December 2020
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TD Magazine

Boost Learner Engagement in the Virtual Classroom

Tuesday, December 1, 2020


Learners and facilitators alike have various comfort levels training in virtual spaces. However, fostering an environment in which learner participation and engagement flourishes rests with the instructor. How can trainers build and sustain learner engagement in the virtual classroom?



When facilitators take the right steps to promote and sustain engagement, learners are more attentive and more likely to retain and apply the information shared. Try these strategies in your next virtual class.

  1. Open the flow of communication. Build rapport with learners ahead of the first meeting by sending a welcome letter two weeks before the class. In addition to including tips for using technology and accessing the platform, remind them that the course is for them, and ask them what they need from you. Not everyone will respond, but replying to those who do will have a great impact.
  2. Set virtual classroom expectations as a group. Tee it up by saying, "To maximize and accelerate our learning, we need to agree how we will best work together." Acknowledge that there will be distractions, and provide tips on how to minimize them. For example, give learners permission to close their inboxes and messenger software and power down their phones. Suggest they place a "learning in progress" sign on their door or desk if they have others around them.
  3. Hold learners accountable. Explain that everyone is required to engage in the discussion and activities. Agree on a visual signal that learners can use to inform others that they are away from the computer or need a break. The coffee cup emoji in Webex, for example, is ideal. Also, let them know that producers are monitoring participants and will note when learners are gone too long.
  4. Keep learners active. Well-designed learning programs should have participants doing something every three to five minutes. It can be as simple as saying, "Xaivian, I'm coming to you for the next question" or "Everyone, type one word in the chat that describes how you're feeling." Those simple nudges help keep learners alert and active during the virtual class.


We often dole out candy and swag to celebrate successes and reward participation during in-person learning courses. You may think there isn't anything you can do to replicate that in the virtual space. That's not true. Intrinsic rewards—such as a virtual round of applause, using emojis, or letting participants pick a pictorial "prize"—offer tremendous value.

About the Author

Nikki O’Keeffe is an internal ATD Facilitator. She is dedicated training specialist who delivers a positive, memorable, and meaningful service that repeatedly meets or exceeds the expectations of the client. She has experience creating strategies and visions to ensure training requirements and deliveries are in line with quality, probability, and client need. 

Nikki has worked in varied industries, including education, healthcare, and pharmaceuticals. In her role as the global senior training and development specialist at PAREXEL International, her focus was on managing and developing courses for new and existing staff on technical systems, process changes, new products, and soft skills.  Her educational background includes a BA in psychology from Butler University and a master’s degree in exercise science, health, and wellness from Northeastern Illinois University. Her specific areas of interest include virtual training, facilitation techniques, and mentoring new trainers. 

Nikki is skilled at providing face-to-face and online learning programs for global participants of varying experience levels. In addition to delivering training, she has performed training needs analyses to identify gaps and recommend training solutions, worked with SMEs as a consultant to develop courses and curriculums, and evaluated programs for effectiveness. 

As a certified ATD Master Trainer and certified ATD Master Instructional Designer she understands the value of solid training plans and strong facilitation. Nikki looks forward to sharing her experiences and expanding her knowledge base by learning from her participants in the upcoming ATD courses that she leads.

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Hi Nikki, I love the pictorial prize to reward learners in the virtual session. Sure will do that next time.
Hi Siti-Farina! Yes, try it out- it is something that is so simple but quite effective. Good luck!
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Hi Nikki, I love the pictorial prize to reward learners in the virtual session. Sure will do that next time.
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