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5 Keys to Effective Online Teaching

By: Stacy Young, Associate Dean of Faculty at VHS Learning

In April, I wrote an article for SmartBrief which shared five keys for being an effective online teacher. At the time, millions of teachers and students around the globe were shifting to virtual teaching and learning.

Now, as our schools pivot from summer vacation to learning mode – whether face-to-face, remote or a hybrid model – the most impactful instructional skills for online and virtual teaching are accessible to all teachers.

In many ways, teaching in an online environment is similar to teaching in a traditional classroom. Both require teachers to build relationships with students, give frequent (and meaningful) feedback, help students manage their time well, manage their own time well, and know when to step in and provide extra support for students as needed. However, doing all these things in an online environment requires a different approach as teachers navigate a unique set of challenges.

To help you teach effectively in an online course environment, here are a few tips to set you up for success as you navigate this ‘not so new’ normal.

Frequent Communication is Critical.

Teachers should communicate frequently with each student in an online environment, so that students feel like they’re part of a learning community. This communication should start at the very beginning of the course, as you set clear expectations and get to know your students.

Getting to know your individual students in order to build relationships with them can be challenging when a course doesn’t meet face to face. Try to make the communication multi-dimensional as you do in the face-to-face classroom. In addition to checking in on content and skills, you should also communicate consistently throughout the course and should check in with students often—providing substantive feedback on an assignment at least once a week—to keep your students engaged and on track.

Words Matter.

The ability for teachers to nurture relationships in an online classroom can be difficult, because teachers and students don't have the immediate feedback through visual cues they would have in a face-to-face classroom. And because most of the communication in an online course happens in writing, it’s especially important for educators to make sure their written words aren’t misunderstood.

Be aware that the words you use can have a huge impact on students, especially in an online environment where tone is hard to read.

Your online communications should be clear and unambiguous. One way to do this is to use a consistent format for all messages: Begin with a greeting, state your message plainly and carefully, and end with a closing. Do this for every communication; otherwise, what you think is a simple reply to a question might seem to the student as abrupt.

It’s critical for online teachers to avoid using sarcasm or other language that can be misconstrued. Always use asset-based language, which focuses on a student’s strengths and offers support. Language that focuses on successes while avoiding negatives or absolutes helps your students feel that you are approachable.

Structure Breeds Success.

Online learning offers more flexibility than a traditional classroom setting, but students still need structure to ensure that they’re successful. It can be easy for them to mismanage their time and fall behind if they don’t have daily homework assignments or don’t see their teacher every day.

Online teachers who are involved in class discussions throughout the week and who encourage their students to keep up with their assignments provide just enough structure to keep students on a successful path. For your students who might need extra help with time management or prioritization, consider designing a plan such as is giving students checklists or target dates to keep them on track.

Be Supportive.

When you don’t see students in person every day, it’s important to pick up on signs they might be struggling—and act immediately to help them succeed. If students are struggling, you should reach out to the student directly within private student-teacher communications, but you should also engage their trusted adult. If one of your students hasn’t logged in, or is logging in but needs help completing assignments, you and their trusted adult should work together to support that student as soon as a potential problem is identified.

Remain Flexible.

If this year has taught us anything, it’s that remaining flexible is critical in these uncertain times. Extenuating circumstances that prevent students from completing their work arise in any course environment, and as teachers we must be flexible whether we’re teaching online or in a traditional classroom. Students’ experiences will vary based on their parent involvement and support, social-emotional wellness, internet and computer access, and learning preferences. A little flexibility can allow your students to be successful in the online classroom.

We often hear that teachers who have never taught online sometimes think it will be easier or less time-consuming—but the truth is that it takes just as much time to teach an online class. Although online instruction brings its own set of unique challenges, we hope these five tips—along with creativity, a sense of humor, and adaptability —can help make this year’s online courses successful for you and your students.