10 Techniques to Engage Students

The instructor as designer recognizes that the online platform can do more than simply compel students to read, watch, and listen. With carefully designed learning activities, instructors can engage students in explaining, categorizing, inferring, applying, solving problems and more. In short, rather than simply reading content, students can be working and interacting with content in meaningful ways.

Our audience is the instructor as designer. We hold on to the hope that online learning won’t be commercialized to the point of reducing instructors to proctors. We value the instructor as designer because no one understands his or her students’ needs better than the instructor. And, although developing online learning may be time consuming, it’s a lot of fun. Who wants to delegate that entirely to publishers?

Screenshot of the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool

Screenshot of the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool

In recent posts, we’ve been thinking and writing about larger design concepts that help instructors to engage students. This article, in contrast, surveys a range of techniques supported by the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool — sometimes in minute detail — that sharpen the edge of a well-designed activity and make it more effective.

Unless, you follow the development of the LodeStar authoring tool very closely, some of the items below will come as a surprise to you. Again, some of these items are simply techniques that will enhance your online learning projects; other items are larger in scope.

Let’s start with some simple techniques and then work our way up.


The LodeStar eLearning authoring tool offers a range of templates that help instructors build online activities. The ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of templates is the ActivityMaker template. If you wish to get a good sense of what ActivityMaker can do, visit our post at https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/12-ways-to-engage-students-with-elearning-authoring-tools/

This article (not the link) dips into some of the settings of the authoring system that can affect student engagement in a significant and meaningful way. Each of the techniques is numbered and listed below.

#1: Link to other pages in a project

Knowledge is an interconnected web of informational, procedural and conceptual relationships. Sometimes, we want our designs to pick a ‘happy path’ through a topic’s complexity. We want students to start with a limited number of simple propositions or declarations and build up to a more complex understanding of the subject matter. Sometimes we want students to infer generalizations from the information that is presented to them in a relational manner.

A LodeStar activity can be a linear progression through content and application or it can be an interconnected website or both. A LodeStar activity can have navigational buttons that step a student through the content or it can turn off navigational buttons. Students can navigate through links, table of contents, or branching (discussed later).

For example, instructors may want to create a menu to give students choice of content. The menu page in the ActivityMaker template is restricted to four menu options and may, therefore, not be satisfactory. What if an instructor wanted five or … ten menu items?

What if an instructor simply wanted to link together pages in a LodeStar activity? Fortunately, the technique is simple in LodeStar 7.2 build 12 or later.

To make this work, be sure to give each of your pages a unique page ID. Once you have given your pages a page id, then select text that you wish to convert to a link. Click on the link button in the editor. The pull- down menu will reveal page id’s to you both in name and numerical format. Select the page that you want linked.

Of course, you are not restricted to pages within LodeStar. You can link to anywhere on the internet.

#2: Link to an overlay

So now that we know how create links to pages within LodeStar, let’s see what more we can do. Typically, links cause the program to jump to the linked page. If designers check ‘Show as Overlay’, the linked page displays as an overlay. In other words, students won’t jump to the page. The linked content gets overlaid on the current page. Students don’t lose their place or the context of the learning.

Note that text pages, with or without graphics, make the best overlays. Other page types are restricted from acting as overlays for technical reasons.

#3: Make Use of the Page Options

Each page type in ActivityMaker comes with various options that will help instructors to enhance the students’ experience.

The speaker icon enables instructors to import an MP3 file. In the audio dialog they can choose to display a player control to pause and play audio.They can also cause the audio to play automatically when the page starts.

Pages with audio look like this:

A small audio icon appears at the top left when audio is available

A small audio icon appears at the top left when audio is available

I’ll review some of the other controls that instructors may see either on a text page or question page or both.

Controls found on the right side of LodeStar pages

Controls found on the right side of LodeStar pages

The Correct Answer and Incorrect Answer branch icons allow instructors to branch or provide feedback based on overall (page level) correct or incorrect responses instead of answer level option branches.

