The simple basics for teaching online

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As you read this article, you will notice there are no incredibly clever, insightful ideas here. Most of the ideas fall directly into the "I've known that for years" category, yet they are often overlooked in online instruction.

Here are some things to keep in mind while you design your course and teach your class. They are not in any order, the first one is not more important than the rest.

Build relationships

Online teaching is challenging in many ways. Oddly enough, one of the biggest ones is not being able to look a student in the eyes and hold a conversation.

When you do not meet with the students face to face, it is more difficult to build relationships and trust. According to Hamre and Pianta (2006), the "students' relationships with teachers are fundamental to their success in school... Student-teacher relationships develop over the course of the school year through a complex intersection of student and teacher beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and interactions with one another. Forming strong and supportive relationships with teachers allows students to feel safer and more secure in the school setting, feel more competent, make more positive connections with peers, and make greater academic gains."

In other words, the students need to relate to you.

This can be accomplished through things like Zoom meetings (individually or in class settings), assessment and feedback, discussions, and office hours. Even simple things like showing you face during a recorded lecture or a short welcome video at the start of the course will go a long way toward building relationships. And don't forget to be you. If you are naturally a joking person, tell jokes in your online course. If you are a movie buff, throw in a few quotes.

And this is a two-way street. Ask your students to record videos as part of their work. You will get to know them better if you can see their faces and hear them present in their own voices.

Put yourself in their shoes

Taking a college-level course can be a scary thing. "Will I know anyone?" "What is the teacher like?" "Will the class be interesting?" Now add to that the fact the course will be online. "What will I do if I have questions?" "Will I be able to study with classmates?" And it is even worse for first-time online students.

If we take a moment to think about our teaching from the aspect of the learner, we can alleviate many of these questions and fears. Simple things like making sure instructions are extra clear and there are ways for students to connect with you and their classmates will go a long way.

Here are a few ideas:

  • A welcome video at the start of class lets the student "meet" the teacher ahead of class time.
  • Regularly scheduled times where the student knows you are available is comforting, even if they do not use them.
  • A complete set of expectations and descriptions of how the course will work answers a lot of questions. Notice that the recommendation did not include "15-page syllabus." Breaking the syllabus into smaller pieces and posting them in your site is less scary and makes important points easier to locate.
  • Be sure instructions are complete and concise.
  • Scaffold your assignments to help students understand the framework of the assignment before tackling the big job.

Encourage contact

Online can be a very lonely place. Studies show that students that do not get the human contact afforded by in-person meetings often lose self-esteem and have feelings of loneliness (Duranton & Mason, 2012, Vakoufari, Christina, & Mavroidis, 2015).

Here are some ways you can combat the effects of lowered self-esteem and elevated loneliness:

  • Meet with the students regularly in Zoom.
  • Show your face during recorded videos.
  • Make assignments that get students working in groups.
  • Use peer reviewing.
  • Have students present in class over Zoom.
  • Use TA's and have them make personal contact with the students.

Anything you can do to get a student talking to you and to their classmates will raise their chances of success.

Motivate and engage

Student motivation is always an issue. It becomes a larger factor still when there are no regular contacts or enforced schedule for the course.

While studies have shown that motivation can be an issue, things like making a course more self directed may influence success (Kim & Frick, 2011).

Here are ways to help your online students be more motivated:

  • Allow for self-directed study to promote ownership.
  • Give options for ways to prove mastery of the subject matter. Let the students write papers, video their results, or do oral presentations for the same assignment, as an example.
  • Have the students work with TA's to develop a sense of responsibility.
  • Give frequent feedback.
  • Meet with the students regularly. They will develop a relationship with you which will, in turn, make them want to succeed in your class.
  • Promote and encourage any forms of active learning that might pertain to your subject matter.

Master the technology and pedagogy

You are already on track on this one. Just having looked at this article is a start.

Take a look at one of your courses and, using the ideas above (and the millions more available on the Internet), think about how you can change your course to be more online friendly and more student friendly. You will be glad you did.

Additionally, you will want to make sure you understand and utilize the applications that make online learning effective. There are a lot of good ideas and examples in the articles in this Knowledge Base. Check out some of the articles in these wiki categories for more information:

More Information


Duranton, H. & Mason, A. (2012) "The loneliness of the long-distance learner: social networking and student support. A case study of the distance-learning MA in translation at Bristol University". Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 27:1, 81-87, DOI: 10.1080/02680513.2012.640790

Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2006). Student-Teacher Relationships. In G. G. Bear & K. M. Minke (Eds.), Children's needs III: Development, prevention, and intervention (p. 59–71). National Association of School Psychologists

Kim, K.-J., & Frick, T. W. (2011). Changes in Student Motivation During Online Learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 44(1), 1–23.

Vakoufari, M., Christina, A., & Mavroidis, I. (2015). "Self-Esteem and Loneliness as Factors Affecting Distance Learning Students". European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 17:2, DOI:

Related Wiki Topics

For a complete listing of topics, select from the category list below.