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Faculty new to online learning quickly realize that many key elements of teaching – instruction, interaction, and feedback – are very different online than in a face-to-face environment. Understanding what works best for online or hybrid learning is critical in order to get the best outcomes for your students and meet your own teaching goals.

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Best practices in online learning

Current research data indicate that the most effective ways for students to learn online involve high levels of authenticity (coursework that relates to real-world contexts), interactivity, and collaboration (Ring and Mathieux 2002). Support for these strategies comes from a range of learning theories, particularly cognitive psychology and constructivism.

The study How People Learn (2000), sponsored by the National Research Council, produced a framework of four primary attributes of learning: learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community-centered. Teaching online offers significant opportunities in each of these areas.

Below is a short list of guidelines summarized from the articles “Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning,” (Mohamed Ally, 2004) and “What College Teachers Should Know about Memory: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology,” (Miller 2011).

  1. Learning should be an active process. Keeping learners involved in meaningful projects results in high-level “processing” and helps them understand coursework in ways that can be transferred to new contexts.
  2. Opportunities for collaboration or peer-review should be offered, even if assessment is only based on individual work. Peer-to-peer learning makes students active participants rather than simply responding to instruction.
  3. Students should have a degree of control over their learning process. For example, a guided project can have opportunities for “trial and error” with self-correction or revision following peer-review. 
  4. Students should be encouraged to reflect on course objectives, methods, and materials. This can take place in discussions, journals, or short open-ended questions embedded in lesson content.
  5. Lessons should include contexts, activities or case studies that students can relate to so knowledge is situated and transferable rather than abstract.
  6. Recent work on cognition and memory underscores the importance of getting and focusing students’ attention: “Varying the type and sensory modality of learning activities may be helpful, not as a way of ‘matching’ student-learning styles but rather as a way of promoting attention and engagement across learners in general” (Miller, 121-2).
  7. Students should know the main learning outcomes of each lesson and how they will be assessed so they know what is expected of them and can track their own progress. Course design should clearly “roadmap” lessons and outcomes.

The importance of outcomes.

The articulation of desired learning outcomes is an important first-step in online course design. The definition of outcomes (also called goals, objectives, and competencies) has limitations, since complex learning objectives (such as good writing or mathematical reasoning) may not be achievable or even measurable in the context of a single course. Nevertheless, intermediate objectives can be articulated and used to align each course within a framework of program-level curricular goals.

Outcome-based learning often raises the specter of standardization and testing-centric assessment, but one-size-fits all instruction is not the goal of good outcomes definition.  

Good learning outcome definitions: 

  1. Clearly communicate to students what your course is about and what they can expect to learn from it, 
  2. help students understand the value of their coursework beyond the framework of class success, and
  3. define criteria for evaluating the effectiveness of the course by external assessors in the field.

One of the first things you may notice when you’ve written out the key learning outcomes for your course is that your graded assignments don't actually measure those outcomes. This is a common problem! We tend to assess the knowledge that’s easiest to test, even when it may not be the most relevant measure of learning.

Defining outcomes can be challenging, since there is a tendency to use vague terms that are difficult to measure, such as “the student will learn to think critically about…” or “the learner will gain an understanding of….”

A robust rubric with well-defined criteria is a good starting place, and fortunately there are many existing models that can be modified and adapted to discipline-specific goals. Some of the best are by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), and can be downloaded here.

The role of the instructor

It's become a cliché to define the online instructor as a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage” (Stinson &  Milter, 1996), but this phrase gives a somewhat misleading view of good online teaching. 

Research shows that social presence – the projection of social personae within online interactions – is critical for student engagement (Swan 2003). When students feel that their instructor is not a guiding and motivating presence in an online course, their satisfaction decreases significantly (Hult, Dahlgren, Hamilton, and Soderstrom, 2005).

But “presence” doesn’t mean spending hours each day responding to online discussion posts. It's important to avoid the "Atlas complex" and assume that your students need constant attention from you. There are a range of ways to create productive peer-to-peer learning and interactions, which can be far more effective than direct instruction. If your course is designed to provide targeted, responsive feedback at key points, your workload will be no greater than in a face-to-face context. Responsiveness doesn’t require a constant, controlling presence, but rather an awareness of  how students are progressing and a willingness to steer and focus their goal-oriented process (Burge 2008).

Creating a learner-centered course online can seem like a daunting task when the immediacy of face-to-face interaction is limited or absent. But research confirms that the increase in written communication and time for student reflection in an online environment allow for much deeper and inclusive communication among students and with instructors (Rourke, Anderson, Archer & Garrison, 2002). 

Experienced online teachers address the challenge of community-formation by investing time early in each class on “icebreakers” and questions that help elicit student understandings, culture, and identity. This process also allows students to express concerns or anxieties about the online environment or the responsiveness of the instructor.

Questions or comments? Send an email!

Works Cited

Ally, M.  (2008). "Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning," In Theory and Practice of Online Learning, Second Ed., Terry Anderson, (Ed.), 15-44.

Bransford, J., Brown, A., and Cocking, R., (Eds.), (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (CBASSE), The National Academies Press.

Burge, E. (2008). "Crafting the Future: Pioneer Lessons and Concern for Today." Distance Education, 29(1), 5-17.

Hult, A., Dahlgren, E. Hamilton, D., & Sorderstrom. (2005). "Teacher' Invisible Presence in Net-based Distance Education." International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 6(3). Retrieved January 10, 2009, from

Miller, M. (2011). "What College Teachers Should Know About Memory: A Perspective From Cognitive Psychology." College Teaching, 59: 3, 117-122.

Ring, G. & Mathieux, G. (2002, February). "The Key Components of Quality Learning. Paper presented at the ASTD Techknowledge 2002 Conference, Las Vegas.

Rourke, L. Anderon, T., Garrion, R. & Archer, W. (1999). "Assessing Social Presence in Asynchronous Text-based Computer Conferencing" [electronic version]. Journal of Distance Education/Revuee de l'enseignement a Distance, 14(2), 50-71. Retrieved June 10, 2009, from

Stinson, J., & Milter, R. (1996). "Problem-based Learning in Business Education: Curriculum Design and Implementation Issues." In L. Wilderson & W. Gijselaers (Eds.), Bringing Problem-based Learning to Higher Education: Theory and Practice: New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 68 (pp. 33-42). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Swan, K. (2003). "Developing Social Presence in Online Course Discussions." In S Naidu (Ed.), Learning and Teaching with Technology: Principles and Practices. London: Kogan Page.