February 17th, 2009

Four Tips for Better Online Instruction


In course evaluations, 90 percent of the students in John Thompson’s graduate-level education courses at the University of San Diego indicated that the online learning experience was as good as or better than the traditional classroom and 91 percent would take another online course.

Thompson attributes much of this positive feedback to his role as instructor and offers the following recommendations:

  • Be specific. Create your online syllabus in such a way that students know exactly what the expectations are even before the class begins.
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  • Maintain a presence in the online discussions. Some institutions require instructors to respond to at least 10 percent or 20 percent of students’ postings. Thompson does not agree with quantifying instructor participation, preferring to focus on quality. Thompson responds to every question asked of him and asks questions to elicit more discussion. “My postings typically are not too long. Sometimes, you find instructors that post two or three long paragraphs. I may do that occasionally, but more often my postings are in response to a specific question from a student or if a student [posts] something that is over the top or an unsubstantiated claim. … I try to get into a Socratic dialogue, asking why and drawing them out without being viewed as a crazy guy who keeps asking questions.”
  • Decide on your role for the discussion boards. Depending on your course design, learning outcomes, and teaching style, your role will vary, but you should consciously decide what that role will be, Thompson says. “Are you there just as a lurker? Are you just asking an occasional question here or there? Are you an active participant? What do you mean by ‘active participant’? Are you a cop? Are you a super student or instructor?”
  • Keep discussions informal, interesting, and engaging. “Make discussions relevant to the course. You do not want students to view discussions as fluff,” Thompson says. In addition to focusing on the course readings, encourage students to discuss how the material relates to their lives.

Excerpted from Tips from the Pros: Four Tips for Better Instruction, Online Classroom, May 2007.