Online Teaching Tips

Tip 1: Have scheduled “stops” in your digital spaces.

You already know presence is important. Digital learning changes how it looks but make no mistake- it is more important than ever. Making sure students know when and where they can meet you fosters trust, reduces stress, and helps you unplug too!

Make it happen!

  • Think of your course site, email, and zoom room as digital “spaces” where student know you will be, just like catching you after class.

    • When learning is online, these digital spaces become not just a place where you communicate but a place you occupy.
  • Consider having scheduled times for checking any message boards or online discussions (especially the Question board).

  • In the same way, consider setting a time to check email.

    • You can always check and respond at other times, just have one time they always know they can count on you to “be there”.
  • This trust in presence goes a long way for students, and also can provide helpful structure for you. Then, just like if you cannot physically be somewhere, you can always let them know if something comes up!

Tip 2: Avoid zoom fatigue.

You aren’t imagining it- we really do shut off after a while in front of a screen, and that kills connections (and learning in general). Break it up and keep the connections (and your souls) alive!

Make it happen!

  • Break out activities! You know them, you love them, use them- now more than ever.

  • Zoom fatigue is cumulative, and the later in the day your class is the more likely your students are to be maxed from the start.

  • Have frequent breaks, even if it is just a quick response, from lecture.

  • Movement is one of the biggest reset buttons, and is especially helpful for creativity- give actual breaks and encourage students to get up.

  • Increase activities and decrease lecturing as class time goes (i.e. frontload lecturing).

Tip 3: Elicit feedback.

A great practice in-person too, this tip becomes even more important when trying new practices and having reduced in-person contact with students. Students feel a sense of partnership and agency when their input is sought and implemented.

Make it happen!

  • Early semester surveys can focus on course goals and anxieties, syllabus concerns.

  • Mid semester surveys can focus on what is/is not working.

  • You can make a mini “temperature check” whenever you want! After an assignment, every few weeks- whatever makes sense with your course, concerns, and goals.

  • Your survey does not have to be long.

  • Remember structure helps students, but giving them an opportunity for open feedback can yield interesting insights.

  • Sites like Qualtrics can be great for surveying your students and getting ideas for how to tweak your course.

  • Not familiar with Qualtrics? IDEAL’s lab can help you get your survey set up and teach you how for next time!

  • You don’t have to take every suggestion, but responding to them fosters a spirit of collaboration that students appreciate.

Tip 4: Add a public forum for questions.

Increase students’ sense of connection to you and one another and ease your workload (and inbox) in one easy step!

Make it happen!

  • Add a Questions discussion on Icon.

  • You can arrange the board into topics (assignments, course policies, content, etc.).

  • If you have a TA, you can give them monitoring power there to help foster relationships with the TA (and offload you).

  • Schedule a time to “stop in” and check regularly (see Tip #1).

  • If you get a question several times, put it on your board under a special “FAQ” section!

Tip 5: Put students in control of their presence.

Webcams can help connection, but they can also undermine it. Allowing flexibility in how students represent their presence can allow authentic participation and remove barriers to learning and connection.

Make it happen!

  • Present options! Webcams, permitting student to turn them on/off as needed, pictures, avatars, virtual backgrounds- there is no need for teaching to boring black boxes.

  • Recognize that watching ourselves is a key component of zoom fatigue, especially for some types of neurodiverse students, and being able to turn off their camera, even for part of the lesson or on “bad days” can greatly improve focus and engagement.

  • Cameras can “out” students in low socioeconomic status and other stigmatizing situations that can harm peer relationships and create feelings of shame and anxiety.

  • Cameras can be hostile for some students with disabilities like anxiety disorders, ASD, eating disorders, and others.

  • You can still get feedback on student engagement through questions and activities (see Tips 2, 3, 7!), and don’t worry, many students love to cam!

  • If you notice a lot of “dropping off” of cam presence, you can do a “temperature check” (see Tip 3) and find out if there is something going on.

    • This can also be a sign students are getting fatigued- try adding some breaks or activities.

Tip 6: Retool your office hours.

Office hours are a mainstay of building connection, so you want to make sure they are as accessible as possible.

Make it happen!

  • *Five minute fix* Consider a rebrand- “office hours” can be a confusing term for first generation students and other groups. “Student hours”, “drop/walk in hours”, accompanied by an explanation in your syllabus can really help clarify!

  • Remind students of availability, especially around high-stress times or if you see a lot of students who could benefit.

