Teaching Resources

Best Practices in Teaching Online

Resource Overview

Suggestions for best practices in strategies for online teaching

Teaching Online 

While teaching and learning online versus in a face-to-face classroom setting can be daunting, it’s important to recognize that many best practices for teaching in general can be adapted for the online classroom. In other words, pedagogically speaking, what is most important is thinking through how to translate what you do that works in person with what you can do in a synchronous online environment. Below you’ll find some suggestions of best practices for online teaching.

Participation & Engagement in Online Teaching

One of the biggest challenges in online teaching (and in in-person teaching) is in considering how to help keep students focused and motivated throughout a class session. It’s long been held in academic research on learning that students’ attentions are limited in even the very best of circumstances. While the jury is still out on exactly how long our students can pay attention, research generally suggests that in ideal conditions (when they’ve had breakfast, gotten enough sleep, are motivated to learn, etc.), that window of focus lasts somewhere between 10-20 minutes, but that likely for most of our students on most days, student attention is even shorter.

When students interact with content online, research suggests that inattention and distraction are an even greater barrier to student learning than they are in traditional classroom settings (Inman, J. & Meyers, S., 2018). It won’t come as a shock to those of you who have sat in on many Zoom meetings that it is easy for your attention to wane quickly online. It would also not be surprising to most instructors that students are likely to pay attention even less well to an hour-long video lecture than they would when passively listening to a lecture in a traditional classroom or while sitting behind a screen watching the class via Zoom. Finally, it’s worth noting that many people (students and faculty alike) may be having a more difficult time paying attention and focusing in difficult times, such as a global pandemic. So, one key consideration in teaching must be how you’ll hold your students’ attention, regardless of whether they are physically in your classroom or attending remotely.

Many instructors of face-to-face classes motivate students by building in “participation” as a graded category that counts towards the overall course grade. For some instructors, participation generally means showing up to class every day and bringing course materials with you, while others use anything from a single clicker question to an elaborate rubric to assess students contributions. Whatever the method, rewarding students for participation can motivate them to actively contribute in class and provide them with important feedback on their interpersonal skills and professional interactions. The special challenge for classes with remote students is identifying what exactly participation looks like in this setting. A few key considerations for grading participation in an online or hyflex course include:

  • Clarifying what falls under “participation” in your course in the syllabus (e.g. sharing contributions in live session, doing small activities built into asynchronous course modules, participating actively and robustly in discussion boards, actively asking questions on the Q&A thread, etc.);
  • Recognizing timeliness and quality of participation, as well as quantity in grading criteria (more contributions are not always better contributions);
  • Providing asynchronous opportunities to participate; and
  • Providing alternate asynchronous activities for students unable to engage in the live sessions (e.g. write a reflection after watching the video, write two discussion questions based on the video that can be addressed in the next live session, etc.)

Instructors may find the following strategies helpful for engaging student learners remotely:

  • Develop Clear Community Guidelines for Participation: Talk to students about whether they have microphones (or headphones they can plug in with) or cameras (e.g. web cameras on a laptop) that are comfortable using. Discuss with students what active participation looks like in this new virtual space and what your expectations are for them.
  • Develop Clear Community Guidelines for Asking Questions: Provide students with specific directions about how to ask a question (hand raising/turn microphone on/write that you have a question in the chat window). Keep microphones on mute unless someone is speaking in order to cut down on background noise that can make focusing in these conversations difficult. Note that as a host you can set it so that participants are on mute by default when they enter the meeting. You can also mute a participant.
  • Utilize University-Licensed and Free Tools to Engage Students: On Zoom, consider the whiteboard, polling, breakout rooms, and other features at different points during class to help “reset” student attention. Or, integrate an EdTech tool into your class, such as Padlet, Poll Everywhere, or Google Slides, as a way to engage student learners.

Adding Pauses to Content Delivery Online

Again and again learning research suggests that the best way to “reset” student attentions, regardless of where your students are at physically, is to insert some kind of activity where students are actively engaging with the content at various intervals throughout the class period or content delivery (e.g. video lecture). While it is certainly possible to build in more elaborate (and perhaps more creative “resets”), here are a couple of very simple suggestions that could work for online or hybrid teaching in a socially distanced space. These could all also work as activity pauses between chunks of pre-recorded content for your students if you’ve decided to “flip” and prerecord lectures. Finally, these all work as pauses in a synchronous large group discussion as well–resetting student attention during a discussion is no less important than offering a reset during a lecture! The ideas listed below are all based on suggestions in from Barkley, E. & Howell Major, C. (2018) Interactive Lecturing: A Handbook for College Faculty:

  • Share a fact, statistic, story, alternate universe scenario, image, video clip, quotation, intriguing question and then pause, asking students to do something with that information (reflect on it, write down two things they notice, two questions that are raised by it, etc.)
  • Pause and ask students to predict (the next line, the next step in the sequence…). Once they’ve seen the next step in the next segment of the lecture, ask them to pause again and consider their answers: were they correct? incorrect? If so, why?
  • Pause and ask students to rewrite a definition, explanation, description, set of procedures, etc. briefly in their own words. (This is drawing on the concept of elaboration.)
  • Pause and ask students to look something up–read something, watch something, find a quote, etc.
  • Pause and ask students to draw for understanding. Ask them to illustrate an abstract concept of idea, ask them to make a drawing demonstrating the connections between ideas.
  • Pause and ask students to write down the “muddiest point” so far in the content. What are they unsure of, what remains unknown or unclear?
  • Pause at the end of a section and ask students to write the two most important “takeaways” from module.

Further Considerations for Online Teaching

  • Plan Breaks & Shorter Sessions: Being in virtual meetings can be more taxing for some than being there in person. Aim for shorter class sessions than usual, when reasonable to do so. Break up meetings into smaller units of activity (15-minute lecture w/ screen share ppt, 10-minute breakout small groups, 15-minute large group discussion, etc.). Schedule breaks where students can move away from their screens, stretch, and reset. Zoom fatigue is real!
  • Be Flexible: Be thoughtful about allowing students to join via whatever means that they have available and note that calling in might be a substitute for poor internet connection. Have a plan B for if technology doesn’t work as planned.
  • Think about Accessibility Concerns: A number of factors might make online virtual meeting challenging for students to participate in: being in different time zones, having unreliable internet, having various conditions or disorders that might make an online environment overwhelming, general trauma/anxiety caused by the pandemic. Think about how you can support students who can’t participate in a virtual session. Be ready to provide accommodations for those who may need them, be aware that students who did not initially require accommodations for your course may reach out about needing new ones in this online environment.
  • Help Counter Student Anxiety with Practice: Give students the chance to practice new technologies, new exam or assessment structures, and new modes of online engagement in a low-stakes settings.

Further Resources:

Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. “Active Learning for Your Online Classroom: Five Strategies Using Zoom (Links to an external site.).”

CIRTL Network (March 19, 2020 YouTube video) Facilitating and Promoting Student Engagement in the Online, Synchronous Classroom

Have suggestions?

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