Research-based Effective Online Teaching Strategies

Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL

Many useful articles have been written recently on effective online teaching and learning strategies. As an educator it can be overwhelming to try to take on board much of the advice. It can also be difficult to tell which strategies are the most effective and worth trying to incorporate into one’s teaching practice, especially during a time of rapid and significant change in which teachers and students face many new challenges.

In this post, we outline some of the most effective online teaching strategies, based on research by Judith V. Boettcher and Rita-Marie Conrad. The third chapter of their book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (Second Edition; San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2016) puts forward fourteen recommended teaching and learning practices for online and blended environments. While those practices are based on higher education, many of them are applicable in secondary education. This post outlines some of the most useful advice in that chapter for online teaching and learning in secondary education. (All page references are to the 2016 and 2010 editions of the book, with the edition indicated in parentheses.)

The first ten practices, which originally comprised all of the practices in the third chapter of the book’s first edition, were written to assist educators working in higher education ‘who were thrust into online teaching somewhat unexpectedly’ (2016, 43). The authors offered an additional four practices in the Second Edition.

The practices are based on teaching and learning research studies, theories from education studies and cognitive science, and experience in online teaching (2016, 43-4). Boettcher and Conrad write that while this set of practices may not be the best set, educators ‘who follow these practices increase the probability of an effective, efficient, and satisfying teaching and learning experience for themselves and their students’ (2016, 44).

The following are Boettcher and Conrad’s fourteen best practices for teaching online (2016, 45):

  1. Be present at the course site.
  2. Create a supportive online course community.
  3. Develop a set of explicit expectations for your learners and yourself as to how you will communicate and how much time students should be working on the course each week.
  4. Use a variety of large group, small group, and individual work experiences.
  5. Use synchronous and asynchronous activities.
  6. Ask for informal feedback early in the term.
  7. Prepare discussion posts that invite responses, questions, discussions, and reflections.
  8. Use digital content for as much of the course as possible.
  9. Combine core concept learning with customised and personalised learning.
  10. Plan a good closing and wrap activity for the course.
  11. Assess as you go by gathering evidence of learning.
  12. Rigorously connect content to core concepts and learning outcomes.
  13. Develop and use a content frame for the course.
  14. Design experiences to help learners make progress on their novice-to-expert journey.

The following discussion focuses on eight of the practices: (1), (2), (3), (4), (6), (7), (8) and (10). This is because, first, readers can read up on all eight of these practices online, as the first ten are available online in a reposting of the third chapter of the 2010 edition of the book in this Stanford University article. Second, of the first ten practices, the eight chosen offer particularly fruitful insights for online teaching in secondary education.

1. Be present at the course site

Boettcher and Conrad describe this as ‘the most fundamental and important of all the practices’ (2010, 37). This is because of the importance of engagement in teaching and learning.

Boettcher and Conrad argue that teacher presence needs to be ‘felt consistently’ (2010, 38). This does not mean that a teacher needs to be emailing students or videoconferencing every day. Online presence can be felt in many ways – through comments in an online course forum, feedback, and sharing resources.  

A way of creating regular presence without it being too time-consuming or risking videoconference fatigue is to reduce one-to-one emails and ‘focus discussions on the course site’ (2010, 38). Utilise opportunities to communicate with students in an online forum, such as the ‘posts’ area of Microsoft Teams and the ‘collaboration space’ in Microsoft OneNote. Sharing feedback with students through collaborative documents also contributes towards presence, such as giving feedback through Google Docs, which is freely available online.

Boettcher and Conrad observe that ‘Students expect online faculty to be present when they are there, no matter the day or the time, unless explicitly told otherwise’. They report that the ‘best online faculty, according to students, are … present multiple times a week, and at best daily’. So, ‘one of the most important expectations for online faculty is – if at all possible – to be present in some way every day’ (2010, 37). But Boettcher and Conrad note that ‘students will be very accepting if … faculty clearly [state] personal policies on presence’ (2010, 38).

