3 Ways to Enhance Your Online Instruction

By Judith Boettcher

Judith Boettcher -acue.orgDue to the rapid growth of online programs, more faculty are being assigned to teach an online or hybrid class, often with little notice or preparation. How do teaching practices for the online environment differ from those used in face-to-face instruction? What can you do to adapt your approaches to meet the needs of students online? Here are three best practices to get you started.

1. Bolster presence

Instructors new to online teaching often feel overwhelmed with the idea of not being able to see their students. So, one of the most common questions is, “But how will I get to know my students, and how will I know whether they are ‘getting it’?”

The absolute number one best practice for online teaching success is that of “presence” (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016 as cited in Boettcher, 2011). The research on the Community of Inquiry model by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) divides the concept of presence into three constructs—social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence. By ensuring that your course design incorporates these three types of presence, you will get to know your students and they will get to know you as well, building the basis for the relationships that we treasure in teaching and learning careers. As you may intuit, the concept of presence is foundational for all personal relationships. We sometimes stay aloof from our classroom students and even close friends because relationships take time. Thus, teaching online requires developing course designs that help us manage our time, while mentoring and supporting student success.

The practice of presence also helps us reaffirm one of the core learning principles. We know that learners need to build on data and understandings that they already have, as is affirmed by Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development. Only by getting to know students—and their minds—can we as instructors adapt our instruction in real time to accommodate and help students move from where they are to where they need to be, avoiding the glazed-eye syndrome in online contexts, too! So the companion question about seeing students is wondering, “How can we know whether or not students are understanding and growing in their skills?” Here are some of the ways: We use their forum postings, their questions, their responses to questions, and their contributions and participation in the course community. Just as in the classroom, there are the students who jump in quickly as well as those who hang back a bit, think about things, and then join the conversation. We can use this information to check for student understanding and adjust our instruction when necessary, just as we do in the classroom.

Key strategies:

• Develop a course design that includes forums where you can regularly interact with your students as a mentor.
• Set a regular schedule to monitor students’ participation and questions. Keep a log of the quieter students to check in with after the first few weeks of the semester. Also, keep a list of commonly asked questions so you can adjust your instruction when needed.
• Get to know your students by posing question prompts on the first day that ask about their interests and career goals.

2. Create community

Getting to know our students leads to another best practice—building a course community. Students in a classroom environment often bond naturally as they see each other on a regular basis. Building a course community online requires more ‘unnatural’ bonding activities, but community building is even more important for online students who often fight feelings of isolation. Casual assignment groupings for short collaborative and peer activities can help build community, support the learning dialogue between students, and save instructors time. A concern expressed by many instructors is about the amount of time it takes to teach an online course. That is a worthwhile concern, as poor course designs lead to too much time spent on grading assignments and one-on-one communications. Good course designs plan for assessments that gather evidence of learning throughout the course, provide very clear models and rubrics, and integrate peer collaboration. This type of design encourages community learning and reduces grading time.

Key strategies:

• Arrange students into groups for short collaborative and peer activities.
• Set clear expectations for students’ participation in group activities to ensure students are actively involved.

3. Lecture using short interactive concept demonstrations

Another question commonly posed by instructors new to online teaching is, “But how do I lecture?” Do you notice the assumption behind this question? The question assumes that much of our time for classroom courses is devoted to preparing and delivering lectures—in other words, in “telling” students information, which we know doesn’t work all that well when it isn’t segmented and supported by activities. In the online environment, our teaching presence is invested more in coaching and mentoring catalyzed by problems, challenges, and creative work.  We teach the really important concepts that form foundational knowledge for solving problems with short text or video concept presentations. Shifting our expertise from telling to mentoring and creating focused concept demonstrations is a new set of skills that we need patience to develop.

Key strategies:

• Be selective when identifying the concepts that build foundational knowledge and require direct instruction.
• Segment your longer lectures into short, manageable chunks, presented with short text or video concept demonstrations.
• Support your concept demonstrations with group activities that engage students in their learning and help build community.

Other common questions about online teaching best practices relate to setting clear expectations, preparing engaging discussion posts, and customizing learning to meet all students’ needs. While the online environment can never be the same as the classroom, it can be an extremely effective learning platform even while being different.

Submit your questions about online teaching best practices to Judith by January 19 to have them addressed in her end-of-month online office hour.


Boettcher, J. V. (2011). Ten best practices for teaching online — Quick guide for new online faculty. Retrieved from http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tenbest.html. (Author’s note: This document is expanded in Chapter 3 of the book The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2nd ed.), by J. V. Boettcher and R.-M. Conrad, 2016.)

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2, 87–105.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

6 thoughts on “3 Ways to Enhance Your Online Instruction”

  1. I often break my students into groups for case studies. Some groups do better than others at becoming interactive groups while other groups, the students just log on post their assigned parts and do not really participate with the group. What ideas do you have to improve small group interaction?

  2. Hi Judith. I really appreciate your tips enhancing our online instruction. I started teaching some online courses a few years ago and use a lot of the techniques you referenced, but still find it a daunting task relative to keeping up with discussion board postings and grading them. Any tips specific to that?

    1. Diana,
      Thanks for your note, and yes, there are a number of tips addressing your question in the Library of Ecoaching Tips at the Designing for Learning website.
      Here’s a great starting point — The blog posting Four Types of Discussion Forums at http://designingforlearning.info/four-types-of-discussion-forums-in-online-courses/ This post provides a convenient table addressing purposes, point values and grading ideas for discussions.

      Here are a couple of suggestions from that post.: Two types of discussion forums — community-building, and exploration forums — can be self-evaluated via a rubric as these are similar to open classroom conversations. More significant postings that require evidence of learning – such as research investigations, and project milestones benefit from a rubric and also models.
      Hope this helps. Sorry it is so late!

  3. Hi Judith. Have you found that there are any practices that are easier or more effective online than in face-to-face instruction? For example, checking for students’ understanding of material with a brief and automatically graded quiz could be one instructors think is easier online because it can give them key data. I feel as though online instruction is too frequently seen as challenging when, in reality, there are certain strategies more easily implemented online.

  4. Greetings Judith ,
    Your presentation was an affirmation for many of my approaches to get students engaged in the on-line environment. I also find that uploading an audio lecture is another good way to connect to
    learners. Also, I have adopted using a Guidance to introduce each week’s topics. This would be tantamount to a lecture where the learners are provided with talking points and content materials which provide a kind of overview as to what to expect when approaching the topics for Discussion. Have you incorporate any of these techniques into your practice?

  5. Hello, Judith, and thank you for reinforcing these best practices. We still use your book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide, as the “textbook” for our online teaching certification course. 🙂
    My question is this: Do you find that online courses are generally improving over the past 5-10 years? Are more faculty mindful of avoiding “content dumps” or “correspondence courses” and actively engaging with their students? We find this is true at our college, but I wonder if it’s a larger trend. Thanks!

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