Effective Components of Online Teaching
I have taught online courses since 2011, including Biology 101 (cell/molecular biology) and Biology 102 (ecology/evolution), for biology majors and nonmajors (within the same course) at a community college in Virginia. My student population has a high percentage of nontraditional students: students who are over the age of 25, who are likely balancing work, family, and school, and who have had a fairly significant amount of time pass since they last took a biology class in a formal educational setting like high school.
Having already taught high school and college in a face-to-face setting, I quickly realized many of the same foundational principles of teaching face-to-face apply to teaching online. However, I also recognized that adjustments are necessary, and I couldn’t always expect what I did in the classroom to easily transfer to the online setting. I needed to learn to adjust to teaching in an online environment if I wanted to be successful and for my students to have an optimal learning experience.
Here are some of the strategies that I’ve found to be effective for conducting online courses.
Allocate More Time to Communicating with Students
Many educators start their courses with students sharing information about themselves. A common concern is that you won’t get to know your students online. I have not found this to be the case. I find that more students are likely to share in an online setting because there is some safety in sharing via email or written message that they might not have in a face-to-face setting.
With that being said, what “getting to know” students looks like in an online setting can be different, so I needed to be purposeful in getting to know and understand my learners. For example, I do an online survey before the first class meeting that asks for a number of things that can support my students’ success, such as their work hours, if they tend to do their schoolwork at structured times or when they can fit it in, their preferred method of contact (text, personal email, phone, school email), if they would like to be matched with a study group, etc. Additionally, I ask students how I can support them in the class.
I also open the class discussion board by having students update their profile picture and include something that represents them or means a lot to them, as well as information they want to share with the class to get to know them better.
Your time allocated to actual relaying of content (or lecturing) is reduced in an online setting. For example, if you teach three classes face-to-face and give a 15-minute lecture in each class, that is 45 minutes of talking. If you are now assigning a video for students to watch to convey the same content, you can allocate the time you spent lecturing towards emailing, creating reminders, giving more detailed feedback, etc. You don’t spend more or less time instructing in an online setting, but you do spend the time differently.
In online settings, I found that I needed an abundance of structure, a lot of over-messaging, and personal touches. (Students have the opportunity to get to know me as an instructor, not just the content of the course.) For example, I make learning objectives explicit at the start of each learning module. (A module for me is a week of instruction.) Due dates remain consistent at the same day and time every week. Feedback is given regularly within the same time window, or a transparent explanation is offered when that isn't possible. Practice activities and formative assessments are the same format and have the same cognitive demand as higher stakes assessments. Some people may view this as “hand-holding” — especially for adult learners — but too often a due date just slips the student’s mind and they are always grateful for a reminder. On students’ post-course evaluations, they mention that they appreciated having the course requirements laid out at the beginning of the class. An example reminder and response is below:
|March 4th email reminder:|
|Just wanted to check in and say happy Wednesday and to remind you that assignment #7 is due tonight. Late assignments are accepted up to two days past the due date for the majority of credit. Enjoy the beautiful weather today.|
|Example student response:|
Thank you so much for keeping tabs on me! I really appreciate it. I am on part 5 as of now. I planned on finishing last night but fell asleep after I finished my chemistry pre-lab. (haha!) Thank you again!
Leverage BioInteractive Resources
Just like when teaching face-to-face, the course materials should be relevant to students’ lives. BioInteractive videos are a great way to spark a discussion. I pair BioInteractive videos with primary literature for great content-focused discussions.
BioInteractive activities are also great resources for teaching online. I generally do not assign BioInteractive worksheets for grading. Instead, I pull a few questions from a worksheet and make small adjustments to increase their relevance to my students and the content that I am pairing it with at the time. The answer keys for the resources are often available online. When I want to use these as assessment items, it’s helpful to tweak the language or rephrase questions. You can also use these for homework and have students compare their work to the available answer keys and figure out what they’ve understood and what they’ve struggled with. And if students struggle with identifying why their answer is different from the provided answer...that’s another great place to start a discussion!
