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Strategies for Online Teaching

When designing an online course, it is important to stay focused on your teaching and your course’s learning goals. One of the risks of online learning is that tools and technology come to overshadow good teaching. You may feel overwhelmed with all the advice and online tools in this sudden shift to online learning. In the middle of all this, it is easy to lose sight of what matters most: good teaching practice.

This is why we want to give you some tips and strategies that focus not on the tools but on the teaching. We want to help you think about the things you already do well in your physical classroom so that you can do those things in your online classes, too.

But first we would like you to keep in mind that the situation we are in is unusual. This is why we advise you to:

  • Keep it simple. Now is not the time to try out complex online tools or a variety of ways to engage with your students online. Think about your priorities for your class: what do you really want your students to learn? Stay focused and try not to overwhelm yourself or your students.
  • Be Flexible and Generous. Accept that things might not go as planned. Technology may falter. Students might have accessibility issues. You might feel stressed. Your students might, too. Try to be generous with them and yourself.


Try to put yourself in your students’ shoes when designing an online class. What is it like for them? Suddenly, their learning takes place in isolation, alone in front of a computer screen. They cannot immediately turn to you for help, and you are no longer able to pick up on their nonverbal cues in a classroom. What happens almost intuitively in a physical classroom--explaining, guiding, modeling, illustrating, and answering questions--needs to be built in intentionally in an online course. This is intentional design: you anticipate what students might run into and design ways to help them navigate these situations.

Below you can find a list of things that need a little more thought and planning in an online course:

1. Focus on Structure and Organization

Structure and clarity are the key to success in online learning, especially right now when there is a lot of uncertainty. Remember, your students are navigating your course by themselves, and you are not there to guide them when they are lost. They have to adapt how they learn, just like you have to adapt how you teach. Online learning requires a lot of responsibility and self-regulation. And since everything is new, students might struggle to adjust their learning strategies and find it harder to know what is expected of them. A clear structure adds clarity and sense of order and calm to your course. You can achieve this by:

  • Organizing course content
    Ideally your course takes students through material and tasks step-by-step. Each step purposefully brings students closer to the course’s learning outcomes. You can think of your course structure on three different levels: higher (whole course), middle (week), and lower (step). Each step is a complete learning opportunity that combines course material with a specific task. It is not enough to merely ask students to read a text. For more information you can visit our page on structuring your online course.
    View your course as a student, or ask a colleague or friend to do this. What is unclear? Can they find everything they are looking for? Spending time searching for materials or figuring out how something works leads to a lot of frustration and wastes cognitive energy that is better spent on actual learning.
  • Creating a routine
    In addition to clear course organization, it is important to create a routine for your students (and yourself). An online class is not a 1-on-1 copy of a physical class, so you have to make some decisions on when you want to do what. Ideally, you create a recurring (weekly) cycle of learning, including online lectures (live or recorded), practice, interaction, and feedback. You also want to include moments in this cycle when students can contact you, such as a weekly online office hour or discussion board. When students feel stuck, they should know what to do.
  • Supporting learning
    Online learning asks a lot from students. Without a physical classroom community, they have to rely more on their ability to study independently, and on their intrinsic motivation and planning skills. You can anticipate this by offering more guidance and sending regular friendly reminders. Also, you cannot expect your students to know exactly how to learn, so make sure you model, give examples, cut large assignments up in manageable chunks, and build in moments for practice and reflection. Students might find it even harder to know how well they are doing in a class, so try to use formative feedback moments and make students feel a sense of accomplishment when they have completed a step or series of steps successfully.
    At risk students populations, and students who are already struggling, might find it even harder to study online. Try to reach out to your students and let them know you are there for them and committed to their success.

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2. Keep Communication Alive

When you teach physical classes, you engage with your students in a variety of ways. You show up to class five minutes early and greet students as they come in. You answer lingering questions after class is over. You see a look of bewilderment on someone’s face and walk over to address the confusion. Much gets lost in online teaching when this no longer takes place. Here, you need to consciously create opportunities for interaction. You can do this by:

  • Being Present
    It is a common misconception that online learning requires a lot of preparation and then runs “by itself.” Rather, since you are less visible as an instructor, it is even more important that you are present. You can do this by sending weekly announcements with a recap or overview, sharing short videos of yourself explaining something further, holding online office hours or consultations, and giving feedback and responding to questions on the discussion board. Make students feel you are as engaged and involved in their learning as you are in a physical class, and make sure they know when you are available to them.
  • Structuring Interaction
    Often the most challenging part of the move to online teaching is how to continue lively discussions, group work, and other forms of interaction. It is not only important that students communicate with you but also that they still interact with and learn from each other. You can use a variety of ways and tools to do this, such as breakout groups in Collaborate or the discussion board on Nestor. Here the key is to always let students know what the purpose of the activity is and what you expect of them. Online interaction requires more structuring and guidelines, especially in the beginning, than physical classroom interaction.

