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Teaching Online: Advice from a UT Professor

Authored by Mehmet Aydeniz, PhD

Aydeniz is a professor in the College of Education, Health and Human Services and is an experienced instructor in teaching online. He provides his strategies and insight for faculty new to teaching online. 

COVID-19 has impacted every individual and businesses. UTK and its professors are no exception. The diversity of courses we teach on campus makes it hard to offer one recipe for online instruction. While this article cannot cover all courses, and focus on all aspects of pedagogy of online teaching, it can provide a guideline and template on how to approach online instruction.  

The purpose of this brief article therefore is to inform and guide the faculty members who may need help with their transition to online instruction. I hope that the strategies shared through this brief will inform professor and GTAs planning, instruction, assessment practices and offer guidance for future planning. 

Pedagogy of Teaching Online

Effective instruction in all contexts is dependent on an evidence-based sound pedagogical approach, online teaching is not an exceptionI list some of these practices for the university faculty and/or GTAs who have recently transitioned to online instruction. 

  • First, and most important, you need to make sure that all of your students have access to a computer, a reliable internet and other technologies needed for learning the specific teaching goals you have for them. Without access to tools and resources students cannot meet the learning goals for the class session.
  • Second, you need to make sure that you introduce the features of the technological system or tool you are using to your students. Some students can easily get intimidated by the idea of online learning, some can get frustrated and disengaged if they cannot find what they are looking for. You want to make sure that your students are comfortable with their technological skills, those needed to successfully navigate the learning space and develop self-efficacy so they can effectively engage with you, their peers, the resources you provide and use the intended tool to produce the best learning product for you. This requires some planning on your part. In order to eliminate student frustration, you need to establish consistency across different learning modules, or assignments that you put on your course website. Not the content but the structure of your modules should be the same. Just to give you an example, your students should know that they will be expected to watch a short video/attend a live ZOOM lecture, engage in group discussions, read two articles, and answer three questions in the form of a reflection.
  • Third, once you have addressed the course design issues, you need to think about the form of online teaching you want to use. Decide on which one, asynchronous, synchronous or a hybrid course is more suitable for your class. If you are teaching a chemistry class or a genetics class, synchronous format will probably serve your students better. If you are teaching a philosophy course, of course, asynchronous format may serve better for your students, and sometimes a hybrid design may work better for you and your students depending on your personal teaching style and the content you are teaching and your students’ availability and preferences

Weigh the affordances of each technological tool and the mode of instruction for what you want to accomplish in your instruction before adopting it. Remember to keep your students’ learning needs as your priority, not your comfort level with the mode of instruction you may adopt.  

  • Fourth, don’t just transfer your in-class content to online, assuming it will work. Many of us are likely to turn to Zoom to give our regular instruction online but Zoom alone is not sufficient for providing effective instruction. Zoom is an excellent tool, it can allow you to connect with your students face to face, give you the ability to check on them to make sure that they are doing well. It can also give the students a sense of security in that they can say, “I have a professor who is present for me, who will answer my questions and support me when I struggle. I have friends who I can turn to when I need help.” But Zoom is not the panacea if you are not using it based on sound pedagogical principles. I can hear you saying, what are these sound pedagogical principles? 

Guidelines for Effective Online Instruction

There are several important pedagogical aspects that you need to keep in mind while delivering your instruction through online, some of which are specific to zoom or video-based instruction. This include video content, video length, and interaction frequency and time. 

Keep your VIDEO instruction short, perhaps not more than half an hour. Watching instructional videos online is a cognitively demanding task, therefore, sitting in front of a computer for more than 30 minutes can be tiring. You do not want to lecture at a group of students who are cognitively tired. Therefore, it may be an effective strategy to partition your video instruction into three sections-the first one 5-10 minutes, the second part 45 minutes and the third part being an hour.

The first section should focus on communicating learning goals, expectations and assignments. The second part should focus on the highlights of the content that you want to get across along with examples, example problem solutions let’s say for a math class. The third part should focus on students’ questions and can be delivered on a different day. Questions will keep students interested, however, students will not be able to come up with good and relevant questions after only 30 minutes of instruction, typically through a lecture.

You need to give the students some self-study time before seeking out questions from them. If you rush them to ask questions, you will only get a limited number of questions, focusing only on few ideas. These limited number and diversity of questions will not give you a good picture of the diverse challenges many of your students might experience while attempting to solve the problems or to successfully complete the course projects. This in turn can negatively impact your students’ performance on your assessments and steal from the richness of any classroom discussions you may have, or group discussions or projects you may assign. 

Give your students time to work on problems on their own for two or three days depending on your schedule. Then, poll your students about the challenges they experienced, the difficulties and successes they had, while solving the problems through a short survey.  Canvas gives you the polling option. Use these results to develop the content of your support videos and materials. 

