Topic 4: Improving learner engagement through meaningful group activities

Importance of cognitive, social, and teaching presence in online learning.One major concern of tertiary education institutions is the high dropout rate of adult learners from online courses, which is particularly a prevalent issue in asynchronous fully online courses (Kay, 2022). While several internal as well as external factors will determine the decision of students to drop a course, Park and Choi (2009) have identified the importance of guidance and support provided by higher education organizations and teachers. To reduce the dropout rate, instructors are encouraged to apply strategies that enhance the meaning and relevance of a course (Park and Choi, 2009; Kay, 2022). Apart from design choices and the selection of useful digital tools, Kay (2022) emphasizes the importance of presence in terms of social, cognitive, and teaching presence. Based on the Community of Inquiry Model (Vaughan et al., 2013), Kay (2022) emphasizes the importance of presence, selecting content, establishing a positive and supportive climate, as well as encouraging discourse, which are crucial requirements for meaningful educational experiences.

While all modes of learning may serve a good purpose depending on the learning outcomes, it is interesting to note that the graduation rate in asynchronous courses is considerably lower compared to synchronous online courses.[1] One main reason for this remarkable difference is the lacking social interaction and lacking meaningful discourse in many asynchronous courses. In comparison, synchronous and blended courses offer great advantages due to improved learner engagement through meaningful activities which foster discourse among learners and instructors, and which mainly contribute to a high graduation rate.

In synchronous mode, students and teachers are present at an agreed time, which adds positive quality to the learning environment in terms of social, cognitive, and teaching presence. According to Kay (2022), building a sense of community at the beginning of a course can be achieved through an engaging teaching intro, a clear agenda and lesson plan, ice breakers, and possibly the setting of online rules.

Throughout a course, it is important to implement practices and activities that improve learner engagement. One successful strategy to encourage meaningful collaboration is the implementation of a learning café[2], in which students are encouraged to brainstorm, research, and discuss different topics while rotating roles. For example, a communication class may be divided into small groups of three to four students, each group works on a different controversial topic which allows the students to practice and develop argumentation and critical thinking skills.
After preparation time (brainstorming, researching, discussing, identifying main reasons in favour of a stance and against), each member of each group joins another group and shares their findings in an entirely new group. Once all students have joined different groups, they join the original group to share, summarize and synthesize key information regarding the chosen topic.

Generally, to provide meaningful learning experiences, it is important to design courses with careful attention paid to time management, to allow students sufficient time to prepare for group activities, to reflect on the materials and sources during research, to rethink their own and peers’ contributions in group discussions, and to identify and synthesize learned contents. Overall, if students are encouraged to contribute to group work in a fair and balanced manner, to exchange relevant, profound ideas and to engage in constructive discourse, this mostly results in very good learner engagement with motivated students, who hopefully also experience joy in their learning.



Kay, Robin (2022) Thriving Online in Higher Education. [Webinar]. Open Networked Learning. Retrieved November 22, 2022 from

Park, J.-H.; Choi, H. (2009), Factors Influencing Adult Learners’ Decision to Drop Out or Persist in Online Learning. Educational Technology & Society, v12 n4 p207-217

The World Café (n.d.). Design Principles. Retrieved November 24, 2022, from

Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press.

[1] As mentioned by Prof. Kay in our ONL webinar on November 22, 2022, the graduation rate in asynchronous courses is only 55%, compared to 95% in synchronous mode.

[2] In massive open online course mode, the learning café is also referred to as World Café, see






3 responses to “Topic 4: Improving learner engagement through meaningful group activities”

  1. Jacqueline Hoppenreijs Avatar
    Jacqueline Hoppenreijs

    Hi Christoph!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic! These are some really interesting reflections on the differences between asynchronous and synchronous learning, and how difficult it can be to create meaningful interactions in the former. There’s so many ways of creating meaningful synchronous interaction since most of us are used to that, but it’s really worth exploring the other side too!
    Your blog title and the words “meaningful group activities” really triggered me to visit your blog because it made me think of how, sometimes, it can be tempting to “just” make something a group activity because of lack of time for grading individual assignments, individual supervision and so on. Instead, I think we have to be intentional about it and have a clear purpose for the group being there, because this type of synchronous interaction might have an adverse affect otherwise! Just some thoughts from my side, thank you for sparking the thinking here!


  2. Christoph Zimmel Avatar
    Christoph Zimmel

    Hi Jacqueline,

    Thank you so much for your relevant comment! I very much agree that it is important to create and implement activities which foster meaningful interactions also in asynchronous mode. One very important factor is time management for preparation and for the actual interaction, i.e. production of comments, texts, or videos.
    As we are, by evolution, more used to synchronous meetings and contexts, interaction and collaboration happen more naturally in synchronous meetings, e.g. in flipped mode. As for asynchronous settings, the time delay in responses somewhat complicates the interaction and might negatively affect the learning experience and process overall. Nevertheless, we can see constructive ideas being shared in social media channels, in open asynchronous settings, such as comments posted in form of text or a video reaction.
    Besides time, I believe that intrinsic motivation, purpose (understanding the learning outcomes and goals), and meaning (reflection on the learning and setting of future goals, beyond the credit hunt) are very important factors.
    Again, many thanks! I very much appreciate your comment!


  3. Sigrid Eldh Avatar
    Sigrid Eldh

    Thank you for a good summation of the topic. I was not aware of the “world cafe” similarities – and had to check it out – Thank you for good references. I especially like your comment to Jacqueline – as I can agree on your view – that the motivation are the main factor. If you are out to seek knowledge – you will find it. Now – having a guide is of course good, especially if your are to fulfill some others expectation of what the knowledge should be (to e.g. pass an exam). Otherwise, I think we have gotten to be a “reward” society – that we expect a praise for everything that we do – and we then get disappointed if we are not getting a reward), So I totally agree, it is very much beyond he “credit hunt” that should be the motivation.

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