March 25th, 2014

Five Pedagogical Practices to Improve Your Online Course


Because online courses have fewer opportunities for the spontaneous, real-time exchanges of the face-to-face classroom, online instruction requires a deliberate approach to design and facilitation. As Bethany Simunich says, “Online, learning doesn’t happen by chance.” In an interview with Online Classroom, Simunich, associate director of online learning at Kent State University, offered the following techniques to improve an online course:

Vary the learning experiences. Assignments should move students from the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains (remember and understand) to higher levels (apply and analyze), and highest levels (evaluate and create). The instructional designer and instructor need to be deliberate about helping students achieve higher levels of learning, perhaps more so than in the face-to-face environment where opportunities for discussion help students achieve higher levels of thinking more spontaneously, Simunich says.

Using a backward design approach, Simunich has instructors consider what types of activities will enable students to demonstrate that they have achieved the course’s learning outcomes.

Depending on those outcomes, the best approach might be an individual assignment or one that involves collaboration in small or large groups. Individual assignments are appropriate when the instructor needs to understand an individual student’s thought processes and measure his or her progress, such as a writing assignment in an English course where the student’s use of proper grammar and progress in writing ability need to be assessed. Other learner goals might be better served when students contribute to a common project, such as a group blog, where students can post things from their communities that are relevant to a topic, concept, or theory being discussed in the course.

Have successful discussions. “If you had a discussion in a face-to-face classroom, you probably would not throw out a question and expect every student in your classroom to answer it individually. But oftentimes, that’s what we expect of online students. We expect those students to have something new or different to contribute,” Simunich says.

The instructor needs to design the discussion to give students a way to enter the conversation. To that end, Simunich recommends designing discussions with the following questions in mind:

  • What is the purpose of this discussion?
  • Does the prompt foster dialogue?
  • Does the prompt make students think?

Dividing students into small groups can help students get involved in the discussion. The instructor needs to be an active participant, not to respond to each student’s posts but to help guide the discussion. “Sometimes there will be a lull and perhaps students aren’t taking the discussion cognitively in the direction that you want, so you need to ask probing questions [using] the Socratic method where you’re getting students to cognitively engage with the discussion a little bit more. That is something that also encourages active learning. Instead of just putting something out there and expecting students to give you something back, think about how students can actively engage with the material you’re putting into your online course,” Simunich says.

Plan a closing or wrap-up activity. When the course is coming to an end give students a chance to reflect on what they’ve learned. This will often be the course’s culminating project, which provides the opportunity for students to apply the concepts they’ve learned throughout the course. You can include questions such as

  • Where are you now in your understanding of this concept versus where you were at the beginning of the course?
  • Did you learn the things you thought you would learn?
  • What aspect of the course did you find most interesting?
  • What do you think you can apply most to your other courses?

This exercise is good for the students as well as the instructor. It provides closure, creates connections among the students, and provides the instructor with valuable feedback and insights into possible ways to improve the course’s design and facilitation, Simunich says.

Provide personal feedback. In interviews with approximately 100 online learners at Kent State, Simunich and her colleagues have found that students crave interaction with their instructors, particularly personal interaction, such as emails thanking the student for submitting an assignment, acknowledging their performance, and offering additional help. “We need to check in with our students, and these are things that take time. It’s going to sap your time, but if you do a lot of prior work in planning and designing your course … then you have a lot more time to spend on things like this,” Simunich says.
Interestingly, the majority of students who were interviewed did not view things such as embedded comments in assignments as interaction with the instructor. “That was perhaps the biggest shock to us. Instructors would say that’s clearly interaction. Instructors spend so much time giving quality feedback on that,” Simunich says.

Although she has yet study learners’ impressions of embedded audio comments in assignments, Simunich recommends that instructors use this approach so student can hear the tone and inflection of the instructor’s voice. This can convey the instructor’s personality and the impression that the instructor cares about the student’s progress, Simunich says.

Ask students for feedback. Check in with students throughout the semester. Simunich makes it a point to check in with students during the first week of the course, asking if they can find everything and whether they are having trouble with the technology. In addition to addressing students’ problems early on, this also helps create a sense of instructor presence. “Teacher presence is so much more important in the beginning. You need to work to have a little bit more of it in the beginning so students can set off on the right foot,” Simunich says.
Here are some examples of questions to ask students throughout the course:

  • Do you need any concepts clarified?
  • Was the assignment rubric clear enough?
  • Do you understand how this assignment connects to your learning in the course?

Providing opportunities for students to offer feedback gives them a chance to reflect on the learning experience, and it conveys to the students that their opinions matter and that the instructor is willing to try to improve the course. And of course, student feedback can help the instructor improve the course for current and future students.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 13.2 (2013): 4, 5. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.