The global COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated a rapid shift to online delivery in higher education. This learning and teaching environment is associated with reduced student engagement, a crucial prerequisite of student satisfaction, retention and success. This paper presents a case study that explored student engagement in the synchronous virtual learning environment, during the mandatory move to exclusive online learning in Australian higher education in April to June 2020. Three university instructors used the Teaching and Learning Circles Model to observe a series of their peers' synchronous virtual classrooms, from which they reflected on ways to enhance their own practice. The findings demonstrate how student engagement in these classrooms can be strengthened across the four constructs of Kahu and Nelson’s (2018) engagement conceptual framework: belonging; emotional response; wellbeing and self-efficacy. The case study also reveals limitations of the synchronous virtual environment as a means of supporting student engagement in the online learning and teaching environment, and proposes ways to address them. Against emerging reports of increased mental health issues among isolated university students during the current pandemic, the case study's recommendations to improve student wellbeing and belonging are particularly salient. This article also highlights the usefulness of the Teaching and Learning Circles Model of peer observation as a way to guide its participants' reflections on their own practice, support their collegiality with academic peers and build their confidence and competence in the synchronous virtual learning environment.

Practitioner Notes

Improving how academics think about and practice teaching as well as describing and evaluating the design and implementation of academic development activities, resources or programs.