It is therefore important to clearly communicate teacher availability to students. For example, setting up ‘virtual office hours’, when students know that this is a particularly good time to get in touch with questions which can be addressed quickly, via email, videoconference or an online forum.

Again, note that this does not mean that a teacher needs to be in contact with students through videoconferencing or email every day. Indeed, given the amount of time many teachers and students are currently spending on digital devices, we need to be careful to limit the time we spend interacting in these ways. Boettcher and Conrad’s advice on this point should, therefore, be amended for application in the current context: while teacher presence should be regular, be careful to establish limits on the amount of time teachers and students are interacting online, to avoid fatigue from online teaching and learning. 

Boettcher and Conrad raise another caveat facing excessive teacher presence. There ‘is the danger’, they write, ‘that too much faculty presence will stunt the discussions as well as delay the development of learner self-direction’ (2010, 38). As discussed in an earlier blog post, the lack of classroom time necessitated by the lockdown requires students to do more work independently; while this poses many challenges, it also creates an opportunity to explore methods of independent learning and develop students’ independent learning skills. (For more on independent learning skills, see this blog post.)

2. Create a supportive online course community

The most common way in which we learn and are taught is within a social context, as members of a class. A class is an intellectual and social community. An online teaching environment is only a substitute for the classroom; but when teaching online it’s important to try to imitate the classroom community by fostering an online community (2010, 40).

Boettcher and Conrad suggest that an effective ‘strategy for developing a supportive online course community is to design a course with a balanced set of dialogues’, by which they mean that ‘the three dialogues of faculty to learner, learner to learner, and learner to resource are about equal’ (2010, 39).

Boettcher and Conrad recommend that teachers encourage ‘the use of a general open student forum for students to post and request help and assistance from each other’ (2010, 39). An online forum serves a role as the the ‘first place [for learners] to go for help from each other’ (2010, 39). In addition to supporting the development of an online community, this also supports peer learning.

Developing an online community is more difficult in a large class. When teaching a large class online, Boettcher and Conrad recommend dividing the class into small study groups of four to six students, in which students can go to one another for supportive networking or mentoring, including help in identifying resources or clarifying key points of a class assignment’ (2010, 39-40). These are not groups within online classes, but rather sub-groups in place throughout a course, in which students can support one another.

For more on peer learning and assessment online, see this blog post; for more on fostering an online community, see this blog post.

3. Develop a set of explicit expectations for your learners and yourself as to how you will communicate and how much time students should be working on the course weekly

Boettcher and Conrad recommend that communication with students about course content be made with all students in such a way that it remains visible – i.e., in an online forum. There are several benefits to this over communicating with students about content via email. First, ‘Queries and responses posted in open course spaces benefit all the learners, as students see both the questions and the responses, and you can develop expectations that students can answer each other’s questions’ (2010, 40).

Second, an online forum makes students’ thinking and learning visible to others (2010, 46). This can serve as a useful means of peer learning, through students learning from one another’s approaches and correcting one another. A student might have a question others also wish to raise, and sharing it in a group space affords the opportunity for other members of the class to offer responses and discuss responses.

This process can serve as a useful form of modelling. ‘Thinking aloud’ is a process of modelling where teachers explicitly narrate their thought processes when completing a task, such as problem-solving. Thinking aloud can also be performed among students. Thinking aloud among peers can help students learn alternative approaches to tasks and activities from one another, some of which can support the completion of tasks or engagement in skills to a greater degree of proficiency.

Thinking aloud is only an effective form of modelling, though, if the student thinking aloud employs effective methods and their knowledge and understanding are accurate. So, the teacher will need to regularly check on students working with one another to ensure that mistakes are avoided. (For more on thinking aloud in an online environment, see this blog post.)

