9 tips for university faculty to create engaging virtual classrooms

My friend from Stanford posted on her Instagram story, expressing her decline of motivation as the university shifted to online classes due to the outbreak of coronavirus in the area. She said it does not feel the same anymore, even though the class is facilitated by her favourite professor.

Another student from Pomona asked me, how to make the most out of online courses and stay engaged during class. To me, it’s really the structure that matters. Fortunately, the curriculum and the pedagogy at my university, Minerva Schools, is designed for online seminars in mind from the beginning. I might be missing some points, but here is the summary of the “online” elements of Minerva’s unique education that I think makes a difference. Hopefully, it will be helpful for some students/teachers who are finding it hard to get most out of the online classrooms;

1. Flipped classroom: Students are responsible for completing pre-class reading/work to gain a basic understanding of materials prior to joining class so that we can focus on discussion and application of the knowledge in class, instead of prof’s talking. In fact, profs are not supposed to talk more than 10 minutes during class, so students really need to invest time and effort on these works to contribute to the classes actively (of course, profs will help students navigate through certain concepts and knowledge even if students didn’t grasp them accurately). This is one of the most crucial points because our classes do not function if students don’t take initiative.

2. Small classrooms: Each seminar is no bigger than 19, so students can stay focused and profs can pay attention to all students.

3. Penalty: If students don’t complete sufficient pre-class work, they will receive 1 (the lowest grade on a scale of 5)! Also, students can be graded low on professionalism (we have around 100 items on which we get evaluated across all classes, in addition to class-specific assessment items) if you sleep in class or work on something not related to the class (and believe me, profs catch us). 

4. Pattern: All classes follow more or less the same pattern. By following the same structure for every class, profs can allocate the time accordingly without being freaked out by the ticking clock. Unlike Minerva’s platform, I believe Zoom doesn’t have any tool to help you stay on track, but setting a desktop notification or a phone timer is an easy alternative here.

5. Assessment system: We don’t have tests at our university. Instead, students will be assessed based on their every-day performance during class (what students speak + quality of poll answers) and assignments (each class has only weight x1 but the weights for assignments can vary between 2x and 12x depending on its workload). This forces us to pay attention in class because the accumulation of small grades can slowly kill our grades.

6. Rubrics: We have certain learning outcomes for each course and we are evaluated based on these learning outcomes. In this way, our assessment is always consistent and we have a chance to improve our scores even if you perform poorly in one class/assignment.

7. Feedback from profs: Students receive qualitative feedback for each class, in addition to the quantitative grade. This not only helps us understand what we did good/bad and how we can improve, but also creates some human-feeling even though all interactions happen online.

8. Technology built with insights from cognitive neuroscience/psychology: The platform is built in a way that aligns with the basic assumptions about one’s cognitive capacity (e.g., attention is limited). One example on Minerva’s platform is its colouring function; the platform detects how much students have spoken in the class and colours students’ windows accordingly just on prof’s screen so that profs know who to call on next. This is also in line with the empirical evidence that high-performing team is the team whose members’ contribution is equal, rather than one person dictating the meeting however smart the person is. While it is hard to implement additional features when you are using a third-party platform, but the key is leveraging insights from academia (cognitive neuroscience/psychology) instead of following tradition or intuition when building curriculum and pedagogy.

9. Iterative practice: Professors practice how to facilitate active-learning seminars online with other professors using the same platform! Facilitating online classes in an engaging manner is a skill that comes with practice, and you need to constantly learn what works most effectively. Students are also responsible for providing constructive feedback and improve their teaching styles.


Students are trying to stay engaged in class, but humans lack of self-control, attention, and cognitive capacity. It’s the structure that can help students stay motivated and engaged. Minerva’s faculty spent years working on developing the curriculum and instruction method suited for online learning. Universities might not be able to implement the entirety of what’s written here overnight, but hopefully, this article reminds the importance of structural changes for redefining how we teach/learn in the rapidly evolving world.

*Brain read to think about the transition into online learning from other types of important structural roadblocks: “Everybody Ready for the Big Migration to Online College? Actually, No


P.S. For those interested, Minerva Schools is hosting a webinar on Tuesday, March 17 at 1 PM PST / 4 PM EST, to share some key lessons for how to transform a class into a virtual classroom. You can RSVP from here.