Online Courses : Best Practices

Best Practices

Best Practices from Classroom Teaching Applied to Online Courses

Although the main focus for the following best practices were originally for face-to-face courses, many of the principles can be applied to online courses. As we strive to make our online courses as rigorous and challenging as on-campus courses, please keep these classroom best practices in mind as you develop your online courses.

1. Lecture Practices: Effective lecturers find different ways to present new information orally to fit differences learning styles. If an instructor must rely on the oral presentation of material, these techniques enhance learner retention.

Lecture/Rhetorical Questioning: Talk briefly and then ask rhetorical questions. Online: The same rhetorical questions can be posted after a paragraph discussing a topic.

A Show of Hands: In class, instructors often ask for how many people agree or disagree with an issue. Online: Post a topic and ask who agrees or disagrees and require students to justify their choice.

Talk to a Classmate: Have students turn to each other after listening to parts of a lecture and discuss what they heard. Online: Pair up students or form groups where they post replies to each other.

Examining Text: Read and analyze passages from text aloud so learners can see higher-order thinking skills and that 'criticism' is a participatory intellectual exercise.
Online: Post an analysis or critique of a passage or article and encourage discussion.

Guided Lecture: Have students listen for about twenty minutes without taking notes and then have them form groups and reconstruct the lecture. Online: Have groups summarize a chapter and post it.

2. Group Discussion Triggers: Sharing a common experience helps to encourage group discussions. Different “triggers” can be used to encourage discussions.

First Person Experience: Students more readily take part in discussions when they can personally relate to the material. Online: Instructor posts personal experiences.

Individual Task with Review: Students complete a worksheet or other task and compare the results with their neighbors before the whole class discusses the answers. Online: Send a worksheet to groups of students or individually and have them work on it and discuss it in open or private discussion groups. Then have them individually or as a group post their answers or conclusions.

Self-assessment Questionnaires: Short surveys of learner attitudes and values. Online: Create an online survey.

Case Studies: A case study is the factual account of human experience centered in a problem or issue faced by a person, group or organization. It can raise a variety of complex issues and stimulate discussions of alternative viewpoints. Online: Post a case study and have students individually or in groups reply to questions regarding the case.

Visual Studies: Showing video or movies relating to specific topics can help to spur discussion. Online: Post pictures or short movie clips and then have students comment. Have them rent a movie and critique it.

Role Play: Learners explore human relations problems by enacting problem situations and then discussing the enactments. Online: Have students do the same by posting a reply in a specific role.

3. Thoughtful Questions: Effectively asking questions helps to foster engagement and confidence. The right questions focus the learner's attention upon applying their current understanding to the content or problem. The right questions are discoverable, that is, have follow-up avenues that a teacher can follow to lead a student to find an adequate answer using resources available (Socratic). Each success on one of these problems is a lesson to the learner that he or she knows how to think.

The following are examples of questions used in a classroom that are easily applicable to online courses:

      • Description: What did you see? What happened? What is the difference between....?
      • Reflection: What was interesting? What was surprising?
      • Analogy: What else does it remind you of? What else does it look like?
      • Common Purpose: What is the purpose of.....? What is the usual function of.....?
      • Procedures: How does one normally do......? How was this done? What is the normal (non- creative) next step?
      • Possibilities: What else could .....? How could we......? If we didn't have, or couldn't use, ......,what could........?
      • Prediction: What will happen next? What will you see? What will be the effect?
      • Justification: How can you tell? What evidence led you to.....?
      • Theorizing: Why is it that way? What is the reason for it?
      • Generalization: What is the same about ....... and ......? What could you generalize from these events? What principle is operating?
      • Definition: What does ...... mean? Define the word ...........

4. Reflective Responses to Learner Contributions: Effective ways to establish mutually beneficial communication by reflective listening. When a learner contributes to the discussion or asks a question, taking the initiative to learn, what is the best way to respond? To facilitate self-discovery and self-appropriated learning, effective teachers respond without changing the topic to share their own information or perspective from a posture of mutual respect, without domination. The following are easily applicable to online courses:

Paraphrase: While remaining alert to both the intellectual and emotional aspects of learner contributions, rephrase the underlying message the learner is sending in one's own words, not the learner's words. This especially applies when the learner says something new, something more than the commonplace.