Boettcher and Conrad recommend being clear about how much time is expected from students to spend on their work outside of classes on a weekly basis. As a guide, they suggest that a ‘good rule of thumb is six hours of productive learning time’ per week. Note that, for most people, an hour of productive learning time requires more than one hour; Boettcher and Conrad write that for ‘many learners, it can take ten hours to achieve the six productive hours’ (2010, 41). (On strategies for studying and learning productively, see this blog post.)

By ‘course’, Boettcher and Conrad mean a university course, which would be the full educational programme on which a student is enrolled. So, if applying this recommendation to online secondary school teaching and learning, students might be expected to do two hours of homework per day in total during weekdays, which would, for many learners, yield around six hours of productive learning time per week outside of classes. It would be best if much of that consists of activities that do not require digital devices, given the amount of time many students are currently spending on them.

4. Use a variety of large group, small group, and individual work experiences

Students have different learning styles. Some work best alone; others work best collaboratively. We need to account for this when teaching online. Boettcher and Conrad highly recommend that we build in options and opportunities for students to work individually and in groups. Group work is particularly effective for online learning ‘when students are working on complex case studies or scenarios for the first time’ (2010, 41).

We can provide opportunities for group work online through programs such as Google Docs and Dropbox (freely available online), and Microsoft OneNote and Microsoft Teams. Students could complete extended work in groups through project-based learning. This learning method also provides a useful option for online assessment. (On project-based learning as a means of online assessment, see this blog post.)

6. Ask for informal feedback early in the term

Boettcher and Conrad recommend that we collect feedback from students early in an online course, to gauge what is working well and to gather suggestions on what could help to improve the online teaching and learning experience. This could be conducted via anonymous polls and surveys (Zoom offers a useful poll function and online surveys can be created using Google Forms, both of which are freely available online).

7. Prepare discussion posts that invite responses, questions, discussions, and reflections

Communication through postings in an online forum has some pedagogical advantages over face-to-face discussion. An online forum is asynchronous, which means that ‘students have time for thought and reflection’, as opposed to the immediate responses required in face-to-face discussions. While the latter helps to develop skills in responding quickly and articulating points verbally, the former is useful for developing skills in thinking through points and ideas carefully and articulating them in written form. Both sets of skills can be developed through a mix of communication via videoconferencing and in an online forum (2010, 43).

Boettcher and Conrad offer suggestions for effective online forum postings for teachers to post, the most useful of which are the following (2010, 43-4):

  • Create open-ended questions in response to which learners can apply concepts they are learning.
  • Model Socratic-type questions, such as “Why do you think that?” and “What is your reasoning for that claim?”.
  • Ask clarificatory questions which encourage students to think about what they know and don’t know.
  • Provide students with guidelines on how to respond to others.
  • Don’t post closed questions – i.e., those which invite a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, because once a student responds, there isn’t much more to say.
  • Use fact-based questions in quizzes or polls, rather than as discussion questions in a forum. Better questions for a forum are procedural – e.g., ‘What is the best method for solving this?’ – or questions that elicit discussion – e.g., ‘What are the reasons for and against this view?’ (2010, 43-4).

8. Search out and use resources that are available in digital format if possible

In a day where almost all content is available digitally, ‘If content is not digital, it is as if it does not exist for most students’ (2010, 44). Students are more likely, therefore, to ‘use content, resources, and applications that are online, digital, and readily available’. So, where possible, try to make all content available online.

10. Plan a good closing and wrap activity for the course

As the end of a course approaches, students and teachers become increasingly fatigued and may become increasingly stressed by the remaining work in need of completion, such as final pieces of work (students) or assessment (teachers). It is important, though, to try to include a good closing experience to a course, because it can be highly beneficial for learning (2010, 46).

This could consist of student presentations, which could be conducted via video or audio; online debates, via videoconferencing or an online forum; reports; summaries of important areas of the course; or collaborative projects between students. The aim of the closing should be to help students to recapitulate and consolidate course material, and to provide the teacher with insights into what students have learned (2010, 46-7).

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