The Table of Contents check box adds the current page to the table of contents. Different options for table of contents are found under Tools > Project Settings.

The Resources check box turns the current page into a resource that can be accessed at any time. Checking the check box causes a button to display at the bottom of the screen (depending on the layout), which will bring up the page as resource at any time.

Again, text pages, with or without graphics, make the best resources.

The ‘Do Not Display Correct Answer’ suspends feedback that informs the student of the correct answer.

The ‘Use Multiple Choice Radio Buttons’ converts the multiple select question type to a multiple choice question type. In playback mode, students will see radio buttons rather than checkboxes next to each answer option.

‘Point Value’, of course, assigns points to the current Question page.

‘Remove from Flow’ prevents the page from being displayed, unless branched to.

#4: Use Page Branching to Differentiate Instruction

The following is self-evident and almost foolish to write, if not for common practice: Student’s don’t all learn in the same manner. They don’t share the same level of prior knowledge, aptitude, experience, motivation, etc. A benefit of online learning, which is largely unrealized today, is that we can differentiate instruction based on student choice and performance.

Here is a recital of the various ways that projects created from the ActivityMaker template can differentiate instruction.

  • Links to different pages (content areas) offer students choice and a sense of control over their own learning. This is particularly important for adult learners.
  • Displaying pages as resources allows a student to summon up page content at any time. The student may be working on a case study and may wish to have quick access to critical information.
  • Branches based on performance either at the answer option level, page level or section level. The branch icon appears in LodeStar in various places. We see it next to answer options on the multiple choice question page. That means that a branch option and/or feedback will display if that answer is picked. There are many branch actions. ‘Jump to Page’ is one example.
  • Page Level branches follow a branch and/or provide feedback based on overall correct or incorrect responses. For example, in multiple select questions it might be difficult to branch based on any one selection. A page level branch can be based on whether or not the student answered correctly overall.
  • Section level branches are accomplished with gates. A ‘Gate’ is an ActivityMaker page type. Gates support all of the branch actions supported by answer level options and more. In other words, gates control program flow. For example, the program can jump to remedial activities or a higher level of challenge.

#5: Use Video to Bring a Project to Life

Even though the well-known educational psychologist Richard E. Mayer observes that we don’t fully understand the role of video in online learning, he acknowledges that it plays an important role.

In our view, short videos can bring an online learning project to life. It can bring experts to the course site; provide students with an audio-visual look at phenomena in, perhaps, a more efficient way than text and graphics; and it may be the preferred mode of learning for many students.

LodeStar supports three important forms of video.

One, the ActivityMaker template video page supports YouTube Video. Rather than fussing with embed codes, instructors can simply paste a YouTube URL into the main field. Although the LodeStar previewer doesn’t display YouTube videos, instructors can preview videos by launching the project in Firefox. The Firefox browser supports the preview of local resources. Other browsers do not.

Two, ActivityMaker enables an instructor to link an MP4 video file that is available by URL over the internet. LodeStar supports merging an MP4 video from an internet source with a WebVtt (.vtt) caption file imported into the project.

Three, ActivityMaker enables an instructor to import an MP4 file into the project.

#6: Use Flashcards to Help Students Remember

When students struggle to remember a term or definition it increases their cognitive load and makes the assimilation of new information more taxing than need be.  Many strategies help students remember information.  The use of Flashcards is but one example.

ActivityMaker supports Flashcards. In other words, Flashcards are part of the Swiss Army knife that ActivityMaker represents. The positive side is that a Flashcard activity can be blended with other pages that engage students in such things as video, text and graphics and checks for understanding. The negative side is that instructors have found it challenging to set up the gates that are needed for incorrectly answered flashcards to be returned to the queue.

LodeStar now offers the Flashcards template. Instructors will find the gates preset correctly. Instructors need only add the instructions, fill in the first card and add more. This template is still based on the ActivityMaker template. That means that instructors can add other page types and benefit from the full functionality of ActivityMaker.

