Best Practices for Teaching Online
Teaching Online? Be Wise: Master These Best Practices!
The Brown Online team worked with University faculty from the online Pre-College Program to establish a set of best practices for teaching online. Not surprisingly, they are consistent with those long established in the field of distance education. If you plan to teach an online course, adhering to these guidelines will help ensure both your and your students’ engagement, enjoyment, and success in the course.
1. As you design your online course, consult with an Instructional Designer (ID)
- You may wonder, what is the role of the Instructional Designer? How does the partnership of faculty and ID work?
- Faculty have mastery of the course content and valuable classroom experience to inform online course development.
- Instructional designers (IDs) bring to this partnership experience in learning theory, online teaching methodologies, Canvas, as well as creative ideas about how to incorporate effective web tools and technologies to engage your students and enhance their overall learning experience in the course.
- To begin, faculty and their ID should develop a shared understanding of the course content and flow.
- Faculty should have a syllabus, or course outline, prepared for their initial meeting with their ID. For subject areas in which the instructional designer has limited exposure or expertise, faculty may want to spend some time at the start educating the ID on the course content.
- Establish clear course learning objectives: One key contribution of IDs is tying all course content and activities back to learning objectives and outcomes. Prepare learning objectives before engaging with the instructional designer. This will make course development far more efficient, and will serve as the guide for the overall course development.
2. Help your students be successful online learners
- For many of your students, this may be the first time they’ve participated in an online course. As you might guess, learning online is different in many ways from learning in a physical classroom. In an online course, students must be more self-directed, manage their time efficiently, and assume greater responsibility for their own learning.
- For example, one trap online students may fall into is mismanaging their time and attempting to complete and submit multiple assignments in batches, rather than on a well paced schedule. You can help your students be more successful by encouraging them to be mindful of this, and practice good online learning behaviors.
- Post “Performance Evaluation Criteria” and Rubrics: If I were a student in your course, would I know what you expect of me? Would I know how to succeed in your course?
- If an activity is crucial to learning outcomes and required, incorporate it into grades or course completion criteria, and post that information to the Performance Evaluation Criteria section of your course. You may wish to establish a rubric for course assignments to help students understand how to be successful in your course.
- Take a moment to review the Strategies for Online Learning Success document we share with students in each online course at Brown. Encourage these behaviors among your students to help keep them on track. We all need a nudge every now and then.
3. Engage with your students early and often
- When the class begins, connect with each student as they begin the online course to establish “teacher presence.” Connect with students right away and throughout the course. It is critical to give your students the sense of “teacher presence,” and make them feel welcome and engaged in the course. You would not ignore students as they entered your classroom, would you? Of course not! It’s the same online.
- To help you in this endeavor, we typically include a “Get to Know Each Other!” discussion forum as one of the first assignments. You can learn a lot about your students at the start of your course that you might not learn in a face-to-face course.
- In addition, if you have students post their biographical information to the course site, you can use this to comment on their interests and get a connection going, just as you would in the face-to-face classroom.
- You could also create a survey to get to know your students better: What are their interests? Why are they taking the course? What do they know about the subject matter?
4. Review and comment in discussion forums daily
- If your students see you put time and energy into discussions, they will too. The key is to budget your time in discussion boards to ensure you make your presence felt, without dominating the discussion. So, how do you do this?
- We recommend you check in twice a day , perhaps for just 30 minutes at a time.
- You don’t have to post a response to every comment in the forum, but you should make specific comments to student posts you find particularly well thought-out or provocative in order to encourage more discussion from others around a student’s post. Encourage deeper discussion. Include a question for the student to research and answer, or ask students to answer one another’s questions.
- You can also leave “general” comments at the top of the discussion forum to address the whole class.
- Of course, if a student seems to be getting off track, you could nudge them back in the discussion forum, if appropriate, or in a private Canvas email otherwise.
5. Provide effective feedback
- Written feedback is just one way to provide student feedback in the online environment. In some cases, you may decide to discuss more complex or delicate issues with a student over the phone or in a video chat, rather than using email or discussion forums. In Canvas, Brown’s learning management system,, you can even use your webcam to send your students recorded video feedback with the click of a button. Bottom line: be sure to select the most appropriate and effective method for each situation.
6. Manage your time wisely
- As part of an initial assignment, ask students to describe how they will manage the coursework, detailing any activities that may interfere with completing work on time.
- Set expectations with students regarding your response time. Indicate when you will be grading assignments, responding to email, and posting to discussion boards. Also, tell students if late assignments will be graded on the same or on an extended timeline.