Tips & Tricks for Online Teaching

By Rhonda Gregory

Director, Distributed Education

For PD day this past January, I was asked by faculty to present a session about online teaching tips and tricks. So, I did! I wanted to share my notes here in case you missed it.

I started out the session with this quote:

“When talking to people about online learning, everyone will have a horror story to tell you.

They’ll talk about an online course that felt like they had to ‘jump through the hoops.’ …

about a course in which the professor or teacher was completely disconnected from the course experience…about a course in which they did nothing but read a textbook and post to a discussion board.”

Kristin Kipp, Teaching on the Education Frontier: Instructional Strategies for Online and Blended Classrooms, 2013

I shared one of my own personal horror stories as an online student. My background is in business and secondary education/English. Math is not my favorite subject, but I can deal with it. While taking an online statistics course for my doctorate I became utterly frustrated. The self-graded quizzes would tell me that my answers were wrong, when in fact, they were correct. I spent hours of time watching stats videos on Khan Academy and scouring through the course materials for help before finding out the problem was with the quiz – not me. The lessons to be learned were really two-fold. For me, I should have gone to the instructor as soon as I was stumped. For the instructor, though, double-check the setup of your self-graded quizzes!

Then a few faculty members in the room shared their horror stories as well. I won’t recount them all to you now. Suffice it to say, we can learn a lot from bad experiences. For example: Providing students with an exhaustive list of websites on a subject but giving them no guidance or expectations with what to do with those sources can be a bad thing. Here’s another example: Simply posting a syllabus for an online class and saying “email me for assignments” is also not acceptable.

Then we all agreed to focus on what we can do, not to wallow in the negative experiences. The good news is:

You don’t need to know magic to help students engage and succeed!


The following list comes from a recent article I read. The recommended strategies were pooled from a survey of master’s level students at a system-wide Midwestern university who had taken at least one online course.

The things students asked for are not difficult or unreasonable. In fact, some would argue that these are just “good teaching” strategies in general. The strategies apply not only to online and hybrid courses, but face-to-face and web-enhanced ones as well.

Top 10 Instructional Strategies Recommended by Students 

  1. Be available & responsive to students 
  2. Engage and interact with students 
  3. Provide prompt feedback 
  4. Foster interaction and communication among students 
  5. Provide expectations 
  6. Provide learning guidance 
  7. Organize course materials and activities 
  8. Provide meaningful materials and activities 
  9. Provide synchronous sessions 
  10. Use various instructional methods 

Source: Watson, F., Castano Bishop, M., & Ferdinand-James, D. (2017). Instructional strategies to help online students learn: Feedback from online students. TechTrends, 61(5), 420-27.

At our workshop, faculty around the room shared their own practical tips to put these strategies into practice. I also shared a few tips of my own personal teaching tips, which I’ve outlined below for you.

Tips & Tricks 

Fostering Engagement, Interaction, & Communication 

  • Record and post a 2-minute welcome video. 
  • Keep a spreadsheet of student names and discussions. Put students in the left column and have one column for each discussion board. Place an X or the date in the discussion cell each time you respond directly to a student. Make sure you vary your responses so that you’re reaching out to every student at least 3-5 times during the semester in a “public” way within the course. 
  • Post probing questions and ask for more detail or clarification. Prompt students to dig deeper into the material and to engage with the conversation. 
  • Browse through all student discussion posts and replies. Look for conversations that are meeting (or exceeding) your expectations each week. Send an email to the entire class with your general comments and summary of how the discussion progressed, being sure to give a quick “shout out” to the good work certain students did. 
  • Give specific comments to students in private via their grade feedback. Personalize your feedback so that the student knows you actually read their work, you’re not just counting their number of posts. Give kudos as well as constructive feedback so they can improve their performance in the future. 
  • Hold routine virtual office hours online using Zoom. Post these hours on the course calendar and advertise them well. Zoom is now integrated into eLearn for easy access to everyone! 
  • Require every student meet with you virtually (e.g., using Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangouts) at least once the first week of class. Go over the basic steps for getting started and answer their questions. Let them see and hear you as a real, live person instructing the class. 
  • Use techniques like: muddiest point, one-sentence summary, and learner-generated test questions. 

Setting Expectations 

  • Give specific feedback on each assignment. Again, personalize your comments so the student knows you’re looking at his/her work specifically. If you deduct points, point out why so they can make improvements. 
  • Organize your course materials into units or modules. Follow the same structure in each unit. Be consistent in how you label things and the order in which you post information. 
  • Provide a rubric or checklist for each major activity or assignment. Include the weight or point value for each criterion you’re looking for in the students’ work. 
  • Provide samples. What does an “A” look like? What about a “C”?

Share Your Tips

Do you have other great tips & tricks that you’d like to share with your colleagues? We’d love to feature you on an upcoming blog post or even at a professional development workshop! Contact me at if you’re interested.