You will have students with different motivations, different academic preparation and varied level of prior knowledge in your classrooms. Each of these student groups will have different learning needs. Give priority to addressing the challenges of the most vulnerable students but don’t ignore the learning needs of your best performing students. Differentiate your instruction, and assessments to address the learning needs of the two groups.

For instance, you can produce short Zoom videos in which the professor or the GTA provides a summary of diverse challenges the students have experienced, reviews solutions to sample questions of importance, addresses the challenges the students have experienced, records the videos, and posts them online so all students can see sample solutions to the questions for each sub topics or skills you are attempting to teach. This video should be posted online ideally two days prior to your due date so that your students will have time to view it, while attempting to solve the problems. Adopting such a method will set your students for success.

The video you produce for the low performing students will require you to pay a lot of attention to details but those produced for your best performing students should only serve as motivational videos and videos directing them to the right resources for further inquiry as most of them are able to work on their own. Adopting these practices will likely increase your students’ performance. No matter for what purpose you utilize Zoom, make sure to record all your video sessions so those who cannot attend the sessions can watch them later and those who attended but missed something can revisit the videos at a later time. Oh… before I forget, do send notifications about the location of these videos on your website. 

Learning is a social process as much as it is a cognitive process. To promote durable learning, design and facilitate social interactions among your students. Design and facilitate social interactions between your students using ZOOM or Canvas’s group functions. Redesign your assignments so your students are collaborating on assignments or projects. Give them a space and tools so they can collaborate and resources so they can meet your teaching objectives.This is not a normal time. Our students have been separated from their friends, they have family members who have lost jobs or they may not have a quite space at home to study. Like all of us, they too experience emotional instability that impacts their mental health, how and how much they can study. They are worried about their future, their education and their families. Therefore, don’t ignore students’ social interaction, motivation and mentoring needs. If they feel like part of a community that supports their well-being and learning, they are more likely to stay focused on the academic aspects of their lives.  

Assign students to groups based on their prior academic performance. Try to achieve maximum diversity within groups in terms of gender, ethnic/racial and academic preparations. You need to provide the appropriate scaffolding for your group projects. Assign a group leader and make a discussion starter template focusing on the content and questions you want your students to work on. If you want your students to document their learning to you, you must provide a rubric that measures the quality of product you expect them to deliver. You must also communicate the individual and group accountability measures before each group assignments so that all students are making equal/fair contributions to the discussions and documenting their learning not only to you but to their peers as well You can teach your students how to use the whiteboard function of Zoom and help your students use the whiteboard function for brainstorming and collaboration on ideas and solutions to the problems. 

You need to be cognizant that you may have some students who need closed captioning for the videos. Zoom has a functionality that can help you so does other platforms such as Google’s Jamboard. If you are using peer evaluation or having your students share their ideas or products through a video, teach your students how to add closed captioning for your students as well. 

The main purpose of science labs is to engage students in scientific inquiry. By engaging their students in direct observations through experiments, having them collect and analyze data they hope their students will understand how scientific knowledge is constructed, evaluated and tested. It is hard to engage the students in similar experiences from a distance. 

However, there are ways in which professors can engage their students in experiences that will mimic scientific experimentation and scientific inquiry more broadly. The courses with lab components may rely on role playing where graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) model the scientific inquiry for undergraduates, walk them through the lab experiments, and provides data for students so they can analyze on their own using google sheets, or MS Excel or any other relevant software.

Critical thinking is an important component of scientific inquiry. Perhaps it will be useful to provide three different sets of data and challenge the students to construct models/graphs, predict for instance the behavior of the biological or the chemical system under investigation using the available data for three different scenarios. The lab experience can end with a group discussion/argumentation session based on the models the students have developed. However, you will need to provide the discussion questions or provide the scaffolding needed for the discussion/argumentation sessions to be effective. By going through this experience, students will experience the journey the scientists go through when validating their claims to knowledge.  

Summary and additional suggestions include the following:

  • Reduce the number of goals you want to pursue through one single instructional Zoom video.
  • Don’t spend a lot of time on lecturing your lessons through a Zoom video. Instead, use the time to develop focused videos (modeling solution to a mathematical problem) to support your struggling students, and videos or assignments that pushes your best performing students to develop a deeper understanding of the topic under study.
  • Make studying and problem solving a collaborative effort to address your students’ both academic and social needs.
  • Ensure consistency across all of your instructional modules in terms of the format you use.  
  • Record your videos and make them accessible right after each session. Send out an   announcement about the content and location of the recorded videos.
  • Redesign your assignments, spend additional time to develop better, meaningful assignments.
  • Differentiate your instruction, to address your students’ diverse learning needs.
  • Don’t just move your lecture to online, instead transform your course. 
  • Listen to your students! Constantly seek their feedback. Their experience is key to designing an effective curriculum.
  • Make your content accessible (e.g, add closed captioning to your videos).