#7: Use Instructional Design Patterns (compound strategies) like WebQuests

In previous articles, we introduced the concept of instructional design patterns. If you missed the articles, start with https://lodestarlearn.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/instructional-design-patterns/

WebQuests are one example of an instructional design pattern. WebQuests are an inquiry-based format, first introduced by Dr, Bernie Dodge at San Diego State.

LodeStar now offers the Webquest template to make it easier for faculty to build them and export them to learning management systems. Webquests are extremely popular in K12, but they show great promise in higher education. In brief, a Webquest sends students out into the internet with a purpose. A Webquest defines a task for students to complete, often in groups, and then spells out a process for completing the task. A Webquest offers a finite set of links as resources that have been vetted by the instructor or ‘an expert’.

For a closer look at Webquests in area of nursing education, view the following quantitative and qualitative study submitted to the International Journal of Nursing:


The LodeStar Webquest template is also based on ActivityMaker. That means that Webquest authors have the full range of ActivityMaker capabilities open to them. At the same time, instructors do not need to complete all of the set up required for a Webquest.  That is all done for them in the Webquest template.

#8: Use eBooks (epub 3)

If you missed our article on Open Textbooks and ePub, you’ll want to visit the following link:


In short, LodeStar enables instructors to author their own eBooks. Actually, authoring an eBook may seem daunting. The epub3Maker template supports not only eBooks but something much much smaller in scale such as white papers,  pamphlets, lab manuals, course introductions….whatever.

#9: Jazz up your Activities with Themes and Layouts

LodeStar now supports both themes and layouts. Themes enable instructors to choose from a number of color coordinated presets. Theme is mostly about color. Theme controls the colors of the header, footer, content area and HTML background. Instructors can even click on the advanced button in the ThemesManager dialog and create their own header and footer gradients.

Themes have been around in LodeStar for a long long time. Layouts are relatively new.

Layouts enable instructors to choose from a range of presets that affect the position of the header, footer, content body, table of contents and any gadgets that are used in the project.

With the combination of Themes and Layouts, instructors can create a unique look for their projects.

#10: Infographics

Infographics can play a number of roles in eLearning. They can provide data in a pleasing pictorial format through the use of headlines, graphs, symbols and images. They can outline a topic of interest to help students organize material and understand up front what some of the key points will be. They can be used to assess students when instructors invite students to generate their own infographics to communicate their understanding of a key issue or concept.

Here is the typical infographic:


Here is one more to look at.

The following infographic was created in LodeStar and combines a Prezi style presentation with an infographic style of presentation. It introduces seven phenomena that we are paying close attention to:



Instructors and students benefit from LodeStar’s rich array of options. Instructors can choose from a variety of templates. The ActivityMaker template offers an array of page types. Page types can offer an array of options. All of this helps the instructor create a rich and engaging experience for students.


Decision Making Scenarios


Decision making scenarios tell a story (often in the form of a narrative, case study or history) and challenge students to draw from their knowledge and make decisions to advance the story and solve a problem.

An interactive, multimedia learning object, for example, produced by Lippincott, introduces students to the pathophysiology of cells and then requires them to make decisions related to the case studies of sick patients. Decision making scenarios are a natural for health-related disciplines, but they can be used in any discipline where foundational knowledge is needed to make educated decisions.

Busy instructors may be hard-pressed to devote the time required to design case studies and scenarios and yet this strategy will improve instructor designed courses and tremendously benefit students.

In short, it takes time, but it is well worth it.

In their TEC-Variety eBook, Curtis Bonk and Elaine Khoo describe 100 effective activities for motivating and retaining learners online. Activity 51 describes Multimedia case vignettes and decision making.