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3. Aim for Inclusivity

When you teach it is important to reach all students. Under these circumstances there are many reasons why this can be more difficult:

  • Students are stressed and uncertain
  • Students have personal struggles
  • Students are logging in from different time zones
  • Students have poor internet connection

Besides these special circumstances, students are all different and learn in different ways. Try to accommodate for these differences by:

  • Varying the types of material, interaction and assignment
  • Aim for balance between written work, video, image and other formats
  • Allow students to show in various ways that they have met learning goals
  • Use alternative text for images, and provide transcripts or closed captioning for videos. Have contingency plans for when connections fail or students cannot participate in online meetings for other reasons
  • Offer alternatives and, most of all, be there for everyone

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4. Practice Scaffolding

Since online learning lacks immediate contact with instructors and peers, it is even more important to scaffold learning and break up larger tasks into smaller chunks. In a physical classroom you engage in a lot of teacherly activities, such as modeling, scaffolding, and explaining, in direct interaction with your students. This does not happen as naturally in an online class. So have a critical look at what you are asking of students and your (larger) assignments:

  • How do they build knowledge and skills?
  • Are students guided in this process?
  • How are they guided?

You want to be extra careful with large assignments in an online class. In a physical class you often refer to these or do quick check ins. Students might come to you with related questions before or after class. When you assign such larger projects for which your guidance is essential, make sure:

  • you scaffold these
  • cut them up in smaller parts
  • build in moments of formative feedback
  • give examples of what a successful assignment looks like
  • model how students can approach it, for example by showing a video in which you tackle (a part) of the process.

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5. Provide Examples

In a physical classroom you use a lot of examples to explain and illustrate something to your students. When you face confusion, you try to find new and better ways to explain, using different examples. But in an online class it is harder for you to gauge if your students are getting it, so it is even more crucial to bring in examples. When working on an argumentative essay, show your students what a good essay looks like, but also a mediocre one. Since not all students need as many examples, you can make some optional for those who need a bit more clarification.

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6. Give Feedback

Another crucial aspect of online learning is feedback. It is harder for you to know how your students are doing, and harder for them to know if they are on track. This is why you want to build in a lot of moments of formative feedback, where you can check your students progress and they can know they are progressing as expected. As said, larger projects and assignments need to be carefully structured and cut up in manageable chunks, but you can build in feedback moments for other low-stakes, non-graded tasks, too. Especially in the beginning of the course, it is important for students to be “seen” in an online course so give them a chance to submit something small, such as a short video, to which you respond.

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7. Manage Expectations

In a physical classroom you would not hand out an assignment or task without explaining it verbally and inviting questions. You often share reminders and other practicalities when class starts. These small moments help students to know what your expectations of them are. In online classes, try to build in moments where you do the same thing:

  • send reminders
  • explain assignments in a short video
  • share examples
  • explain why you are asking them to do something, ie. how does it relate to the course goals?

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8. Create a Sense of Achievement

When students study in isolation, it is harder for them to stay motivated. So give them moments of success throughout the course. This can be for completing a weekly task or participating in a discussion. Share your appreciation for their hard work and thank them for their contributions. Students do not need to feel achievement only when receiving a grade. They can feel success and appreciation from the responses they get from you and their peers.

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9. Be Yourself

It is easy for the human element to get lost in online teaching. As instructors, we feed off the energy in the room. We use humor. Maybe we enjoy the performative aspect of teaching. Sadly, it is harder to maintain your tone and teaching style online. But you can still be yourself. Infuse your writing with warmth and immediacy. Upload an introductory video of yourself (and ask your students to do so too). Students will appreciate seeing and hearing you.

Online tools for applying these strategies for online teaching can be found on our tools page.

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Last modified:17 April 2020 1.29 p.m.
View this page in: Nederlands