Tips for Teaching Online Courses


Justin Greenlee, PhD and Nenette Arroyo, PhD

Digital Pedagogy Interns, UVA Learning Design & Technology

Hello, all! Read on if you are developing instructional techniques for the spring or leading a class during UVA’s J-term.

We invite you to use the comments section at the bottom of the page to start a conversation with the authors and fellow readers. Which ideas resonated with you? What other instructional practices come to mind? What classes are you teaching this January and/or will begin in February? How can we help when it comes to course design and technology?

Before the First Class Meeting

1: Evaluate your setup.

Examine the space you will teach from and hardware such as webcam, mic, and speakers. Test your Internet speed and connect to a router via Ethernet cord, if possible. If your working space has a window, do a “screen test” using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or a screen recorder during the time of day you’ll teach so you can evaluate lighting conditions.

2: Learn about student learning conditions. 

Some students will have less than two semesters of experience with online learning. With that in mind, consider distributing a pre-semester student environment survey like the one developed by the School of Arts & Sciences at UVA and make adjustments to your course design based on feedback. (Note: Institutionally-supported survey apps include UVA Qualtrics, the Poll Everywhere plugin for Collab, and Microsoft Forms in the Office 365 suite.) Where are your students located, geographically? Take time zones into account and let differences inform assignment submission deadlines. Consider that some countries limit access to the Internet and certain websites (i.e., YouTube) and appreciate that the threat of state surveillance of international students’ online activities may mean you cannot record class and make your students more reticent, overall. (For more information regarding online teaching in the USA and across international borders, read the Association for Asian Studies’ “Statement Regarding Remote Teaching, Online Scholarship, Safety, and Academic Freedom” from July 2020.)

You may also distribute a poll to your students for anonymous feedback halfway through the semester, in early or mid-March. Among other questions for your students: What most helps you learn in the course? What most impedes your learning? What suggestions do you have for improvements? Make space for students to include any comments about the environment created by the instructor regarding inclusivity and respect for diversity. Once collected, share aspects of that feedback with the class and describe the changes you will make, moving forward. If a student is not doing well in the course, send a personal message to ask if: (a) they have trouble accessing course materials; and/or (b) have encountered new, unforeseen barriers to their learning since the start of the semester.

3: Keep it simple.

Simplicity feels like the key of all keys in this moment, especially in light of UVA student course loads. A set of fears has also come back around regarding the proliferation of digital tools and the determinism of such apps “taking over” the process of learning design and implementation. One way to avoid an overwrought, over-complicated toolkit for online instruction is “to go back to the beginning,” in the words of the immortal Inigo Montoya. What are the learning outcomes for your course? What tools will students use when it comes to content, skills, and application? If digital, are those tools new to you or them? Can you simplify? How will you use Collab? Are you using Zoom or Teams video conferencing software, or is the course completely asynchronous? If there is a lecture component, will it be live or pre-recorded? How will you make recordings available to students, if at all? 

4: Do an equity assessment.

Make covid-specific adjustments to your syllabus. Put PDFs of assigned readings through an Online Character Recognition (OCR) program such as Adobe Acrobat Pro or PDFElement so they are accessible to people with no or low vision who use screen readers. Think about the content posted to Collab and adhere to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. Remember that not all students have access to high speed Internet and/ or a distraction-free place to learn. Adjust the workload you assign during the pandemic, and gauge it using your own metrics or a tool like the Workload Estimator 2.0, developed by Elizabeth Barre, Allen Brown, and Justin Esarey at Wake Forest University. Consider the needs of students who are low-income, underrepresented, and/ or live in rural communities. Also remember that many people are affected by a lack of childcare during the pandemic, either as parents or through their siblings, with women taking on a greater share of domestic labor.

5: Plan for active learning.

Incorporate collaborative work into your assessments and lesson plans. What activities do you have planned, day-to-day? Which are synchronous and which asynchronous? What is the goal of each in-class activity? Is that goal facilitated by a meeting in Zoom or Teams, or do you need to re-envision the activity in a different category? Value asynchronous learning and what happens outside of designated class time. At the level of classroom culture, how will you use technology to create community in your course, and how will it encourage student-to-student interactions?

6. Manage your time.

Divide course content into chunks that hold students’ attention and interest in a computer learning situation. A mini-lecture (synchronous or asynchronous) can last for about 20 minutes and be followed by a discussion, short quiz, poll, or reflective writing assignment. Plan for breaks.

7. Re-evaluate and clarify assessments. 

Put early, low-stakes assessments in place as a way to scaffold towards traditional, high-stakes measures such as a midterm, final, and culminating project. Model the assignments that will have a large impact on student grades. Provide examples of assignments, projects, and exam responses if you have taught the class before and have permission to share.

During the Course

8: Set the tone.

Communicate clearly on the first day of class. Answer the big questions: What is the purpose of the class? What content and skills will students learn? How do topics pertain to students’ lives? What do you want them to remember in one year? In five years? Acknowledge the pandemic, its effect on learning and teaching, and a disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx students. Emphasize student-to-student interaction. Help students find their motivation… and have them write those reasons down so they can be revisited, later on. Early “get to know you” and icebreaker activities can be awkward and much, much more: they will help students meet one another, gain a level of comfort, inspirational, and solidarity, and be an active member of the class from day one. Be flexible and compassionate. Ask you students to be the same. We are all learning how to learn in the midst of COVID-19. It is likely that everyone involved, students and teacher, will experience hardware, software, and/or Internet connectivity issues at some point. Give yourself credit. Take the breaks you need. 

9: Find a rhythm and make adjustments.

What will you do each morning? Each afternoon? What techniques help you stay enthused and energetic? Communicate with your students at regular intervals. Start each class period by relating it to the previous one. At the end of each session, synthesize and point to what is ahead, including readings and assignments for next time. Remember your instructional support system, be it friends, family, fellow teachers, department chairs and administrators, directors of undergraduate study, UVA ITS Local Support Partners, UVA’s Center for Teaching Excellence, Online Learning at UVA, and the UVA Learning Design & Technology team (that’s us!). 

10: Do active learning.

Have a sense for how conversation moves in a digital space. Set guidelines to allow conversation to flow as easily as possible (i.e., use breakout rooms, chat, the hand raise feature, shared docs, virtual whiteboards, and short periods of reflective working time that don’t require attention on the computer monitor). Allow students to drive discussion. Find ways to keep your approach varied without multiplying the number of digital tools used. Intersperse mini-lectures, slide presentations, and virtual whiteboard delivery with multimedia content, including films in UVA’s streaming portals, music, and podcasts. 

11: Return to learning outcomes again and again.

Value student learning outcomes over the content you planned to deliver. Be explicit about the goals of the activities you design. When sending students to breakout rooms or channels, provide a written prompt for discussion or images/ graphs/ links to analyze so these sessions are focused and productive. 

That is what we have for you. Include your insights, below, and let’s get a conversation going!

(Also feel free to contact Justin, one-on-one, at

If you are interested in data-based resources on the student experience of learning during the pandemic we recommend: NYU LEARN, “College in the Time of Corona“; Means, Neisler, and Langer Research Associates, “Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic”; Stanford’s “Spring Student Survey: COVID 19” (2020); and from the United Nations, “Policy Brief: Education During COVID-19 and Beyond.”

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