How Positive Reinforcement Can Keep Students Engaged in a Virtual Setting

Image of child giving teacher on screen a thumbs up

Educators have faced numerous obstacles to meaningfully engaging students during the global coronavirus pandemic. Initially, these were practical, including providing students with access to technology and safe spaces to learn. As the pandemic and the need for virtual classrooms persist, educators also face the challenge of keeping students actively engaged, despite students’ option to turn off their devices and literally disconnect.

Overextended educators face the daunting task of making online school attendance enjoyable for students, without the natural positive reinforcement, such as socializing with friends, that in-person schooling provides. However, most teachers have many ways to engage learners in the classroom that can be adapted to engaging those in online settings. One such tool is the use of frequent and specific positive reinforcement.

What Does Evidence-Based Positive Reinforcement Look Like?

Most teachers have many ways to engage learners in the classroom that can be adapted to engaging those in online settings. One such tool is the use of frequent and specific positive reinforcement.

Research suggests multiple types of positive reinforcers can contribute to improved student behavior and increased engagement in the classroom. These include:

1) Social Reinforcers: Often called praise or verbal recognition, social reinforcers are one of the most commonly used and effective tools in a teacher’s arsenal. By nature, most online classroom settings have much less synchronous learning time than in-person settings, so teachers must deliberately plan to provide ample and immediate praise during those lessons or immediately after asynchronous assignments are submitted. In the online setting, praise can focus not only on student work and demonstrations of mastery but also on students’ engagement and their use of social and emotional learning skills, such as participating in the virtual chat, joining class from a space that will help them focus, and submitting asynchronous assignments on time.

2) Activity Reinforcers: Educators also may find activity reinforcers easy to implement in an online setting. These include special privileges, classroom jobs, or time to devote to a fun activity. Activity reinforcers can be used to motivate individual students, such as by assigning a highly engaged student to monitor the chat for questions or to press the record button in a synchronous session. Activity reinforcers also can be used with groups, such as letting the whole class wear a funny hat or providing unstructured time for students to talk to peers in breakout rooms.

3) Tangible Reinforcers: Tangible reinforcers—typically material items such as stickers, edible treats, or other small rewards—are the most challenging to replicate in an online setting. These items can be helpful for young children, who are just beginning to develop intrinsic motivation, or for motivating students to complete low-interest tasks. However, research suggests that social- and activity-based reinforcers are more easily sustained and can be more effective in increasing positive student behaviors. For teachers and schools that rely on tangible reinforcers in typical years, token reinforcement systems may be a good alternative.

4) Token Reinforcers: Token reinforcement systems allow students to earn small symbolic tokens, such as marbles in a marble jar or individual tickets, that can later be redeemed for larger tangible rewards or participation in a special event. Token reinforcers provide some immediate reinforcement but delay the larger gratification, and they can be used to help students internalize motivation for doing the right thing. Symbolic tokens could be earned immediately in the virtual setting, through existing systems, digital badging (see item 5 below for more information), or other learning management system functionality, and could be redeemed in the future when teachers and students return to their physical classrooms.

How to Design Positive Reinforcement Systems Online

Different students find different types of reinforcement motivating. As a result, educators should provide layers of reinforcement to ensure all students are engaged.

Many of the recommendations for establishing a positive reinforcement system in a physical classroom could be adapted for the online setting. These include:

1)  Begin with a group reinforcement system. Some educators may feel they have limited time to devote to reinforcement systems. In these cases, educators should start with a reward structure focused on encouraging positive group behavior in synchronous class settings, and later add individual reinforcement systems.

2) Select reinforcers that are free and easy to use. Because positive reinforcers are more effective if they are administered frequently, educators should choose reinforcers that have little or no cost, can be given to students easily, and require minimal time and effort to administer. While educators will need to devote time to select reinforcers for the new setting, ideally this initial investment should lay the groundwork for a system that will become largely automatic over time.

3) Provide a variety of reinforcers. Different students find different types of reinforcement motivating. As a result, educators should provide layers of reinforcement to ensure all students are engaged. Teachers should provide a variety of praise, including verbal praise in synchronous settings and written praise on asynchronous assignments, and should integrate activity reinforcers or token systems to ensure all students receive reinforcement that motivates them.

4) Engage students in the planning process. The process of asking about and understanding the range of rewards students like may be particularly important for online classrooms in which most educators have less experience providing positive reinforcement. In a virtual setting, educators could use group discussion, the chat box in webinar platforms, or online polling tools to gather input from students.

5) Consider using progressive rewards. A progressive approach to providing rewards that increase in value over time can be a highly motivating reinforcement system, particularly for tasks that require high levels of student self-regulation. In online classrooms, educators can provide progressive rewards through badging, a system through which students receive icons to represent different achievements and positive choices. Badging systems are available through many types of learning management platforms and generally allow teachers to set different types of badges when students achieve different milestones and to link these badges to activity or tangible reinforcers. Combining badging systems with asynchronous student work may be a particularly effective mechanism to motivate students to spend more time on task, given the higher need for student self-regulation when completing asynchronous assignments.

As online classes continue, applying these principles of positive reinforcement can help students remain successful and engaged. By taking time to adapt positive reinforcement practices to the online environment, educators can lay the groundwork for meaningful student engagement both in the immediate, virtual environment and when students can return to in-person school.