Best Practices for Online Teaching

This page contains some best practices and tips for facilitating the online course. Click on each of the headings below to learn more. 

Best Practices for Your Online Course

Clarify Expectations for Interaction and Communication

Create clear policies for when students can expect to hear from you and for how students should interact with each other. Communication is especially important in an online class. Establishing expectations for how communication in the course will work can help both the students and instructor.

There are a variety of communication tools available within the online course, but before selecting a tool, consider the following:

  • How do you prefer students communicate questions to you? Email? Text? Phone call? Include a time frame for response on your syllabus so that students know what to expect.
  • What type of writing style do you expect in the different areas of the course? Do you want discussion forum postings to include citations? Is informal communication allowed in any area of the class?
  • Will you be using the Announcements tool regularly in the course? If so, what type of information can students expect to see there?
  • In general, what is your teaching style like? How can students expect to see you engaging in the course?
Ensure Ease of Navigation

The first experience students have in your online course can make a huge impact on the remainder of the class. Create a course that is easy to navigate and follows a logical progression. A well-organized course helps make the course manageable for both you and your students.

A best practice in organizing your course is to outline your course design outside of the learning management system. You can use pen and paper, a Word document, or whatever works best for you. If you are unsure of how to best design your course for easy navigation, consider discussing ideas with an instructional consultant.

Create a module/unit/weekly structure that is repeated throughout the course. A consistent structure helps students know what to expect when moving from one unit of study to the next. Explain the structure to students at the beginning of the course and keep in mind the number of clicks it will take to move from one area to the next.

Choose Tools Carefully

Choose tools that are appropriate to engage students and facilitate learning. Additionally, close pairing of tasks to tools will help enhance the relevance of messages communicated as well as the activities and assessments, all of which can contribute to deeper learning. The purpose of your communication to students should be the primary consideration when determining appropriate communication methods.

Keep in mind that there are other ways of communicating with students, such as synchronous session options (currently available through Zoom), as well as many other Web 2.0 tools that are outside the Canvas environment.

When you are thinking about which tool to use, keep in mind the purpose – speaking to many? one-on-one? group communication? – and then consider which of the tool options will work best. This is also an area where consulting with your CLEAR instructional consultant can be extremely helpful, since they will be able to help provide ideas more tailored to your course and goals.

Canvas also has several options for student activities and assessments. Here, again, purpose will be a driving consideration, but in this case, purpose will also be tied to the goals and outcomes for your course.

Exemplary Practices for Cultivating Online Community in Your Course

Be sure to plan for purposeful interaction and communication opportunities throughout your course.  Encourage participation and clearly define expectations.

Get Off to a Good Start

Create a Start Here module to give students information about yourself and your course. Provide basic information for navigating the course and a welcome statement. It's also a good idea to include things like your communication policy, course objectives, and next steps in Start Here.

Your welcome statement is your first opportunity to tell students about yourself. Your goal is to show students that you are approachable, knowledgeable, and interested in their success. For example:

Hello and welcome! My name is Dr. Janice Smith, and I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at State University. Prior to joining the State faculty, I was a faculty member of several community colleges in the Houston and New Orleans metropolitan areas. My specialty is 20th century literature and drama, and the Exploring Fiction course is one of my favorite to teach. I firmly believe that literature is one of the many ways that we can see through the eyes of others, so I hope that you will join me during this course in striving to consider each work that we read from a variety of perspectives. I currently live in Texas and am an avid gardener.  I also enjoy traveling and seeing new places around the country. One of my recent travels took me to New York City, and I spent several pleasant afternoons exploring museums and other sites in the city. And, of course, I spend a lot of time reading and keeping up to date on the newest fiction and drama! I look forward to meeting all of you and working with you throughout the course!
Set the Tone for Community Building

Begin to build a sense of community through an introductory icebreaker activity that will allow everyone to get to know each other.

Building trust and promoting openness are the foundation for highly engaging student experience. This is an excellent opportunity for you to learn more about your students and demonstrate your enthusiasm. There are a variety of ways to go about this, but using the discussion forum for an ice breaker activity can actually be pretty easy.

Create a Plan for Interaction and Communication
Be sure to plan for purposeful interaction and communication opportunities throughout your course. Encourage participation and clearly define expectations.
Provide Encouragement and Create Relevance

Add substance throughout your modules by providing encouraging feedback throughout your content. Insert language that helps students make connections between materials, activities, assignments, and the course objectives, and which helps them connect ideas in the course to real-world situations. Taking the time to both build encouragement into your course, as well as provide it as needed during the semester, can really help show students that you care about their performance. An encouraging and supportive environment will also help students maintain a good attitude about their learning, and providing them with language that explains why what they are reading and doing in the course is important makes the work more meaningful to them.

