Online Teaching Tip #7 – Trade Your Teaching Time

calendarMaybe the biggest shift in going from the face-to-face setting to teaching in the online setting is that we no longer have a place and time where we show up to do the work of teaching. With that, our role changes from the up-in-front teacher to facilitator. There are upsides and downsides to both settings and both roles, but what's important to recognize when making the switch is that a recalibration is necessary.

What needs recalibrated?

Our time: If we are accustomed to spending 1 hour a day, or 4 hours  a week in front of our students, we need to reallocate that time on our calendar. Many online teachers fail to do this and I believe it's the primary reason why they have a hard time making the switch to the online environment, they don't replace their old rhythms with new ones. It's going to take a while for you to figure out how often you are online and for how long, but set a baseline now and get it on your calendar.

Photo by photosteve101

Online Teaching Tip #6 – Keep the Important at the Top

Very TopThe top of your course site is your most valuable real estate.

Course web pages tend to fill with content quickly, requiring students to scroll to find content. Because of this important course information can get buried in a sea of links. So, you want to keep the most important content on your course site right at the top, or at least above the fold. What's "above the fold." That's the area a viewer sees without scrolling down. But the fold is shrinking as our learners are accessing our course sites with their mobile devices that have much smaller screens. That means we must prioritize.

Take 5 minutes today and look over your course site. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What information, resources, and links are high priority and need moved to the top?
  2. What information do my students tend to overlook or forget? Move it to the top.
  3. What is the look and feel of the top two vertical inches of my course site like? Does it need simplified? Made more attractive?

photo by cwohler

Online Teaching Tip #5 – First Contact

first point of contact with online students This morning I asked our lead LMS (Learning Management System) administrator what tip he would give to teachers and professors as they start up a new semester. He said, "Communicate, communicate, communicate." I asked if he would get a bit more specific and he related the following advice.

1. Make the First Contact. In other words, be proactive with your communication, send out an email before the semester is underway to introduce yourself.

2. Be available. Encourage your students to contact you. You may want to direct them to your institution's Help Desk for technical issues or to your teaching assistant for particular issues, however, it's important to let them know you are accessible and want to hear from them.

3. Be Present. Answer questions promptly as the emails roll in and participate in your course's introductions discussions.

Online Teaching Tip #4 - Know Your Students

yearbookMy first year teaching I did something that could be described as neurotic, but was genius. I can take credit for the neurotic part but not the genius piece. I remembered that my late wife, Angela, had brought home some yearbooks the summer before school started. She was using it to put names and faces together. I took it up a notch, photocopied the pages, cut them out with the paper slicer, and made my own set of student head-shot flash cards.

On the first day of class, when a student raised his hand and I called on him by name, the entire room let out a gasp of disbelief (they were probably also wondering what other information I had on them). What I had learned from my wife was that this kind of first impression is powerful: it will demonstrate how much you care about your students as individuals, that you are paying attention (for some reason students assume we are not), and that you are one step ahead of them.

But how do we do this online?
1. Let them know that they are known. This is really quite simple. Always address every communication to every student by beginning it with their first name. There is no word more attractive to our ears or eyes than our own name. It lets your student know that what you are sending over is not a generic grading comment, but an insight that you have crafted and directed to them as an individual.

2. Keep notes on your students. Each semester print off a hard copy of your class or group lists and keep notes on your students. I share a few more details on this in my online teaching guide, Excellent Online Teaching.


Online Teaching Tip #3 – Find Your Megaphone

megaphoneOne mistake I regret from my early years of teaching online was using too many modes of communication. We have so many communication tools at our fingertips: email, gradebook comments, threaded discussions, facebook, skype, news forums, twitter, text messaging, and the list goes on. As much as our students may use a variety of channels, they need us to choose one consistent method of communication.

Your best megaphone is going to be the simplest of these methods, your learning management system's class email feature. In Blackboard it's called the Announcements, and in Moodle it's called the News Forum.

At the beginning of the semester, ask your students to reply to your first email and let you know they have received it--this way you can verify that their email addresses are correct and that your emails are not getting caught in their spam filter. You can also delegate this work to your TA or to your technical support team (if your school has this service).

