4 Essential Tips for Teaching an Effective Online Course

4 Essential Tips for Teaching an Effective Online Course


Translating in-person teaching philosophies to an online medium can be tricky. So I've created 20 Tips for Teaching Online, based on what I have learned teaching Python programming and iPhone App Development to more than 100,000 students at Udacity.

In Part 1, I offered six actionable ideas you can use when planning and designing an online course. In Part 2, below, I offer tips 7 through 10, which highlight techniques that will help you teach more effectively in an online space.

7. Provide Early Wins

Efficacy is a big word; what’s bigger is its impact on a student’s ability to learn something new. Simply put, self-efficacy refers to the confidence a student has in her ability to succeed in a novel situation.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that beliefs about self-efficacy have a major impact on a student’s academic achievement. For example, research suggests that students who have a strong belief in their ability to solve math problems perform better on tests compared to with those who have doubts. Furthermore, students who report significant self-efficacy persist longer in technical majors than students who don’t.

One way you can help learners build efficacy is by providing them with early wins in your online course. A short assignment placed at the very beginning of the course can help build student confidence. In her book, How Learning Works, Susan Ambrose suggests that this strategy is especially important in “courses that are known as gateway or high-risk courses.”

I accomplished this in an online course on introductory programming by inviting students to write code that prompts a user to take regular breaks while working on the computer. I deliberately chose this project as it involved writing only nine lines of code, and then placed the exercise in the beginning of the course. My hope with this short assignment was to help enhance students’ confidence before they encountered larger projects.

8. Activate Prior Knowledge

“What comes to mind when I say the word ‘inheritance?’” I asked this question while testing a prototype of my course. Many students responded by saying, “you inherit traits from your parents, like the color of your eyes.” Some students went on to share, “you can also inherit money.”

Inheritance is also a programming concept. A block of code, let’s call it the Child section, can inherit from another block of code, let’s name it the Parent section. The Child can reuse ideas that were previously written in the Parent block. Inheritance in programming, it turns out, is similar to how we understand inheritance in our daily lives.

This experience made me realize that students are not blank slates. They come to a class with prior experiences that can help or hinder the learning process. Not surprisingly, educational research demonstrates that learning happens when students connect new ideas to pre-existing knowledge or prior experiences.

In light of this, I recommend that you ask the following question while creating your online course: What do my learners already know about this topic? It may also be a good idea to conduct a pre-test to identify this information. You can then highlight students’ pre-existing knowledge with prompts like the one I used about inheritance, connecting student responses to new learning--like inheritance in programming.

9. Compare And Contrast

You may have noticed that some of the techniques listed in this article are borrowed from the practices of an expert teacher in a physical classroom. The recommendation to “compare and contrast” has similar origins.

Expert teachers will often encourage their students to learn by identifying the differences and similarities between multiple ideas. These ideas could be two different arguments, two pieces of code that do the same thing but are written in different programming languages, or two ways of solving the same problem. Research suggests that this form of comparative thinking can lead to tremendous learning gains and can facilitate the transfer of knowledge from one situation to another.

I used this strategy extensively when designing an online course called, “ How to author a review for a body of code.” After offering a programming snippet to my students, I asked them to critique it. I then provided two sample reviews — one good and one bad — and asked my students to compare the sample reviews with their own submissions.

10. Use Silence

If you ever find yourself using Skype or Google Hangout to teach in real time, you may want to consider creating silent spaces in which students can think.

In my observations, expert teachers will clearly identify periods during which they want their students to think individually about specific topics. One of my professors from graduate school used to employ this strategy periodically in his lectures. He would say, “I want you take a minute to enjoy silence and think about the main idea from last week’s paper.”

Many other teachers will build enough class time for all students to think about a question or a prompt before inviting responses so as to prevent one person from blurting out the answer. This technique follows in the tradition of Think, Pair, Share — a strategy used by teachers the world over to facilitate conversations.

This strategy also works well when inviting student questions. Instead of asking if there are questions, I recommend you give students 30 seconds and ask them to write down any unresolved queries before they share them with the rest of the class. You can also use silence effectively with asynchronous courses that include prerecorded videos. While creating video content, add scenarios in which you ask students to pause and reflect at key points before continuing with the course.

We are now at the midway point in this 4-part blog series. In my next post, I will talk about strategies that can help your students connect with and learn from each other. See you then!

Kunal is a course developer and instructor at Udacity.

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