Tricia Kuon and Holly Weimar

Top 10 Best Practices for Online Teaching 

Tricia Kuon and Holly Weimar
Library Science Department, Sam Houston State University

Recently, a former student mentioned that her classes were terrible this year. Knowing this student well and being acquainted with her excellent dispositions, sparkling personality, and positive outlook, this news was surprising. What was happening with her?  She cried in frustration while recounting issues she was having with her current courses. After speaking with her, it was time to take a look at the identifiable common problems that students who were taking online courses were having. At our next faculty meeting, we discussed these common problems and decided unanimously to draft and set specific policies for teaching online courses. 

With notes in hand, faculty members recessed for Christmas vacation. During Christmas vacation, Tricia’s extended family came to her house. Her dad, mom, brother, and sister were currently taking graduate level courses at separate universities in different states. Needless to say, online coursework was a hot topic. Tricia was fascinated to learn that her family members were experiencing numerous issues with their online classes. Some of these issues were those that had been discussed at the faculty meeting.

We realize many of the troubles experienced with teaching online courses are common regardless of the subject or institution. Also, we know that online coursework is more prevalent than it used to be. Thus, strategies for recognizing and dealing with the problems and pitfalls of online teaching are needed. We have experienced that it is sometimes easier to learn what to do by identifying what not to do. In that spirit, this article presents 10 best practices of online teaching that include examples of what not to do. 

These 10 best practices are related to actual reports from students of their experiences. Our hope is to identify some common problems and offer the best possible solutions to make the online teaching and learning experience better for students and for instructors as well. In that spirit, names of actual people, courses, and institutions are not disclosed. 

  1. DO post instructions for major assignments more than a week in advance of the due date. This includes publishing all assignment instructions and materials including the course syllabus with due dates prior to or at the very beginning of the semester. We actually heard reports from multiple students that they felt like they could never relax and had to check online several times a day because the instructor would suddenly post instructions for a discussion board that might be due promptly (as little as a day or two) after the teacher posted the instructions.

    Other students said that an assignment worth a major percentage of the course grade went unpublished in a course and repeated inquiries of the instructor by multiple students went unanswered. By being proactive and publishing all assignment instructions and materials along with due dates at the start of the semester, you are allowing students to plan and work ahead. Students will be relieved of the pressure that comes from uncertainty. Also, they will be responsible for the due dates that were published well in advance.

  2. DO keep emails that you send to the entire class succinct. Sometimes we get an email or two from students who are confused about a certain directive in an assignment. The teacher in us thinks, “Oh no, maybe everyone is confused about the assignment,” which leads us to send an explanatory email to the whole class. Sadly, this explanatory email meant to clarify may actually cause more confusion for students who were not originally confused. For example, a student recently displayed a stack of printed emails sent to the entire class from an instructor.

    She said, “I am so confused because now I have to be sure I understand the original assignment instructions and the 15 (literally) emails explaining the assignment instructions. It would have been easier to just try to figure out the original instructions.”

    Instead, email your entire class when it is absolutely necessary to do so. Some instructors email reminders when a due date is approaching which is a great help to procrastinators in the class. Typically, it is best to address questions individually. Also, try to keep emails short and precise, yet friendly. Although the intention of overlong group emails may be to explain every detail in order to head off possible future confusion, the reality is that the supplementary elaboration used to describe additional assignment elements heightens the probability of confusion.

  3. DO keep the original assignment requirements even when you realize you made a mistake and want to correct it mid-semester. One student reported that a professor changed the point values and weights of assignments and added several new assignments mid-way through the semester with no explanation or warning which caused wide-spread confusion, frantic student-to-student emailing, texting, phone calling, and Skyping.

    Instead, follow through with assignments and expectations as stated in the syllabus unless you have an error that will cause students problems. It is common to discover a "better" way to present information or assess learning during the progression of the semester. While these alternative strategies may have the potential to improve learning and assessment, changing your course expectation mid-stream will only cause anxiety and mistrust which could hamper learning.

  4. DO grade assignments as soon as they are turned into for grading. Multiple students report that they often have to wait several weeks after turning in assignments to receive grades. One student even had a course in which nothing had been graded until the end of the semester. She had no idea what her grade was going to be for the course prior to her final grade being posted. This can be dangerous for students who must maintain high grade point averages while they struggle with their grades for various reasons.

    If at all possible, to support our students, we should grade assignments promptly after they are completed. It is good practice for professors to set grade-by date and let the students know when they may expect to receive their grades for their assignments. This self-enforced deadline helps professors to remain caught up with their grading and lets students know where they stand as the semester advances.

  5. DO let the students see you as calm and composed. It's okay to get angry at students. Sometimes you may not be able to control that reaction. However, wait until the anger has subsided to deal with the student's problem either by email, Skype, or phone to avoid saying or writing something that you might later regret. Misunderstandings are common in online teaching. For instance, you deduct points for a student not doing something that you clearly stated in the assignment directions only to have them respond with frustration indicating they did not see or understand what you had detailed in the instructions.