Here's an example of the message our Educational Technology department sends out to every student at the beginning of the semester.

I need you e-mail me at and confirm:

1) That you received this e-mail (and it didn’t go into your spam folder).

You can use this method to identify those students who are not receiving your communications and get corrections made before the semester is underway.

John Wooden On Teaching

John Wooden reflects on his teaching career as a high school teacher and arguably the best coach in history. There are years of wisdom distilled in these seventeen minutes.

Online Teaching Tip #2 – Targeted Improvement Points (TIPS)

targetedimprovementsYour online students need one thing from you more than anything else: Feedback.This comes in two forms: encouragement (coming in online teaching tip #3) and targeted improvement points (aka TIPs). I'm surprised by how many online instructors either forget this altogether or spend a lot of time giving students generic feedback that students find unhelpful. If you can get good at giving TIPs, you'll see positive comments on it in your evaluations.

Here's a brief overview for giving Targeted Improvement Points to your online students.

1. Get a notepad. I'm often guilty of scanning student posts, and taking notes helps with that. As you read your student's work, jot down shorthand notes.

2. Know your learning goal for the activity. Focus your feedback by first reviewing your learning goals for the activity you are giving feedback on. There are a thousand things you could target, but this will narrow it down to most important learning tasks.

3. Let them know. Start your TIPs with the student's name followed by "here's how you can improve." It's simple, but it frames this for your students and get's their attention because it is answering the question they are asking.

4. Keep things Succinct and Clear. This will be your greatest challenge. We have to keep our TIPs brief, otherwise it becomes an onerous task, and we never turn it into a habit. Keep it to 2-3 points and make them actionable.

5. Link to Resources. Instead of explaining a dangling modifier, paste in a link that explains it to your student.
Purdue's Online Writing Lab is a perfect resource for grammar, punctuation, citations. This allows you to focus on the content while helping your student improve their writing.

6. Invite Questions. Always end with, "If you need more feedback, just drop me an email." This is a good learner-centered practice that puts the ball back in the student's court.

photo by Comedy_Nose

Online Teaching Tip #1 - Identify Your Twenty Percent


You know Pareto's 80/20 principle. Well, it applies in online teaching in so many ways. We are going to focus on just one. In the online environment it's easy to sink a lot of time and energy into work that has little benefit. Why? Because we don't get the immediate feedback we are used to in the face-to-face classroom. Because of this, some of our students (typically 10-20%) can fall between the cracks.
The good news is that most students just need to to:

1) See them

2) Give them encouragement and a targeted way to improve.

But to see them and throw them a life vest,  we first have to know how to identify them.

There are two metrics we can use to do this:

1. Last Access Date. Go into your course participants list and sort it by last access. Look at the bottom 20% of students, the ones who have not logged in for a while. At the college and graduate level, anything past 5 days is a red flag. Teaching High School classes, it was 3 days. This will really depend on the expectations you and your learners have developed.

2. Grades. Pop into the online gradebook and note the course average. Sort your gradebook by grades, and note the bottom 20%.

By doing both of these, you'll have a snapshot of your class. I like to think of it as a three minute triage.
From there you can email students, encourage them, and give them targeted ways to improve.
More on that in Tip #2

Photo by Nomad Tales

Evaluation and Assessment in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 6 of a book Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

"Grades matter…but learning matters more."

final exam

Do you ever feel like grades get in the way of learning? Wouldn't it be great if, after getting an exam back, our students wanted to discuss the ideas it addressed instead of to arguing for another point? And I'm sure you have those students who you wish could be easier on themselves when they don't get a perfect score. In this chapter on learner-centered evaluation methods could be summed up in a short statement: "Make your evaluation methods formative." According to the author, this requires two things.

1. Lowering the stakes of assessments. This decreases anxiety, and alleviates the pressure to focus on grades instead of learning. By lowering the stakes, we are not lowering the importance; we are simply removing an obstacle to learning.

