Learning Technology@LJMU


Blog Post: Tips for engaging students online (Staff)

Blog Post: Tips for engaging students online (Staff)

This page outlines at number of key things you can do to help you build a successful online learning community for those PGR students who are supporting online learning. Having said that, this information could be useful for any tutors. These tips concentrate on those running discussion boards and live webinars.

A word about webinars

The institution is using Zoom as its main teaching and learning webinar platform. The details of how this institutional version of zoom works and how it connects with Canvas (the institutional VLE) are here. Here is a list of the basic parts of zoom.

All of these tools allow you to structure activities and facilitate communication.

A word about Discussion Boards

Discussion boards are threaded to allow everyone to see the structure. You need to enable threading when creating a discussion board by clicking on the ‘Allow threaded replies’ checkbox. Knowing when to start a new thread or discussion board is important. Here is a basic list of the different parts of a discussion board.

  • A discussion board is on a particular topic or activity e.g. Basic Excel
  • Students and staff can post on that topic with a conversation starter or question to that discussion board e.g. “How to you use excel to calculate the average?”
  • Students and staff reply to that student reply directly to it creating a thread.
  • If students or staff wish to talk about something new related to that topic, e.g. “List of useful Excel links”, they should post to the discussion board and not the “How to you use excel to calculate the average?” thread otherwise their post may become lost.

To summarise, start a new thread in a discussion board if you want to start a different conversation related to the topic, start a new discussion board if you want to discuss a completely new topic.

Discussion board – Basic Excel
Tread 1: How to you use excel to calculate the average? 
 Reply: to You can do it like this . .
 Reply: That’s great thanks
Thread 2: List of useful Excel links 

Table 1: Schematic of a discussion board showing different threads

Setting Up Discussion Posts in Canvas LMS by Ashlee Espinosa

Student guide to using discussions by Canvas

Introducing yourself

Introducing yourself. When running a live session, it’s always good to introduce yourself so that students know a little bit about you before starting, and that goes for a discussion board as well.

Welcoming each student individually. When you first start a course as a student this nothing better than being personally contacted, recognised and welcomed to the learning space. online students need to feel that they belong and own the space.

Confirm they have arrived. an important part of the process is to make sure students have arrived and to keep a log particularly in the early weeks to make sure everyone is turning up.

Mentioning students by name. Mention each student by name in early interactions to recognise their attendance in both live and online discussions.

Open office

Setting up an open office online can help structure students learning and create deeper learning relationships. Consider creating a live webinar space called ‘coffee shop’ or something similar on a regular basis rather than using overly academic formal language such as open office. this will allow students to enter an informal space to meet each other and ask you questions. Learning online can be a lonely experience for you and your students.

Using online content

You can use links to different resources where applicable to help students to understand complex concepts. Find resources that have video, text and images to allow students to explore that concept in the way that they will find most supportive.

Modelling good behaviour

Creating an engaging learning community is creating a community of trust and respect. here is a link to a set of principles that you can use as part of a conversation to help establish that community, but you can also do this by modelling good behaviour yourself.


One of the key processes within an online discussion board or a live webinar is encouraging the students to see the links between their different perspectives and keeping the conversation going until they fully explored the topic. This is called weaving. It is a useful process for you to learn but also to teach your students to help them become independent learning groups.

What is weaving?

This is a process of monitoring what students are discussing to identify any gaps and any lack of sustained engagement with the topic. Then creating a short post or verbal discussion that outlines the main points so far. Remember to only weave if the discussion has slowed down, needs reviving and there is more to explore

It will typically involve;

  • having a prepared list of areas or perspectives that the students may discuss in the activity,
  • reading or listening to a group discuss a topic and keeping notes on what areas of the topic have been discussed and by who,
  • speaking or writing a post that;
    • thanks those that have contributed so far,
    • covers what has been discussed, by whom, picking out useful quotes from the discussion,
    • clarifies what they have covered so far,
    • links all students together, particularly those who have only made limited contributions,
    • encourages them to continue, perhaps including hints of areas yet to be explored,
    • is concise, using bullet points,
    • ends with an open question


“Student A writes: Students often ‘demand’ online environments use for distributing notes & PowerPoint presentations, perhaps sometimes to the detriment of teaching. Few of my colleagues go beyond document distribution: some use the announcements section to email the class directly, but it’s part of my job to broaden the use of online where it can be fruitful for both staff & students.

Student B writes: I haven’t really strayed past document distribution and group email. I mentioned in my Arrival’s message that I tutor a Maths module via blended learning, last semester being my first. The students told me they found Maths a subject less suitable to this type of learning. I want to improve my skills and hopefully develop ways to help the students better.

The weave: So . . . everyone, quite a few thoughts there, based on some mixed experience of VLEs as learning tools. A sense that there are real possible advantages, coupled with perhaps potential disadvantages. Obvious advantages for distributing material, but a lurking sense that there is unrealised potential, if only we could unlock it.”

(Salmon, 2011)


Summarising is a key activity for supporting students on a discussion board or online webinar. Once the process of weaving (see above) is complete and the discussion is drawing to an end it is very useful to summarise. This process can be done by a tutor or by an appointed student within the group.

What is summarising?

  • Picks out main points. In a discussion board you can use the text to help you understand where the conversation has gone. In a live webinar you may need to keep notes.
  • Useful for revision. This process can be useful for students when revising, remind them of this as it can help them realise the importance and utility of online engagement.
  • Includes quotes. It is always good to recognise the work of others and to acknowledge it including that of students where possible include excerpts in quotation marks to recognise students either explicitly or anonymously.
  • Correct any misconceptions. Misconceptions may have occurred during the discussion and it can be useful to use the summary to correct any of these and offer links to further information.
  • Provide positive feedback. Provide positive feedback particularly at the early stages of developing the learning relationship as it will help motivate the students to keep going.
  • Areas of agreement and disagreement. You may wish to highlight any areas within the debate where there was no resolution and possibly offer a continued conversation on this or further information to help students explore this area.
  • Uses bullet points. Online discussions are usually very concise, use bullet points to help students access the essence of the continuing conversation.
  • Avoid slang. Your students may be from many different backgrounds and countries so try to avoid using any local slang or explain it if you do.


A summary at the end of a discussion on encouraging online engagement.

“We were asked to compose a brief message as if to a participant in one of our own courses someone who had not yet contributed to our online sessions to encourage them to take part.

What came across were warmth and encouragement reassurance and no big stick waving as we couldn’t always know what lay behind the seeming reluctance.

Everybody sought generally to reassure the latecomers by for example: checking that all was okay (and prompting the late Comer to respond), stressing that their contribution would be valued, and offering help (private if necessary) if the student was experiencing any problems (Lauren, Neville, Zane)

Reassurance that using the technology really was not difficult (and hints and tips were there to use) and that it was good for keeping students informed and for tracking progress. Give it a go, was the message! (Una, Brenda, Pierre)”

(Salmon, 2011)

Ending the discussion

Closing down online discussion boards is an important moderation task. It allows students to review the posts and comments, but not add any more. This helps you by preventing conversations occurring in many places at once, but also helps the students by signifying a particular topic or activity has finished but is still available for review. How to close a discussion board to comments

Monitoring student engagement

Use the discussion board area to monitor student engagement.

How do I view and sort discussion replies as an instructor?

How do I subscribe to a discussion as an instructor?

Other courses and training that you will find helpful

Search the futurelearn open course website for free online courses in this area

Join one of our networks to learn from others

Encouraging online social engagement to support active blended learning (staff development)


Many of these tips are drawn from Gilly Salmon’s book E-moderating.