Best practices in online teaching

 As you prepare to teach online, here are some evidence-based ideas to guide your work:  

First and foremost, teaching online should be guided by pedagogy – not by technology. We have a lot of evidence-based pedagogy on how to do online teaching right, and Flower Darby’s book on this topic is a great, short summary.

Second, teaching online takes a bit more set up labor than in person teaching where we just show up to teach our session on Thursdays at 4 p.m., for example. And there are evidence-based approaches for doing synchronous and asynchronous teaching well, and they differ. If you are using synchronous teaching, this short guide is for you. This involves a class session in which professor and students meet together at the same time on Zoom or some other platform. It is a best practice not to lecture for more than 10 minutes at a time on zoom, and to meet for no more than 90 minutesSynchronous teaching is best when students have listened to a longer recorded lecture or video offline paired with a quiz or discussion board as part of their homework using the well-researched flipped classroom model. In the 90 minute session, be sure to focus on active learning strategies, moving between several large and small group activities to keep students focused and engaged. For SSU faculty, see their Online Teaching Resource which contains a video gallery with recordings of workshops as well as additional resources now accessible through every faculty member’s Canvas dashboard. 

Third, part of a successful online course is a well-designed, simple Canvas (learning management system) page. This is my 8 minute screencast on how to set up a simple, student-friendly and module-based Canvas page for an online course here: 

Fourth, the presence of the instructor on the online platform is CRUCIAL to student engagement and success. You have to be a regular presence on the Canvas webpage and email spaces to make students feel seen and heard. This is vital when we are not seeing students in person. See resources on this below. 

Fifth – a cautionary word about students’ reactions to the rigor of online learning – I have taught online for the past 15 years and have learned that students often complain about increased workloads in the flipped classroom model. This is because in-person work is replaced by at-home tasks (asynchronous tasks). In in person courses, I find students often skim readings and come to class prepared to skirt by on the few pages they did read – something that is not possible to do in an asynchronous course where you actually really do have to engage with the whole reading (because you have to write or get quizzed about it), which is what you are really supposed to do for an in person class anyway. I say this as a former graduate student myself who knows all about the art of skimming the readings for class! So in many ways, asynchronous tasks provides students with an opportunity to be rigorous. And that can feel like extra work if it is not what they were doing in the first place. I remind students to “wrestle” with the concepts to the best of their ability – and that they ask for help when they get stuck. I also talk about how mid-term and final papers are either shortened or eliminated to make up for extra writing in the course. Encouraging, supportive, firm guidance helps a lot with these concerns.

Sixth, pay attention to the social context in which we are going online! Learn more about anti-racist pedagogy in the covid era here, here and here.


One of the major challenges we face involves engaging students in the online environment. Here are a few tips adapted from the Schreyer Institute – starting with the importance of establishing instructor presence as a central student engagement strategy.  

You can think about using the following approaches as you work on fostering a welcoming and participatory learning space: 

  • Send a welcome email, video or announcement with information about the course and how to prepare for it (e.g., brief bio, syllabus, Canvas course name, how to contact you, etc.). You can then post this on your Canvas home page. 
  • Start your course with an un-graded, introductions discussion forum and respond to it yourself in writing or by recording your own video or audio introduction, accompanied by a transcript. Invite students to respond in writing or with an audio or visual recording. Respond to each student’s post with a brief welcome, making personal connections with them when possible. 
  • Make students feel heard, especially with discussion posts. Students report feeling as though their work goes “into the void” if they don’t get written feedback. Respond to students by pointing out their important insights, asking follow up questions, and/or pointing them to other students’ posts where you see agreement or opportunities for fruitful debate. 
  • Try not to lecture on Zoom for more than 10 minutes at a time, intersperse lecture with large and small group activities. This is an evidence-based practice that is tempting to ignore. 
  • Create announcements in Canvas on a weekly, or more frequent basis, in order to proactively stay in touch with students. This is particularly critical for students who might already feel isolated, marginalized, reluctant, or overwhelmed, without assuming that students in one of these groups are in all of these groups. 
    • Weekly preview announcement featuring the week’s topics, reminders of pre-class preparation, and due dates. 
    • Weekly review announcement featuring clarifications, summaries of class discussions, and due dates. 
  • Offer to schedule at least one, real-time, individual phone or video conference with your students, in which they can share their concerns about the course or about an assignment. 
  • Offer zoom drop in office hours vs. “by appointment” office hours. This eliminates a significant barrier that students have to jump over. Announce your office hours each week to encourage participation and participation will grow with time. You have to market drop in office hours for students to show up.