2. Redesigning our evaluation process to promote learning

Grades Out the Window?thrownoutwindow

Weimer doesn't throw grades out the window. As a teacher, I'm still surprised by how both parents and students obsess about grades (and not about learning). I'll admit that I'm not a fan of grades; I view them as a necessary evil. Weimer is more rationale. She does presents several pages of research detailing the problems that grades can create: performance mindset instead of mastery, reinforcing lower, rather than higher-order thinking skills, etc. However, she recognizes that grades can provide a legitimate motivation for learning, and more importantly, grades are what we use to certify mastery. So, we have a responsibility to create a grading process characterized by integrity. That means our assessments will promote learning instead of just getting the grade.

"The ability to accurately assess the quality of one's own work, as well as that of others is a skill useful during college and in most professions subsequently."
-Maryellen Weimer

This chapter is a goldmine of ideas. You'll find detailed descriptions of a variety of assessment methods for exams, review sessions, debriefs, self-assessments, and peer assessments. Because most of her work is with college students, her ideas can be scaled up for university students and tweaked for high school students. It's a dense chapter, so I'll share just two concepts that I found valuable as a teacher.

My Two Takeaways

1. Tricky Exam Questions?
I've been accused of creating tricky exam questions. When my students express their frustration, I say something like, "I'm trying to get you to do more than just spit back the right answer. I want you to think about it and apply it. I want you to be able to solve problems with what you have learned." I've always seen this as a legitimate practice. I now see that I was wrong.

There's nothing wrong with having those kinds of questions on my exams. What was wrong was that I was not giving my students a chance to practice problem solving and application. Most of what we did in class was about information transfer. In other words, if I want to test my students' ability to apply the content, I have to do more than simply cover the content; my students need opportunities to practice applying it in class.

"They [learners] must learn how to recognize what's good, what needs to be fixed, and how to make it better. And how are those skills best developed?"

2. The One Thing that Has Held Me Back as a Teacher
If I had to pinpoint one thing that has held me back as a teacher, it's been this: the  idea that I have to provide my students with a solid foundation of content they could do things like apply, evaluate, and solve problems. There is a modicum of truth in that. But how much content is enough? It's like Rockefeller's response to the question , "How much money is enough?" His response: "Just one more dollar." For me, it's been, "Just one more week of content."

It's taken me ten years to realize that very little content is needed before moving students into those higher levels of thinking.

But what does that have to do with assessment?

Most of the assessment examples that Weimer gives us in this warpzonechapter could be or need to be implemented early in the semester. The advantages of this become clear. When we give our students opportunities to evaluate their own work, and the work of others, we  launch them into a new way of interacting with the content--right from the start. Like in the game Super Mario Brothers, there's a warp zone tunnel that will take you straight from level one to level four. This doesn't mean that our students will immediately do well at level four, but Weimer gives some practical strategies for helping students develop these skills.

learner-centered-teaching-book.jpgI'll admit that I wasn't jazzed to read this particular chapter in the book, but I'm surprised by just how practical it turned out to be. I've tried peer and self-evaluations with some success and with some failure, and these pages helped me to identify why things worked when they worked and why they fell flat.

The Next Installment

Students don't initially love the learner-centered approach simply because it's different, it requires change and more from them. But students are not the only ones who question this model of teaching, faculty are often just as critical. In, the next installment of this book review of Learner-Centered Teaching we'll look at how to hand student and faculty resistance.

Get the book on Amazon

Part 1 - Overview of The Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 2 – The Role of the Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 3 – The Balance of Power in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 4 – The Function of Content in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 5 – The Responsibility for Learning in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 6 – The Purpose and Process of Evaluation in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon

Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon

Whose Responsibility is it for Learning?

Part 5 of a book Review of Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer

messy room In grad school, I took a few counseling courses as a part of my degree program. In one, the the professor related this story. A woman comes in for a counseling session and she is at her wits end with her fourteen year old daughter. She lists a litany of issues: staying out past curfew, smoking, talking back, and leaving her room a wreck. The counselor chooses to tackle the messy room because it looks like the easiest to change on the list.

Counselor: "What happens when you ask her to clean her room?"

Client: "She just ignores me now; that, or she starts yelling about something being unfair and unreasonable."