Parallel Personal Comment: Without changing the topic or bending it in the slightest, talk about one's own current feelings or a past experience that matches exactly what the learner has said. The intention is to convey parallel aspects of yourself that validate the other's perspective or confirm your understanding of what the other is talking about. Usually statements start with 'I....' 'I was confused about that myself when I first read it.' 'I want to hear more about that.'

Leading Query on Learner's Topic: Ask for clarification of aspects of the comment. Dig deeper into the student without bending or shifting it away to one's own agenda. Such responses include, 'Where does it break down?' 'Could you elaborate or give an example?' and references to others, 'Who can build on what she is saying?'

5. Active Learning Strategies: Effective ways to foster active, constructive participation. The following are typical classroom techniques for active participation including applications to online classes.

Construction Spiral : Pose problem questions in a three-step learning cycle-(1) each individual writes down their thoughts, (2) all share in a small groups of three, and (3) compile the answer on the board in front of the whole class avoiding any evaluation or changes to what the class offers. Let the group correct itself. Online: Set up private discussion groups where students can post their thoughts to a group. The group discusses their postings and replies. Have the group then post their conclusion in an open discussion with the rest of the class.

Brainstorm: Solicit, and compile for all to see, alternative possibilities without judgments. Used to generate ideas, encourage creativity, involve the whole group, and demonstrate that people working together can create more than the individual alone. Online: Same as above.

Writing in Class : Focus questions, in-class journals, lecture or reading summaries and in-class essays can improve the learning of the subject matter and, with clear objectives and feedback, improve writing skills, too. Online: Have students keep a journal which they submit to you electronically.

Concept Models: Given handouts that ask a series of leading questions, students work in small groups to figure out how something works or build a conceptual model. Online: Set up groups and separate discussion boards for each group. Have them discuss a concept or idea and then present it to the rest.

Peer Teaching: By explaining conceptual relationships to others, tutors define their own understanding. Online: Assign pairs of students to help each other out.

Learning Cells: Each learner reads different selections and then teaches the essence of the material to his or her randomly assigned partner. Online: Have each student provide a summary of a section of a chapter to a partner or group.

6. Cooperative Group Assignments: Ways to assign formal cooperative tasks.
These types of tasks provide students with an experience of working together to achieve a group goal.

Team Member Teaching: Each member of the team is assigned a portion of the whole. Ultimately responsible for knowing all, each group member teaches the others about his/her piece. Online: Each group member studies a portion of a topic and provides a summary or critiques to other group members.

Team Effectiveness Design: Whatever material is to be learned is presented to teams in the form of a manuscript or text followed by a multiple choice test requiring conclusions or inferences. After completing the test, learners join teams of five to discuss the questions and arrive at consensus as to the most valid answer to each question, without consulting the reading. Online: Have groups discuss a short quiz in private discussion groups and then answer the questions accordingly, then share with the class why they answered as they did.

Performance Judging Design: Here learners first study how to develop and apply appropriate criteria for judging performance on a skill, such as writing an essay, giving a speech, or constructing a tool chest. They test their cooperatively developed criteria on a product produced anonymously by someone else. Then the learners are assigned the task of creating their own product for other members of the team to review. Online: Have groups critique something (i.e. article, product etc.) and share with the class.

Poster Sessions: Groups of three to five students each complete a poster or stand-alone display that conveys the group's work in (a) identifying and clarifying a controversial issue, (b) locating appropriate information and resources concerning their issue, and (c) critically evaluating the evidence they find. The posters are displayed in a public area of the college, so that not only can the students in the course learn from each others' work, students from other classes and other faculty can see it, too. Online: Have groups work on a topic and post using PowerPoint or Word for the whole class to view.

7. Goals to Grades Connections: Establish a logical agreement of goals and objectives, flowing to measures of performance, criteria, and grading. The following are for both in class and online.

Goals Stated as Outcomes, Not Processes: Goals for the course are agreed to by the other faculty in the instructional unit to achieve outcomes desired from an integrated program of study. Outcomes say that, at the end, students will be capable of doing 'x.'