As you go through your modules, try to identify areas where encouragement can be worked into the lessons and activities. If you have taught the same course for a while, you may already know what areas are often the most difficult for students to understand or what particular aspects they tend to struggle with the most. Try adding some short statements here and there – it doesn’t have to be very elaborate.

To tighten up the potential for student engagement in the course, you will also want to be sure to add some language throughout that helps to explain, inform, and connect ideas in the course. Adding this kind of information to the course provides relevance for why a reading, activity, or skill is important. Additionally, this aspect of the course is actually one where you have the ability to truly provide the value of your knowledge and experience as an educator – something that the books and materials often do not do.

Once you have integrated this type of encouragement, communicative, and connecting language into your course, you will begin to see your course really flesh out – it’s the meat on the bones of your course. These are also the areas where many online instructors actually feel at a loss when moving from a face-to-face environment since these are typically the types of conversation that you have while in the classroom with your students. Adding it to your online course takes a little time and effort, but not as much while you are actually engaged in teaching, and the benefits are a dramatically changed course climate for you and your learners.

Integrate Community Building and Student Interaction Ideas

Starting off the course using an ice-breaker is a great way to get everyone talking. However, often the connection of that shared topic can be lost as the real work of the semester gets underway. You may want to consider the possibility of creating an ice-breaker activity that ties into a variety of community-building activities throughout the remainder of the course. This can have the effect of continuing to bring everyone back together periodically to touch base and renew connections. Organized interactions like this throughout the course can assist in fostering a sense of inclusion for students, and if tailored to the subject matter being covered can also enhance relevance and meaning.

For continuing community building activities, you will most likely want to use a scenario that will be relevant to the topic you are teaching. For example, in a health-related course, you may want to start students off with a case study scenario that will be revisited throughout the class. The first discussion could integrate introductions with ideas on how they would approach the situation based on the knowledge they currently have. Throughout the class, complexities could be added to the situation that relate to the topics of study.

Plan for Group Management

Working in groups is possibly one of the most difficult aspects of a learning situation, and it is something that many students can be resistant to. However, most of our work in the real world is not typically conducted solo, so providing students with opportunities to practice working together in the course environment can be helpful in preparing them for their future classes and careers. Additionally, with some forethought and management, group work can be a way to help students become more competent in not only the skills for the course but also interpersonal skills that will be needed for future jobs. Providing materials that help to organize and clarify expectations for group work can relieve anxiety and help enhance the experience of everyone involved.

Time spent working on things like group agreements, individual duty assignments, and group communication policies at the beginning of the course can help ensure that all members are engaged in the process and have a clear understanding of what is expected from them. This can help relieve much of the anxiety related to group work and create a better sense of community.

Add Some Synchronous Opportunities

The use of synchronous meetings and presentation tools is another way that community can be built and maintained within your class, and they can be a great way to enhance your course. These tools are ones that will allow everyone in the course to interact online in real-time and are unique in that they give you the opportunity to choose areas of your course that could most benefit from this type of interaction. Some ways that these tools are commonly used in online courses are for orientation, office hours or chat opportunities, demonstrations or clarification of complex topics, and presentations or hosting guest speakers. These situations provide great opportunities for students to interact with each other and the instructor in real-time.

Utilize Canvas Tools for Increased Retention

Retention is a continuing concern for everyone involved in higher education. One way to help ensure that students persist and succeed in your course is to monitor various aspects of their interactions and intervene as necessary. Knowing which tools can be used for these purposes and then using them to interact with students early, and in a kind and gentle manner, can help identify students that need additional assistance and increase the chances that they will successfully complete your course. Utilize the Canvas Analytics and the Student Context Card to view grade and participation comparisons within your course.

Implement Some Advanced Feedback Techniques

Personalized feedback is something that students want, and it can be very beneficial for them as they work in the online environment. There are ways to incorporate methods that provide learners with valuable feedback on assignments without overwhelming yourself, such as creating a repository of standardized responses that can be quickly tailored to the student and using tools such as Turnitin which offer advanced grading features.

A particular area of feedback where instructors are often particularly overwhelmed is the discussion forum. Trying to respond to each and every post can be problematic, if not impossible. However, there are some different techniques that you can use here that will allow you to respond once, yet still personalize your post.