“Students enjoy being close to the content that they are expected to master. Case vignettes and scenarios are one such opportunity. Since the times of Socrates and Plato in ancient Athens, cases have been used to foster student analysis, discrimination and evaluation skills. “

Bonk and Khoo write that decision making

“includes critical thinking skills such as inferring, analyzing details, deductive and inductive reasoning, comparing and contrasting, evaluation or judgment, breaking down case situations or problems into component parts, and the application of concepts and terminology to real-world situations.”

A detailed example

Writing decision making scenarios may seem daunting. The challenge, however, lies on the creative side and not the technical. Only a few years ago, decision making or branching required some technical expertise; today, this strategy is within reach of all online learning instructors. eLearning authoring and/or web content authoring tools make building these scenarios relatively easy.

That still leaves the creative side.

Several years ago, I ran a search for examples that were not created by a publisher, but by instructors. I started with Merlot.org (http://www.merlot.org) and came upon Crisis at Fort Sumter (http://www.tulane.edu/~sumter/). This activity excited my imagination and I have been citing it as a best practice example ever since. The outward appearance of Crisis at Fort Sumter may seem a little dated by today’s web design standards, but don’t let that fool you. The content is thoroughly engaging.

I’ll examine what makes this decision making scenario so compelling. I’ll also discuss general principles of design, and how an instructor could use a tool like LodeStar to author his or her own decision making activity.

Let’s start with a description of Crisis at Fort Sumter and then extract from it some critical elements.

Crisis at Fort Sumter owes its existence to Dr. Richard Latner, professor of History at Tulane University. Dr. Latner is the content expert for both this and The Salem Witchcraft site, another interactive teaching and learning site. His teaching and research interests center on American social and political history. Crisis at Fort Sumter won the Merlot Classics Award and Editors’ Choice Award in 2004. The activity has been peer reviewed through the Merlot member organization and the review comments have been published.

Crisis at Fort Sumter is a web site that engages students in reading background information for the period between Lincoln’s election and the battle of Fort Sumter a few months later. Dr. Latner used text, images, graphics and audio to establish a historical setting for the important decisions that occupied Lincoln in that pre-war period.

Students read the materials and are confronted with some of the decision making that occupied Lincoln during the time. There are five critical decisions that contributed to the outcome of the crisis.

To add to the realism of the scenario, students can seek the advice of Lincoln’s advisers and read excerpts from newspaper articles that were published at the time. The site is presented to students as a web of information with links that take them deeper into the content. The site includes an event calendar, a bibliography and other resources to support the students in their task.

The design of the site will appeal to self-directed, active learners. It provides random access to information. Students are presented with a menu. They can access any time period they wish, in any order. This suits adult learners, who appreciate control over their own learning. Students can return to the menu from any point in the site.

A calendar with hyperlinks enables students to investigate events on specific days. A calendar accompanies the links to four of the five problems.

In general, authors of decision making scenarios carefully evaluate what information should be included and what should be excluded. A decision making scenario is a type of simulation. Simulations need just enough information to help students generate ideas and opinions. Too much information is extraneous and distracting. Crisis at For Sumter strikes a good balance. Its author was deliberate about what to leave in. That is one of the toughest decisions an instructor must make in crafting a scenario.

In reading the background, students realize that American leaders weren’t polarized into pro-slave and abolitionist, but held many opinions in between. Before students make their first decision, enough of the story of the secessionist threat is told to engage them and give them important information. They learn about the election of Lincoln, the secession of seven states, and the states’ seizure of forts.

Problem one challenges students as follows:

As the secession crisis unfolded, Lincoln was presented with a number of suggestions for handling it. Some ideas were urged upon him personally. Others were offered in newspapers, letters, in Congress, or public meetings. Inevitably, this advice differed. In order to understand the choices Lincoln confronted, click on the figures on the screen. Each figure represents a different policy recommendation.

Consider these various options, and the nature of the crisis faced by the Union, and ask yourself: If you were Lincoln, what would you do? And why would you choose this particular course of action?

