9 Strategies To Support Effective Online Teaching

Research reveals the practices of successful online instructors

For most colleges and universities, the question today isn’t whether or not to offer online classes, but how many online classes does it offer?  

Yes, the shift from teaching in a face-to-face context to teaching online can be a shock for higher education faculty, with many not realizing that many of their teaching skills will be stretched in new ways. With so many instructors now being asked to teach online courses, or to incorporate technology into their instruction, Pearson has reviewed the research to share some strategies that can support effective online teaching.

1. Know the technology

Before the first day of class, know the technology the students are using. Although tech support is going to be available, students are going to come to you first. Help them overcome technical hurdles and direct them to support (Hanover Research Council, 2009).

This also means you need to be at the top of your game when it comes to basic computer skills. Get comfortable with the technology before the first wave of grading.

2. Create and maintain a strong presence

The online classroom is no place for passive professors. In fact, effective online instructors have learned that they need to be proactive in order to compensate for the lack of physical interaction. Even before the first day of class, send a welcome message to all students, by video if possible; set expectations and let your personality shine through.

Then, throughout the entire course, identify ways to maintain a strong presence in the online classroom with a schedule of regular communication.

Some strategies that have been found to be successful include:

  • using video chat rather than basic instant message;
  • beginning discussions in the discussion board;
  • rapid, regular, and open responses to questions; and
  • a complete profile that demonstrates professional and personal traits (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010).

3. Set clear expectations

Expectations are important for any college class, but expectations for an online class are different. You need to emphasize how important participation is--and consider making participation a much larger portion of the grade (Vonderwall, Liang, & Alderman, 2007).

Also, be clear about expectations for communication inside and outside of the classroom. Students should know how much they will be expected to communicate and whether they will be held accountable for participation.

Responding to student questions quickly is also important, but set boundaries for response time. In the age of rapid response students may expect you to answer an email within a few hours, even at 2 a.m., and if you don’t, they may disengage.

4. Establish a sense of comfort and develop a community of learners

One of the key challenges online instructors face is finding ways to combat high attrition rates that often occur in online classrooms; attrition that typically stems from students feeling fearful, anxious, and isolated in an online class. Start by demonstrating your enthusiasm and excitement about teaching the course, and model the behavior and the sense of community you want the students to adopt.

You can humanize yourself by posting a welcome video, a biography, photos that tell stories about what you like to do in free time, and links to news articles or video clips that you think are important.

Much of your “class discussion” and community building will take place on discussion boards. There are three instructional practices that have been found to encourage participant interaction and build a learning community in online discussion boards (Allen, 1997):

  • Ask questions that empower participants to question each other.
  • Don’t prompt direct responses; rather try to elicit rich discussion.
  • Respond to the community as a whole rather than direct all responses to individual participants.

5. Promote reflective communication through quality discussion

For students to learn from their classmates and intelligently contribute to a discussion, they must reflect on the comments of other members of the course before providing a thoughtful response. The best way to do this online is not to let a discussion thread die. Continually return to posted topics and ask for for reflection and discussion.

Students prefer an instructor who is monitoring progress and discussions consistently and requesting participant contributions when such are not being provided (Chang & Tung, 2008). Make sure all students are participating frequently. And, contact them offline (not publicly) if there are any issues.

6. Balance being an active leader and an active observer

Start your class by actively pushing forward the learning and community, but scale back over time. By the end of the course, the students should be self-directed and highly engaged members of the online classroom community.

7. Request regular feedback and be cognizant of misinterpretation

In an online class, it is harder to judge emotions and know if students are understanding the class requirements. You have to regularly ask students for feedback, and make adjustments. Pay close attention to the emotion behind the response—even an emoji can reveal important information. Clarify a student’s mood or understanding frequently, even if it requires one-on-one outreach.

8. Regularly check content resources and applications

An online resource you found six months ago may disappear at any time. Regularly check all links, resources, modules, and activities. Students may attempt to complete an assignment, find it is not working, and rather than communicating this to you, become disengaged (Muirhead, 2004).

Assist any students who seem to be struggling with online content. Students who cannot navigate through sites with ease tend to isolate themselves from the community of learners, fade into the background of the course, and sometimes withdraw from the class because they find they are getting lost in the interactions. Good online instructors demonstrate how to use the resources, and keep asking for understanding.

9. Expect the unexpected and remain flexible

At some point technology will fail, whether it is a video chat not connecting or assignment and/or resource links not working properly. Plan ahead! Create a backup plan for all assignments and assessments that rely on technology. Most importantly, communicate a policy that clearly outlines the actions students should take if they are unable to submit assignments due to technical issues (Muirhead, 2004).

With these nine strategies under your belt, you can set your class up for success. And, you can take advantage of the perks of online teaching, such as additional time freed up by not having a commute to school.


Allen, D. (1997). Increasing participation in online courses and assessing online students.
Old Dominion University, Norfolk VA.

Chang, S., & Tung, F. (2008). An empirical investigation of students’ behavioural intentions to use the online learning course websites. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(1), 71-83.

Hanover Research Council. (2009). Best practices in online teaching strategies.

Download Best Practices in Online Teaching Strategies

Keengwe, J., & Kidd, T. T. (2010). Towards best practices in online learning and teaching in higher education. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6, 533-541.

Muirhead, B. (2004). Encouraging interaction in online classes. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 1(4), 45-50.

Vonderwell, S., Liang, X., & Alderman, K. (2007). Asynchronous discussions and assessment in online learning. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 39(3), 309-328.