Counselor: "So, what do you do when that doesn't work?"

Client: "Well, it gets so bad that I go upstairs and clean things up."

Counselor: "Why do you do that?"

Client: "Well, she wouldn't have anything to wear for school if we just leave her dirty laundry laying all over the place."

The principle that my professor was trying to explain to us was this: Our real problem is often our attempted solution. The author starts this chapter, The Responsibility for Learning, with that same concept.

She says that the first step in shifting more of the responsibility for learning into the hands of our students is to recognize the practices we may have in place creating passive and dependent learners. Our syllabi get longer and longer with added clarifications and new policies, we use extrinsic motivators like points and pop quizzes, and it's still an uphill battle.

So what's her solution? Classroom Climate.

Learner-centered teaching is about creating classrooms in which students begin to mature and act more responsibly about their own learning an toward the learning of others.
- Maryellen Weimer

My first response to this was, "How can changing something as abstract as 'climate' in the classroom transform students into active and responsible learners?"

Well, it turns out that classroom climate is not all that abstract. In fact, a group of researchers created a classroom environment inventory for colleges and universities, and found a set of defining characteristics of a preferred classroom environment. What's it look like?

  1. There are opportunities for professor-student interaction and concern
  2. Student are involved in classroom activities
  3. A high quality of student-student interaction
  4. Learning activities are well organized
  5. Students really enjoy class
  6. The instructor creates innovative learning activities
  7. Students are given opportunities to make decisions to correspond with their learning needs

The author goes on to list five relational dynamics that create this kind of climate. They are the kind of thing you might find in any good book on parenting.

  1. Logical Consequences
  2. Consistency
  3. High Standards
  4. Caring
  5. Commitment to Learning

The rest of the chapter explains how to involve students in creating, maintaining, and enhancing the the classroom climate. She offers sample activity ideas, and addresses some of the common challenges a teacher may encounter when trying to make this shift.

 A Story - First Grade Scholars

I have been reading Chip and Dan Heath's book, Switch. In the book they relate a story about a young teacher who took her below level first grade class (some who didn't even know how to hold a pencil) to 90% of the kids reading at 3rd grade in the course of just one school year. When you read the story, it's all about climate. She presented them with a goal: to become 3rd graders. She had high standards, and decided to call here students "scholars." One day a young scholar was called away from class for an appointment. The other scholars groaned. Why? Because their classmate was going to miss out on learning. Now that's classroom climate!

How about Classroom Climate Online?

Let's just take Weimer's list and look at some examples:

  1. Logical Consequences - Build the course reading into meaningful and interactive learning activities. For instance, create discussions that require your students to use content from course texts.
  2. Consistency - Model social presence, injecting your voice and presence into the course through consistent communication and timely responses. Hold your ground on your policies. Students will often want extlearner-centered-teaching-book.jpgensions, or for me to make an exception. However, they won't come out and ask. So, I put it back in their court and ask, "What exactly do you believe would be the best way to handle this and why?" While I may not hold to my guns 100%, what happens in the process of our exchange is that they craft a reasonable solution.
  3. High Standards - Give your students what the Heath Brothers call a Destination Postcard, a vision of what they will learn or who they will become as they proceed through the course (like the first grade third graders).
  4. Caring - Check your student participation reports and check in with students who have not logged in for a while. Ask if they need any assistance.
  5. Commitment to Learning - Let your student's know what you're reading and learning. Communicate your love for the subject matter in your recordings.

Those are just some quick examples of practices that create this kind of online course climate.

The next installment of this book review will look at how learner-centered teaching handles assessment.

Get the book on Amazon

Part 1 - Overview of The Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 2 – The Role of the Learner-Centered Teacher

Part 3 – The Balance of Power in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 4 – The Function of Content in the Learner-Centered Classroom

Part 5 – The Responsibility for Learning in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 6 – The Purpose and Process of Evaluation in the Learner-Centered Model

Part 7 – Transitioning to Learner-Centered Teaching (a developmental approach) – coming soon

Part 8 – Dealing with Resistance to the Learner-Centered Approach – coming soon