Assessments were one of the major adjustments I made when moving to teaching online. If the work is going to be graded — and in particular if it’s going to take significant time to grade vs. being graded automatically — design it so that each student will provide an authentic piece of work. For example, after watching the rock pocket mouse film, The Making of the Fittest: Natural Selection and Adaptation, I have students find examples of beneficial mutations, explain how the mutations are beneficial in certain populations, and if their genetic mechanisms are understood. Students also have to provide reference(s) to support their findings.
I ask students to share their work on a discussion board, and they cannot see the other posts until they submit their initial post. After they post, they have one week to respond to another classmate following specific guidelines in what that response should include. While only one response post is required, my students last semester responded to an average of 2.3 posts.
Quizzes are relatively low-stakes ways of assessing student learning; as such, I give them a point value of half an assignment. Their purpose is to prepare students for the format and content of a test and help drive my instruction. My students have a weekly quiz (usually 10 questions: six or seven multiple-choice questions, two or three shorter essays, and one longer essay.)
I have three or four tests per semester. These are usually open for nine days (to include two weekends). These take students an average of one hour and 45 minutes, but there is no time limit to how long a student can take on one test. I will also replace earlier test grades with the grade they earn on their final since it is cumulative. Remember that the goal is they walk away from your course with the knowledge you want them to have, not necessarily to have this knowledge at weeks five, nine, and twelve.
Give Video Feedback
I also find giving video feedback for longer assignments is quicker than giving written feedback. And if you see a common struggle or misconception (e.g., 30% or more of the class is making the same mistake), provide summary feedback videos and/or post to the whole class. An example of the kinds of videos I make for my students is below.
Educators also often ask about accommodations for students with disabilities. Accommodations in the online setting are similar to those in the face-to-face setting. Your school’s or institution’s disability services office is essential; they often provide a lot of guidance about how to implement accommodations, particularly in an online space.
In my course, the most common accommodation required is extended time on assessments and assignments. The former is easy to accommodate, because my assessments are untimed for all students, so all students receive this. If students receive extended time on assignments, I try to be proactive and post all assignments at the start of the semester so they can utilize their extended time on the front end and I am still able to give group feedback in a timely fashion. Delaying feedback by a week (if possible) helps to avoid issues of some students getting feedback before others have submitted an assignment. The other common accommodation I provide is additional instruction or support. I use office hours or one-on-ones for that, done over Zoom, FaceTime, or texting.
Reach Out and Share
Your peers are your number one resource for approaching how to teach in an online setting. Most educators are willing to share what they’ve done, and it’s helpful not to start everything from scratch, but to also take what others have done and make it your own.
I am an online learning junkie. In addition to teaching online, I’ve completed one master’s and a graduate certificate in an online setting. If you are afraid or skeptical of online learning, don’t be. Done well, it is an excellent opportunity to learn and teach at times and from places that work best for you. When time permits, think of taking an online course or two as a learner to gain a few tricks to improve your future online or face-to-face course or to acquire a new skill or set of knowledge.
If you are new to online teaching, take a deep breath, do the best that you can, learn along the way, and know that you and your students will be fine.
Bigatel, Paula M., and Stephanie Edel-Malizia. “Using the ‘Indicators of Engaged Learning Online’ Framework to Evaluate Online Course Quality.” TechTrends 62, 1 (2017): 58–70. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-017-0239-4.
Bolliger, Doris U., and Florence Martin. “Instructor and student perceptions of online student engagement strategies.” Distance Education 39, 4 (2018): 568–583. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2018.1520041.
Freeman, Scott, David Haak, and Mary Pat Wenderoth. “Increased course structure improves performance in introductory biology.” CBE–Life Sciences Education 10, 2 (2011): 175–186. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.10-08-0105.
Whiter, Kimberly A. “Strategies for Engaging Students in the Online Environment.” In Handbook of Research on Fostering Student Engagement With Instructional Technology in Higher Education, ed. Emtinan Alqurashi, 305–326 (2020), accessed March 23, 2020. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-7998-0119-1.ch017.
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Melissa Csikari is the Program Manager of Outreach and Professional Development for BioInteractive and teaches at Germanna Community College in Virginia. She’s also completed intensive graduate coursework in teaching online. In her free time, Melissa enjoys spending time playing cards and traveling with her science-teaching husband and three kids.