. Tell me more about what you’re thinking or feeling and why you’re so engaged right now.” The goal is to find a way to fully see, understand, accept, and celebrate the way your students learn and engage. The more you can share this new perspective, the more positive emotions you can contribute to a closer and more trusting relationship with your students. And, the more students feel a sense of belonging in your classroom, the more engaged they will be!

There are so many great ways to use your newly polished engagement lenses. It is only when we search across a student’s behaviour, thoughts, and emotions that we will truly know if a student is engaged. Engagement can be detected in whole group settings, but also in small groups, during informal discussions, in one-on-one settings, in consultation with peers and family, in writing, and in written work. Teachers also need to consider how students respond when called on, when offered a chance to engage in a “chat,” and when asked how they are feeling about their learning. As you search for this engagement, you will develop a deeper understanding of your students and how they engage, making it easier for you to assess your students’ engagement in the future.

Using our Checklist for Engagement might help you become more aware of engagement you were missing! Below, you will find a link to a checklist including a wide range of different forms of engagement types. You’ll notice that we have included emotions like anger or frustration, behaviours like rocking or wiggling, and critical responses like making a joke or being sarcastic. We tried to cast the widest net to include the broadest range of ways that students might express their engagement. We hope it will help you to reframe these presentations and see that they can be productive expressions of engagement.

Click here to view and download a copy of the Checklist for Engagement.

Here are a few ways you could use the Checklist for Engagement:

1. Play hide and seek!

Choose a target “low engager” and do a little focused observation using the checklist. Could they possibly be using a form of engagement you weren’t noticing or appreciating?

2. Expand your repertoire.

Look through the checklist and decide on an engagement target you don’t usually pursue. Perhaps you’ll give your whole class a chance to use the chat feature, to share feelings about a lesson with either words or pictures, to engage in a breakout conversation, or to share their thoughts with you in a note. Perhaps you’ll ask, “Does today’s lesson make anyone feel angry?” or “Does today’s lesson make anyone feel curious?”

3. Directly teach!

You may decide that your students would benefit from learning more about a specific kind of engagement. You can show them where it fits on the checklist, and then explain it, model it, and invite them to give it a try! Students with learning disabilities need extra help to learn to self-regulate and explicit teaching really helps (Bishara, 2016; Zaheer et al., 2019).

4. Share your own favourite form of engagement!

Why not share the Checklist for Engagement with your students and open a meta-cognitive discussion? They would probably be surprised to know how you yourself have a special, favourite way to engage. They may think, Ms. Faith likes to make notes constantly? I could try that! Or, Ms. Burek smiles and nods a lot to stay energized? I didn’t know that was a form of engagement. Or, Ms. Isaac listens very quietly to organize her thoughts? Cool! I thought her quiet face meant she was mad.

5. Give your students a chance to connect.

You can share the checklist and ask them if their favourite method of engagement is listed, or if it should be added. They will probably enjoy learning more about their classmates, and it is a healthy way to connect. They might think, Jon puts the teacher’s words into little songs? I could try that, too! Or, they might think, Mahir rocks in their chair to calm down? I always thought that was bad behaviour! Building this understanding among your students can help them feel more empathy for each other and build deeper relationships, which is an essential social support for students with exceptionalities (Goldstein et al., 1992).

6. Let your students shine!

Self-determination theory tells us that your students will probably love the sense of belonging and competence they get from sharing something cool and unexpected about the way they like to engage (Deci & Ryan, 2000). A student once told us, “Did you know that I look at a certain spot on my wall every time something we learn makes me frustrated?” How delightful!

7. Call your shots!

The more your class knows about engagement, the more you can use that awareness to power their performance. For a certain lesson or activity, you can ask your students to predict how they plan to engage: “What kind of engagement do you think you will use for this lesson? Look at your checklist and jot your prediction in the chat!” Or you can ask students to put the short form (see checklist) next to their screen name. Emphasizing students’ autonomy and metacognition in this way is known to support the development of the self-regulated learning skills (Graham et al., 2018).

8. Notice and name!

Watch your students carefully, notice their more subtle forms of engagement, and name them out loud: “After our lesson yesterday, Jo sent me a picture of three pages of notes. She was engaged in a lot of thinking.” Or, you might say, “I see three students who look a little dreamy and I think they are having strong feelings after today’s lesson.” Or, you might say, “Arun always has a funny little reflection to share in the chat. I can’t see him, but I know he’s engaged.” This positive, process-based feedback will almost certainly cause more of the same target behavior (Lindberg & Swick, 2006). Also, students are sometimes quite confused about what we actually want them to do - so your clear feedback may really help (Baadte & Kurenbach, 2017)!


Baadte, C., & Kurenbach, F. (2017). The effects of expectancy-incongruent feedback and self-affirmation on task performance of secondary school students. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 32, 113-131.

Bishara, S. (2016). Self-regulated math instructions for pupils with learning disabilities. Cogent Education, 31(1), 1-14.

Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School Engagement: Potential of the Concept, State of the Evidence (74th ed., Vol. 1). Review of Educational Research. http://www.isbe.net/learningsupports/pdfs/engagement-concept.pdf.

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

Goldstein, H., Kaczmarek, L., Pennington, R., & Shafer, K. (1992). Peer Mediated Intervention: Attending to, Commenting on, and Acknowledging the Behavior of Preschoolers with Autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 25(2), 289-305.

Graham, S., Harris, K. R., MacArthur, C., & Santangelo, T. (2018). Self-regulation and writing. In Handbook of Self-regulation of Learning and Performance. New York: Routledge.

Lee, J., Song, H.-D., & Hong, A. J. (2019). Exploring factors, and indicators for measuring students’ sustainable engagement in e-learning. Sustainability, 11, 1-12.

Lindberg, J. A., & Swick, A. M. (2006). Common-sense classroom management for elementary school teachers (Vol. 2). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tschannen-Moran, M., & Hoy, A. (2007). The differential antecedents of self-efficacy beliefs of novice and experienced teachers. Teaching and teacher education, 23, 944-956.

Zaheer, I., Maggin, D., McDaniel, S., McIntosh, K., Rodriguez, B., & Fogt, J. (2019). Implementation of promising practices that support students with emotional and behavioural disorders. Behavioral Disorders, 44(2), 117-128.

About the authors:

Brittany Burek is a doctoral student in the School and Clinical Child Psychology program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (University of Toronto). She is a member of the Learning, Engagement, and Attention Lab. Her own research program explores online learning for neurodiverse students. She has taught a course in Special Education to teacher candidates in OISE’s Child Studies in Education program. Brittany has experience practicing psychology in a variety of settings (school, community mental health, hospital, private practice). In her role, she works closely with educators to promote student wellbeing, learning, and development.

Taisley Isaac is currently a grade 1 virtual teacher with the Toronto DSB. She graduated from OISE's MA of Child Study in Education program in 2019 and began teaching with the TDSB in September 2019. In her first year of teaching, Taisley co-taught with one of the TDSB's Digital Lead Learner Hybrid Teachers; an experience that allowed her to finesse her online pedagogy.

Laurie Faith is the creator of an international EF-based teaching movement called Activated Learning. She has been teaching in special and typical classrooms for 17 years and remains a teacher at heart. Laurie is currently completing her doctoral studies at OISE.