February 25th, 2013

Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice to the Online Classroom



Almost 25 years have passed since Chickering and Gamson offered seven principles for good instructional practices in undergraduate education. While the state of undergraduate education has evolved to some degree over that time, I think the seven principles still have a place in today’s collegiate classroom. Originally written to communicate best practices for face-to-face instruction, the principles translate well to the online classroom and can help to provide guidance for those of us designing courses to be taught online.

1. Encourage contact between students and faculty. Students need to know how to contact their online instructors and should be encouraged to communicate with us when needed. In my online courses, I identify multiple means of contacting me (email, Skype, Twitter, etc) and clearly post times when I’ll be available to chat during online office hours. While few students utilize the online office hours I provide, offering this time communicates to students that I am available if they need assistance and that I value this interaction.

2. Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students. For those of us who believe that people learn through socially constructing their understanding based on their experiences, this principle is critical. Online courses should not be independent study classes. Online instructors need to build collaborative structures into their courses to promote student-to-student interaction. In my experience, I find that students who feel isolated in an online course have difficulty being successful. In my online courses, I incorporate collaborative and interactive ventures early on. I also try to foster discussions where students communicate with one another, share ideas, and debate concepts. While interacting with the instructor is important in an online class, it is also important that students have a space where they can discuss concepts with one another as well.

3. Encourage active learning. Learning is not a passive activity. For students to learn, they must actively engage with the content in thoughtful, purposeful ways. As you develop your online course, consider ways to build active learning into the course content. This can include utilizing tools with a course management system (discussions, for instance) or other tools (GoAnimate, Animoto). But active learning isn’t limited to technological avenues in online courses. Someone teaching science online could utilize hands-on lab activities developed with common everyday items. Someone teaching psychology or sociology online could have students conduct observational work at a park or at the mall.

4. Give prompt feedback. This can be tricky, especially with instructors teaching larger online classes. While grading hundreds of papers can be overwhelming, students need to receive prompt feedback to know whether they are being successful or what they need to do to improve. If you have a few larger assignments in your class that you know will take more time to provide quality, constructive feedback, communicate this to your students. You should also include some smaller assignments that will not take as long to assess. While some experienced online instructors use the course management system to build automated responses into their courses, I believe that some students still need personalized feedback on their work that comes directly from their instructor.

5. Emphasize time on task. Learning takes time. Students and faculty working in online spaces need to realize this. Just because an online course may be more flexible schedule-wise does not mean that it won’t require a significant time commitment. It’s important for instructors to communicate expected time commitments but also be realistic with their expectations. Assigning students to read a 500 page book in a day may not be completely realistic. Have high expectations but respect students’ need to have time to interact with the content and learn.

6. Communicate high expectations.
While it’s important to have high expectations for students, it is also critical that these expectations are clearly communicated to students. Likewise, it is helpful to communicate clear expectations for participation and for interaction. Do you want your students to log on daily? Do they need to submit assignments in a certain format? Is it okay for them to use emoticons in their discussion posts? These are just a few of the areas that online instructors need to consider as they develop an online course for the first time.

7. Respect diverse talents and ways of learning. Students learn in a variety of ways. While there will undoubtedly be some text-based content in an online course, it cannot be the only mode of delivery or assessment. Draw on the host of multimedia options available online to deliver content to students and to assess them. Instead of typing out some long lesson on the Middle Ages, check out YouTube or Vimeo for some available videos. Or better yet, use a screencasting tool like Jing to record a customized lesson. Instead of assigning a ten-page paper, have students create a video where they demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Dr. Oliver Dreon is the director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Millersville University. Follow him on Twitter @ollied.

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14 comments on “Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice to the Online Classroom

  1. Have used the 7 principles over and over again, and love them as a segue to reminding us of best practice in both online and blended learning. Your post is so timely, as we will be introducing Chickering to faculty colleagues in a week, in our "getting ready to teach online" course. Thanks for the perfect "infomercial."

    BTW, interesting that you chose GoAnimate and Animoto…these are helpful in spicing up content, but have found lots of other tools more interactive on the user end. Do you have additional suggestions?

    Thanks for getting us thinking!

  2. Over the years, ihave been using the 7 principles from Chickering and Gamson in my 'enhancing your teaching with technology' course to get new faculty to use these principles to establish how technology can help in their own courses. This will help them easily identify the type of learning they wish to stimulate and then explore the technologies that would support their needs.

  3. Online learning is gaining more popularity. In fact, the City of Boston plans to launch a partnership with the two renowned institutions through the experimental online initiative "edX", which offers FREE courses to anyone with Internet access. Think of the knowledge available to residents e.g., job skills, higher education, professional development, etc. This article is an excellent reminder on how instructors can use 7 principles to engage students in active learning. The use of these principles enable students to take ownership of their learning process and outcome.

  4. These seem very helpful and applicable to both online and live classes. The prompt feedback, active-learning, and time-on-task points are especially helpful. It would be good to have a rule of thumb about time put into an online class.

  5. As I am learning to create online courses at the college level, these 7 principles will guide my self-assessment! Thank you!

  6. The biggest change I have made in teaching lately is to continually emphasize time on task. I honestly did not think this was too necessary in the past. Students would see their grades as they received feedback, and they would adjust their study accordingly. Lately this has not happened. I have had to emphasize the need to spend the appropriate amount of time on the task and say, "there really is no quick workaround." Many students want a quick workaround–they want to spend the same amount of time they have been, but get higher grades. It occurred to me that the part I was missing was their lack of knowledge about how long they should be working on their coursework. Maybe I'm old (or older), but I simply do not remember having to do this in the past.

  7. The seven principles highlight important best practices and line up nicely with my future online course expectations.

  8. A year ago, I was focused on 'time on task'–and I still think that is quite important. Students underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete each module. I have tried to be more explicit in my expectations now, and hopefully this will help the students be more realistic. Also, people should know that asynchronous does not mean do a whole module on Saturdays and never check into the class other times. I have tried to make this more explicit in my handouts.

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