Teaching Tips for Online Courses

WiresAfter publishing a list of study tips for online learning, it occurred to me that I should do the same for teaching online. Here they are, compiled from over six years of experience:

  • Establish a comfortable, distraction-free work environment. Do you have a good chair? I’m referring to the piece of furniture you sit on, not the person who runs your department.
  • Make it easy for students to see who to contact and how if they have technical problems. Do not get involved with trying to solve them yourself. Create a FAQ document about course organization and expectations. Also set up a Q & A discussion for bureaucratic matters so that all the students in the course can see the answer to one student’s question.
  • Let students know who you and their classmates are. Create a venue for students to post brief biographies. Encourage them to add a portrait photo to their online profiles. Do the same for yourself.
  • Emphasize, preferably through a graded assignment that is due at the beginning of the course, that learning is intentional and requires effort. Get students to think about what they plan to learn in the course and what they will need to do to accomplish this goal. This is a way for the instructor to quickly identify which students have behaviors that facilitate success in an online course and which ones don’t.
  • Feedback should be frequent and specific. Students should be constantly practicing skill development and testing their acquisition of content knowledge, and they need to know what is working for them and what isn’t. A machine-graded multiple-choice quiz gives feedback instantaneously, but seeing only a numerical grade on an essay two weeks after it’s been submitted in an eight-week course is too little too late. This is where rubrics can be your friend. And since you will frequently see the same few problems in most students’ written work, copy and paste feedback comments from a list that you’ve already prepared — so you don’t end up typing the same thing over and over again.
  • Put instructions for assignments where students submit the assignments. Don’t make students click on one webpage to find out what they are supposed to read, go to another page to read how they are supposed to write about what they’ve read, and then go to yet a third page to submit what they’ve written. You want the instructional design to be like an airport where travelers can get on the rail line to downtown from inside the terminal — no shuttles.
  • Writing assignments should follow genres that are meaningful and useful to the student outside of class; for example, a policy proposal that presents an evidence-based recommendation on a specific issue. These kinds of assignments teach students the importance of audience and purpose (Bean, 2001, p. 40-46). The standard research paper that only the course instructor will ever see doesn’t do that. I admit that I still do not design assignments in this respect as well as I should.
  • Establish clear penalties and rewards for meaningful participation in online discussions throughout each week of the course, otherwise you will see students only log in on weekends and write discussion posts that are inconsequential, if they post anything at all.
  • Provide examples of how discussion posts should reflect higher levels of thinking, such as:
    • “Some common themes I see between your research and the assigned text are . . .” (analysis).
    • “These newer trends are significant if we consider the relationship between . . .” (synthesis).
    • “The body of literature should be assessed by these standards . . .” (evaluation).
  • You do not need to respond in long-winded detail to every single discussion post; if your employer requires this, it’s time to find another job. Jump in to relate discussions back to the content of reading assignments, to elaborate on a student’s point by introducing additional information or another perspective, etc.
  • Collaborative assignments are notoriously difficult to pull off successfully in the physical classroom; they are even less likely to succeed online. In part this is due to the fact that students operate on wildly different schedules; that’s why they’ve enrolled in an asynchronous online course in the first place. Another reason, perhaps more important, is that most people are simply unfamiliar with the culture of virtual collaboration. If you do require group work, it must be scaffolded to include individually-graded assignments and include a simple method of peer evaluation to prevent free riders. I advise making any group assignments worth only a small portion of the final grade unless you are in a field in which both pedagogy and praxis have a heavy emphasis on teamwork — such as organ transplantation.

There’s more, but I’ll stop there. Obviously the above principles also apply to teaching face-to-face.

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