Instructional Practices that Support Virtual and Online Learning Environments

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had an overwhelming impact on students in higher education. For students who were looking forward to living on campus and having the college experience, COVID-19 affected how they consumed instruction, their sense of community, as well as their sense of well-being. Graduate students working toward advanced degrees found educational experiences were impacted by job and home lives that were now affected by COVID-19. As classes moved from in person to distance and online formats, it was important to ensure instructional practices were used to make learning engaging, collaborative, and relevant, while at the same time supporting the academic success of all students.

Now, as the country begins to reopen, educators are working toward refining virtual and online instructional practices used during the COVID-19 crisis. Various studies in the area of distance and online learning have provided insight regarding how to support our higher learning and adult students through effective engagement, academic support, and collaborative learning communities. According to research from Keengwe, Onchwari, & Agamba, (2013), higher learning and adult students felt engaged when instructors used problem-oriented learning activities relevant to students’ interests and jobs, encouraged active learning, and provided a variety of opportunities for collaborative and cooperative group work that emphasized the problem-solving process, decision making, and evaluative skills, in both synchronous and asynchronous formats. Previous research by Yong Tay (2016) found that adult learners felt they were in a supported learning environment when they received effective feedback and coaching from the instructor, thus impacting their academic success and feelings of connectiveness to the other students and instructor.

These are sound practices, but how are they implemented? What do these practices look like in action? It is important to remember that the effectiveness in which technology is used to implement these practices can affect adult learners. According to Castro (2018), “teachers’ skills not only in virtual class sessions, but also in physical classrooms may enhance or undermine learners’ motivation and engagement” (p. 11). I would like to share threes practices I have used with my online students that other instructors can implement to create an engaging, supportive learning environment for all learners.

Interactive synchronous instruction

When teaching an in-person class, instructors typically implement practices such as small group discussions and collaborative work time to support student engagement and application of new skills. These practices should also be implemented during virtual or online synchronous learning. A structure should be created so that students experience 10-12 minutes of content delivery, followed by approximately 5 minutes of small group interactions. This “ebb and flow” of teacher talk and student participation helps to break the content into manageable information chunks for students to process. An example of a small group activity to use within this structure would be small group discussions via virtual breakout or conference rooms. The activity would begin with the instructor posing an open-ended question to the class, then placing students in small groups via breakout rooms to address the question. After 3-4 minutes, the students would enter back to the whole group format and share information from the small group. Another small group activity could be collaborative work that is completed within breakout or conference rooms using a common document such as Google docs. After the collaborative work, students would return to a whole group virtual setting and share the work.

This synchronous instructional structure supports the development of a learning community within the virtual setting. This structure also provides opportunities for students to share ideas and hear other’s perspectives on the relevancy of the content and connections to a current or future job. To ensure all students are able to effectively participate in such activities, it is beneficial to provide access to the class materials prior to the synchronous learning session. This way students can frontload, or become familiar with, information prior to the synchronous learning, thus making participation more meaningful and effective.

Engaging asynchronous activities connected to synchronous sessions

Once a synchronous session has been completed, it is important for students to independently practice with or apply the new learning. This can be accomplished with asynchronous activities that engage the students through reflection and application of the new learning.

One practice that supports student reflection is the use of threaded discussions. The instructor may pose an open-ended question in which students answer with an initial post that connects the new learning to their own experiences. Students would also respond to other classmates’ posts, again discussing the new learning and its relevancy to real life situations.

A second instructional practice is the use of short, formative assignments or tasks that engage students in the application of the new learning. Once the assignment or task is completed, the students submit the assignment or task to the instructor, and the instructor provides feedback on the student’s application of the new learning. The implementation of such practices ensures students reflect on the synchronous learning, and allows them to work at their own pace when practicing the application of the new learning.

Effective feedback

Finally, it is important to provide students with effective feedback on formative assignments or tasks. In order for feedback to be considered effective, it must be timely, meaning it should be provided no longer than a week from the time an assignment or activity is submitted. The feedback should also be tangible and actionable; students should understand how a task needs to be improved, and why. In order to clearly communicate this feedback, instructors can provide a brief (1-2 minutes in length) audio or video recording in addition to annotations or comments on the assignment. This allows students to receive feedback both textual and through recorded forms, ensuring clear communication between the instructor and student.


Over the past year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted higher education students and the way they have consumed instruction. As we move forward, we need to reflect on the strengths and challenges of online and virtual learning, and begin to make revisions within the instructional practices currently used. While virtual and online learning can provide flexibility for students, it can also hinder students’ motivation and engagement if online instructional practices are not implemented well. To ensure student engagement and learning of content, we must connect the content to an ebb and flow of participation, collaboration, and independent practice. These actions will help to support students’ social and cognitive growth within a course.

Dr. Karen Blaha is an assistant professor at the University of St. Francis and program coordinator for the Educational Leadership Program which prepares candidates to become instructional leaders and ethical school administrators.
Karen believes in high quality, equitable education that provides learners with a foundation of academic excellence through social construct, effective feedback, and differentiated instruction that is relevant to students’ professional backgrounds and interests. Karen has worked with adult learners for 14 years, and has taught graduate courses and provided professional development on best practices in blended and online learning and differentiated instructional strategies for adult learners.

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Froman, V., Berumen, D., Rodriguez, J., & Stute, C. (2020, August). COVID-19 Student Survey: Online Learning Experiences and …

Hui Yong Tay | (2016) Investigating engagement in a blended learning course, Cogent
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Keengwe, J., Onchwari, G., & Agamba, J. (2013). Promoting effective e-learning practices
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