Students click on each historical figure (e.g. Horace Greeley) , read the advice and then write in a notepad what they would do. The notepad is simply a web form that posts the response to an email address.

Then students are invited to read what Lincoln actually did. In other words, students are asked to reflect on what they wrote and compare that to Lincoln.

Design Considerations

Stepping away from Crisis at Fort Sumter, let’s consider some key design suggestions that apply to the construction of decision making scenarios.

  1. First, list to yourself the concepts, principles, procedures and rules that you want to reinforce.
  2. Build a story.
  3. Organize your story according to key problems that need to be solved.
  4. Consider which elements of the story serve to engage students’ interest and engage them academically, related to #1 and exclude everything else.
  5. Keep it simple at first.Scenarios can progress from simple to complex, increasing the challenge to the learner. Game design encourages instructors to increase complexity, plateau for a while, then increase again.
  6. Include just enough reality to make it relevant – but avoid overly sophisticated, time-consuming scenarios
  7. Offer, when possible, multiple paths to success, but avoid a combinatorial explosion of paths.
  8. Add media (audio, video, imagery) that advances the story and increases engagement
  9. Offer multiple points of reflection
  10. Allow the students to compare their answers to that of the ‘expert’ and/or one another.

Building with LodeStar

To demonstrate how to build a decision making activity, I asked Dr. Latner’s permission to use some background information from Crisis at For Sumter as well as two problems and demonstrate how to build this type of activity. I want to emphasize that this is just a small subset of Dr. Latner’s work.

Warning: The following information will be too detailed for authors who do not use LodeStar.  Feel free to view the example and then skip to the conclusion.

The following instructions produce what you see here:



Because I am the author of LodeStar, I choose LodeStar to build out this example. Instructors could use Captivate, ZebraZapps, Articulate StoryLine and other tools to build similar examples.

Step 1: Choose a template and start a project

The best template for building decision making scenarios is ActivityMaker. It is an all-purpose template.

In the screenshot, I am selecting ActivityMaker template to create a project named Crisis at Fort Sumter.

Make Project 1

Step 2: Add content

The default page type in the ActivityMaker template is the ‘Text’ page. Text pages support images, text and even audio. I simply copied and pasted Dr. Latner’s content into a text page but I could have keyed in my own original content.

To add visual interest, I inserted an image of Lincoln from the Library of Congress. This was not part of the original content. I am also deviating from the original design. Dr. Latner starts off with a menu that branches off into different parts of the content. The menu is composed of a table of images, each linked to a different page. This is certainly creatable in our project, but to keep things simple, I fill in the Page ID and check off ‘Table of Contents’ on the right side of the page. LodeStar automatically generates a table of contents for me.

Our choice of the type of table of contents is controlled by selecting Tools > Project Settings. The default is Dropdown. I will choose Menu Style 2. This gives me a fixed sidebar menu that hugs the left side of the screen.

Add Text 2

Step 3: Add more content

To add more content, I click on the ‘Add a Page’ button at the bottom of the screen. This is the button with the “+” label. Again, I filled in ‘Dilemmas of Compromise’ in the Page ID field and checked off ‘Table of Contents’ on the right side of the page.

Now the interesting part.

Step 4: Add a resource

“Crisis at Fort Sumter” presents students with five problems. I will recreate only the first two problems. I have several options on how to present the problem. I choose to create a resource. A resource is a new concept to LodeStar. When authors, select the ‘Resources’ checkbox (beneath Table of Contents) they are creating a tab at the bottom of the page with a title that matches the Page ID. When students select the tab, the resource simply pops up in a separate dialog box. Students don’t lose their place. If they are on page two and access a resource, they will return to page two.Also new to LodeStar is the ability to link from one page to another. Just as LodeStar can link to external pages, hyperlinks can take students from one LodeStar page to another. I will demonstrate this option in another article.