  • If high traffic is an issue, consider scheduling time slots to help respect student time and yours.

  • Consider using a calendar app for this purpose so students can see availability and manage this schedule for you.

    • Allow drop-ins for unscheduled times.

    • You might also have small group office hours for high-interest topics like papers.

    • Check out free apps like Calendly, SignUpGenius, Apointlet, or just use trusty google calendar.

Tip 7: Embrace the chat!

When you are teaching online, you miss out on those nods and mmhmm’s and students don’t get to make those little asides to their neighbors that help them relate to the lecture. The chat adds that all back in, and then some.

Make it happen!

  • Public chat helps students engage and connect in real time, anchoring what they are learning with what they know together with their peers.

  • Private chat can also help you or your TA (if you have one) field questions from students who may be too shy to ask in front of the whole class.

  • Don’t worry about missing things: as the host, you can see all those private chats in the log. (You might want to warn your students about that so they can be sure to keep things relevant.)

Tip 8: Smaller discussion groups deliver bigger results.

Small groups are great! In digital learning, keeping groups tight makes sure students don’t “pass the buck” on participation.

Make it happen!

  • Keep it small: 3-4 students seems to be optimal.

  • Let students self-select into smaller groups based on prompts or topics. The extra agency boosts buy-in!

  • Discussions don’t have to be long to be meaningful; in addition to smaller groups being richer, they can be more efficient!

  • Use small groups not only to increase learning and engagement and build connection, but to combat the dreaded dead-eye of zoom fatigue (see Tip 2).

Tip 9: Make informal times around lecture.

Students get to connect with each other before and after class in non-digital spaces. Encourage similar connections by allowing an informal space in your zoom room a few minutes before or after lecture for students to chat.

Make it happen!

  • You don’t have to be “live” if you have things to do- mute and/or turn off camera, or just allow students to join before host.

  • You can connect with a student in a breakout room privately- just like them following you to your office.

  • Allow both mic and chat for students.

  • Consider posting a current event or topic students can discuss to get started.

  • Remind students they can connect via class boards as well (see Tip 10).

Tip 10: Use that discussion board!

Online platforms like ICON offer built-in forums for discussion, but is doesn’t have to all be business. Create some space for them to connect- after all, forums were social spaces first!

Make it happen!

  • “Good news, everyone!” board: The popular meme can be a theme! Let students share their good news and reasons to celebrate.

  • Post a photo and explain why it is important to you: This can be a great icebreaker activity as well. Students can find peers with similar interests and start conversations. You can theme it around your course.

  • Hopes and fears poll or board: This can be a great way for you to get information on making your class more supportive, and also help students feel validated! Try making a poll students can add items to so they don’t have to identify themselves, and then the option to leave comments in discussion.

  • Pro tips board (peer support): Let students share their survival tips for school and more! Especially in a post-covid world, peers can provide socially valid ways of approaching new challenges.

  • Weekly social question: Sky is the limit- current song you are jamming to, your Hogwarts house- anything that lets students find commonalities. (Bonus- use that song question to make a playlist to play during that informal time (see Tip 9!).)

These evidence-based tips were drawn from a combination of peer-reviewed research and the experiences and expertise of master educators. A curated selection of these sources is below for further reading.

Humanizing Online Teaching from Drs. Mary Raygoza, Raina León, and Aaminah Norris of Saint Mary’s College of California offers tips relevant for multiple levels of learner.

Tomorrow’s Professor Postings from Stanford University (we especially liked this post they shared with an excerpt from The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips, by Judith V. Boettcher and Rita-Marie Conrad- a great book.)

Dr. Torrey Trust of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s page- lots of great infographics here on her projects page but be sure to check her entire site:

Martin, F., Wang, C., & Sadaf, A. (2018). Student perception of helpfulness of facilitation strategies that enhance instructor presence, connectedness, engagement and learning in online courses. The Internet and Higher Education, 37, 52-65. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2018.01.003

Phirangee, K., Epp, C. D., & Hewitt, J. (2016). Exploring the Relationships between Facilitation Methods, Students’ Sense of Community and Their Online Behaviors. Online Learning, 20(2). doi:10.24059/olj.v20i2.775

Thomas, G., & Thorpe, S. (2018). Enhancing the facilitation of online groups in higher education: A review of the literature on face-to-face and online group-facilitation. Interactive Learning Environments, 27(1), 62-71. doi:10.1080/10494820.2018.1451897