    These types of misunderstandings can quickly escalate and turn nasty. It is unattractive to argue with our students. Instead, wait until you feel calm. Then, as clearly as possible, re-state the issue at hand and offer encouragement. If a student is willing, you could allow them to make changes and resubmit an assignment when there is a clear misunderstanding. This engenders a feeling of goodwill for both the teacher and the student.

  6. DO give assignments with clear purposes and objectives. Almost every student reported that one of the biggest challenges of taking online courses is the sheer volume of work involved. Since there are no class meetings for online courses, 45 contact hours become self-directed work hours. Also, due to the nature of online courses, more projects and papers are expected which requires additional research, reading, and writing.

    One student, working on a master's degree in Special Education, stated that he would rather drive the hour and a half it takes him to get to campus three times a week to take face-to-face courses as opposed to taking online courses because the face-to-face courses require less work with the benefit of social interaction. A possible solution would be to design assignments that incorporate multiple objectives while covering content knowledge, understandings, and skills. Inquiry learning, community-based learning, and project-based learning work well to accomplish this.

  7. DO provide feedback to students regarding completed assignments. Although it is time- consuming to provide feedback when it seems like you are endlessly grading, try to remember that each student spent a great amount of time completing the assignment. Your feedback will help and encourage students to do their best work when you take the time to tell them what they did great and what they may improve upon.

    Your options are not as limited in how you provide feedback as they once were. With the availability of multiple online tools, you are capable of providing written or verbal feedback by attaching word processed or sound files. Since there may be little opportunity for verbal interaction with online courses, it is important to provide your personalized feedback to each student's assignment.

  8. DO keep your online course as simple as possible. Consult instructional design best practices and usability guidelines to learn the most effective ways to design your online course. When it comes to usability issues, less is more.

    The fewer number of clicks to access important information and the use of clear language for labeling tasks maintain clarity. Also, use inclusive design so that your course is accessible to all. See W3C: Web Accessibility Initiative (http://www.w3.org/WAI/users/Overview.html) for more information.

  9. DO give students answers to their questions promptly. The primary method by which we communicate with online students is email. It is astounding how many students we have spoken with who say that they asked their instructor a question by email and never got a response or waited more than a week for a response. Obviously, time is critical when it comes to completing assignments. It is important to promptly correspond with students and answer their questions as quickly as possible once a question has been posed. Let students know how frequently you check your email so that they will know when it is the best time to get an answer to a question.

    Some people check email multiple times throughout the day and others check once or twice a day. Another way to support students is if you are able to make other means of communication available in addition to email for students. Keeping scheduled office hours through the use of an online service, such as Skype (http://www.skype.com), Any Meeting (http://anymeeting.com/), or your available learning management system are great ways to make a time available for students to ask questions. Since the online office hours have been scheduled in advance, students can plan ahead and check to see if they have assignment questions before the online office hours take place.

  10. DO remember that students are real people with other obligations and responsibilities outside of your course. This is perhaps the most difficult part of online teaching and learning because the learners and teacher do not see each other as they would if they met for class. When researching this problem, we discovered that there is a general assumption that students believe it makes the teacher unhappy when the students email their teachers to ask questions. One student, an accomplished man with three degrees including two master’s degrees, is working on a third master’s and taking online courses for the first time.

    Of his experiences with online courses he said of his professors, “There is very little kindness and absolutely no understanding.” After completing an assignment recently, this man’s professor angrily wrote a written reply in response to the assignment stating that he had not completed the assignment correctly and that if he could not follow directions, maybe he should drop out of the program. That student took the professor’s advice.

Our advice is to be patient and keep a sense of humor. As instructors of online courses, opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding are numerous. The good news is that these occurrences actually provide an opportunity for the instructor and student to have more one-to-one interaction which is a good thing.

This personal interaction leads to better communication and ultimately to better learning which is, after all, the point.


Dr. Tricia Kouon

Dr. Tricia KuonDr. Tricia Kuon is an assistant professor of Library Science at Sam Houston State University. She teaches primarily online classes and is always looking for new information to help make the online experience better for students. A former first grade teacher and elementary school librarian, she currently enjoys writing and researching about online teaching and learning, children’s literature topics, technology applications for teaching, and advocacy for school librarians. Tricia also has a busy life at home as a mother of 5 wonderful children ages 14 months to 17 years.

Dr. Holly Weimar

Dr. Holly WeimarDr. Holly Weimar is Associate Professor and Chair of the Library Science Department at Sam Houston State University. She has taught hybrid and online courses for six years. Her research interests include online education, professional development, school library programming, technology in the school library, and family literacy. Besides her work and research, she enjoys spending time with her family.

 


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