To create a resource, I simply add a page, select the Text page option, and then add content. I click on ‘Resources’ and give the page a Page ID. If I want students to be able to navigate to the page with the next and back buttons, I do nothing more. If I don’t want students to stumble upon this page by clicking on the next button, I can remove the page from the flow. I would select ‘Remove from Flow’. (Please note: Be sure that your first and last pages in the project are not removed from the flow.)‘Remove from Flow’ means that students can only branch to a page and not navigate to a page. Branching can occur as a result of a menu selection, answer selection, a gate property, score, or hyperlink. Navigation occurs through the back and next buttons.Add Resource 3The problem presents four advisers who gave Lincoln advice. I simply created a webpage for each adviser and placed that in a resources file inside my project. I then linked to the page.An example url is:


Again this means that there is a resources folder in my project and in the resources folder there is file named ‘greeley.html’

But LodeStar makes it easy to simply link to another page. Why did I not do that? The reason is that linking to a page causes the student to navigate to that page. Linking to a web resource causes the web resource to pop up on the screen and the student not to lose his or her place.

Alternatively, I could have placed each of the advisers in its own resource so that at anytime in the activity students could consult an adviser by clicking on the resource tab at the bottom of the page. That would have worked fine.

A resource can be anything that can be displayed on a web page. It could be an article, a chart, a statistical table…anything that can be displayed on a web page.

Step 5: Add a Long Answer Page and a journal page

In Crisis at Fort Sumter students are asked to submit a response to what they would do. LodeStar supports this type of activity with the Long Answer page type. The long answer is where students type in their responses. The journal page, a different type of page, is used to aggregate all long answers and display them on a single page.

LodeStar will send the student responses to a Learning Management System, but instructor access to these answers is, at best, cumbersome. This is likely to change in the future. In the meantime, encourage your students to copy the journal page into a Word document and submit to a drop box.

LodeStar will also attempt to store student responses and retrieve them, but this is still an undependable feature. It is best to advise students to copy and paste their responses to a word document each and every session.


Step 6: Add a simple Question to Commit Students

I added another variation to the original activity. Rather than have students submit their journal response and then view what Lincoln did , I pose a question that must be answered in order to ‘unlock’ the description of what Lincoln did. This approach causes students to ‘own’ their answer or ‘commit’ before reading the response of the ‘expert’.

There are several LodeStar features in play here. First, as mentioned, you can take any page out of the flow. That means that students will only be directed to what Lincoln did as a result of a branch.

Each question option or distractor can be associated with its own branch. A branch is designated by this symbol.


These are option level branches. You can also control page level branches. You’ll notice that on the top right of the page, there is a page level branch for correct answer and a page-level branch for an incorrect answer. These branches trump all. If a student answers correctly, then the correct answer branch does one of the following depending on what the instructor wants:

No Action
Go to Next Page
Go to Previous Page
Jump to Page
Go to URL
Set Variable
Append Variable
Reset Page

In other words, there is a range of options. In this example, I automatically branch to a page that displays what Lincoln did, after two seconds. At the risk of repeating myself, students will not see that page unless they answer the question because the page has been checked out of the flow.


The decision making scenario is an extremely engaging and effective strategy. Some instructors, as described in Bonk and Khoo’s eBook, dedicate 40 to 60 hours per scenario. That may be too great a leap of faith for some. Instructors might want to consider smaller and simpler scenarios to start. If students can directly relate time spent on scenarios to improved test scores, they will make the time. Improved test scores will make it easier for instructors to justify their effort. The real benefit, however, is that decision making scenarios help prepare students for the ‘real world’. Students should be inferring, analyzing, reasoning and evaluating in preparation for the world beyond the classroom. Scenarios are one strategy that instructors can use to make online courses compelling and, more importantly, effective. That beats dull and deadly every time.

Give one a try.


Bonk, C., & Khoo, E. (n.d.). Adding some TEC-VARIETY: 100 activities for motivating and retaining learners online.

Crisis at Fort Sumter. (n.d.). Department of History, Tulane University.