Objectives are Performances: Performances are actual behaviors or classes of behaviors that indicate the presence of the alleged ability that generally are agreed upon by the faculty of the instructional unit. These are the abilities that constitute each goal. Each is formulated using active, measurable verbs from Bloom's Taxonomy (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation) and placed at the level of the taxonomy that reflects the amount of time allocated.

Requirements are Detailed in Writing: All desired learner outputs, including the criteria for success and relative weights, are clearly specified to learners in advance.

Grades are Referenced to Criteria: Learner achievement is measured with respect to a specified standard of quality, on a continuum from zero to perfection, not a percentage comparison to other learner's achievements.

8. Modeling: Represents openness, continuous learning, and trust. As a paragon of personal development, a teacher faces interpersonal challenges in every action he or she takes to engage, facilitate, catalyze, and give life to the opportunity to learn. The following apply to both on ground and online classes.

Openness to Experience in the Here and Now: Being truthful, personally in touch with one's own feelings and current experience.

Incorporation into Oneself of the Process of Change: Openness to learning opportunities, belief in oneself as an effective learner, and modeling learning, and its accompanying mistakes, visibly to learners.

Unconditional Positive Regard for Others: Deep trust in the underlying goodness of each person, despite how they appear, and the explicitly expressed belief in each learner's ability to learn and grow.

9. Climate Setting: Regulate the physical and mental climate. A large portion of teaching effectiveness involves setting the stage. The task of getting everyone comfortable enough to learn comes with the territory. Solve comfort issues first and the learning path is smoother. Research shows that successful teachers spend 10% of classroom time optimizing the arrangement of the physical setting as well as the psychological setting-a climate of collaboration, support, openness, pleasure, and humanity.

Meet the Learner's Needs for Physical Comfort and Accessibility: Insure a comfortable environment where basic needs for all learners are met: lighting, heat, seating, quiet, etc. Online: Make sure students are not having technical problems and that they have adequate equipment to complete the course. Let them know help is available if problems arise.

Define Negotiable and Non-negotiable Areas: Clearly specify those aspects of class performance that are the instructor's responsibility, such as essential procedures, external constraints, performance requirements (such as attendance, assignments), and summative evaluation - and those parts of the course that have mutual and negotiable responsibility (such as seating arrangements, breaks, groupings). Online: Clearly state what is expected in the syllabus and remind students during the course in discussions and email.

Clarify the Instructor's Role: Impart the explicit assumption that the teacher is here to facilitate learning by providing resources, tasks, and support. The teacher is not the fountain of all knowledge. The teacher trusts the learners to want to learn and therefore will take responsibility for their own learning. Online: Same.

Clarify the Learner's Role as Members of a Learning Community: Clarify expectations the learners have for the instructor and expectations they have for establishing constructive relationships with each other. Online: Same.

10. Fostering Learner Self-Responsibility: Allow learners to plan and evaluate much of their learning. Effective teachers offer ways for the learners to take an active role, for at least a portion of the course, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate strategies, and evaluating the outcomes. The following apply to both face-to-face and online courses.

Involve Learners in Mutual Planning: People tend to feel committed to any decision in proportion to the extent to which they have participated in making it.

Involve Learners in Diagnosing Their Own Needs for Learning: One method is to present a model of competencies, which reflects both personal and organizational needs, so that the learners can identify the gaps between their current performance and where the model specifies they need to be. Another method is to compile the totality of learner understandings (and misunderstandings) about the current topic, have them represent their experience in some tangible form, and then develop questions that come to mind.

Involve Learners in Formulating Their Learning Objectives: Promote attainment of at least a portion of the course requirements through flexible contracts by which the learner:
1. translates a diagnosed learning need into a learning objective,
2. identifies, with help, the most effective resources and strategies for accomplishing each objective,
3. specifies the evidence that will indicate accomplishment, and
4. specifies how this evidence will be judged or evaluated.

Involve Learners in Evaluating Their Learning: Teachers and learners together work to find out what learning occurs within the unique context every course presents. Classroom Assessment Techniques gather information to guide the adjustments both teachers and learners need to make to improve learning. In the end, if people are to become independent, lifelong learners, they must learn to take full responsibility for their learning.

A Brief Summary of the Best Practices in College Teaching