Online Teaching Tip #11 – Why Formatting Matters

We have all changed.


We who were readers have become scanners. That means we must write our emails, not to readers, but to scanners.

Here are three tips for formatting your course communications so that your students get what they need to know.

1. Create a List. Lists are readable, they organize Threeinformation, and they are memorable. When you start an email or email subject line with Three Things You Need to Know This Week or Four Ways to Prepare for the Exam, your learners will automatically be asking "What are the 3 (or 4) things?" It creates curiosity, and curiosity gets things read.

2. Put Important Information and Headings in Bold. Use this wisely. If you overuse bold, underlining, or red text then your students will eventually ignore the treatment.

3. Use White Space. White space doesn't get much press, but it's key to good organization.  It breaks things up into distinct units of thought. Use it.

I wanted to add a fourth tip here but I realized that it wasn't really a formatting tip, it's really in a category of it's own. In fact, it's so effective that I decided devote Online Teaching Tip #12 entirely to the topic.

Online Teaching Tip #10 – Why Subject Lines Matter

subjectlineAll of us get overwhelmed by our inboxes. This semester, you alone will likely send between 12 and 20 emails to your entire class. Just the sheer volume of email means that your communications have to stand out from the rest. The best way to do this is to create a subject-line that draws your students in, making them want to read your message. For example, the subject line, "3 Important Things in Your Syllabus" could be changed to "3 Things You'll Need to Know to Ace this Course".

The difference is obvious.

And the difference gets results.

In chapter 4 of the book Excellent Online Teaching I offer some more tips for creating subject lines that get your messages read. Check out the resources page for that chapter here on the book resources page.

Online Teaching Tip #9 – Introductions and Icebreakers

icewarmingIntroductions and icebreakers are a proven way to inject the personal element into your online course, connect students with one another, and for you to get to know the personalities of your students. Done well,  you can make introductions more than just an online meet-and-greet; you can use them to set your students up for a semester of learning.

Here are 5 Tips for creating an effective first-week introduction discussion:

1. Make the Initial Question Lighthearted

This is the key to your first question. Make it silly, off-the-wall, and fun. Examples: "If you could have any superpower, what would it be? And what does that tell us about you?" "Which of the seven dwarves would you be?"

2. Engage the Content from an Affective Perspective

Ask a question related to the content, but make it an affective question: one that forces your students to address what they value, their fears and expectations related to the course subject matter, and what they want to get out of the course as a learner.

3. Get Information You Need from Your Students

Number two above is going to help you do this. You may find that a majority of your students are unfamiliar with the subject matter, or that 3/4 of them have already taken a similar course in their undergrad. However, you may want to ask a more pointed question to expose a common misconception, or you may ask a question about their educational background in order to build a better composite of your learners.

4. Have them Engage a Meta-Metaphor

You may find that a particular metaphor helps students frame their experience with the subject matter of your course. For example, let's say that see studying history akin to both a flight simulator and a time machine. It may be part of your first lecture, but why not ask your students, "How is  studying history like a time machine and like a flight simulator?" This gives them a chance to actively play with the idea and sets you up for your first presentation of course material.

5. Be Present and Active in the Discussions

This is your first impression and you know what they say about first impressions. So, be active; facilitate discussion, and ask follow-up questions that show your interest and engender interactivity. Many of your students will have been in an online course monitored by a passive instructor, so your involvement during this first important week may both surprise them and help them to realize that this will be a very different (and much better) experience.

Online Teaching Tip #8 – Communication Expectations

checkingemailIn the traditional face-to-face classroom most of the communication is one-to-many, teacher to a group of students via lecture. This is an efficient a method of communicating content and dealing with course administration. In the online classroom, we still have one-to-many methods (class email function, video lectures, webinars, etc.) but most of our instruction becomes one-on-one. This has its drawbacks and its benefits. The tip here is to be aware of these and to adjust your expectations accordingly.


1. It's simply going to take more time. We end up with a lot more email to answer, and we find that our students need more individualized assignment feedback.

2. We lose the ability to field questions in real time, and for our students to hear the answers. To remedy this I'll collect some of these emails, turn them into an running FAQ, then draw my students' attention to the FAQ page in my weekly email.


1. It's personal. A good online teacher will surprise her students by how personal the instruction will feel to them. When one-on-one communication increases, and when the instructor takes the time to address students by name, read their questions carefully, and give them prompt and helpful feedback, students understand that the instruction has been tailored to their learning needs.

2. Text can increase our accuracy. This isn't always true, but it's a definite benefit of communicating via text. We do lose the ability to sense emotion and what is being communicated via non-verbals. But that's not always bad; it can help us focus on the actual issue at hand. When students and instructors sit down to write, they choose their words more carefully (hopefully we do) and our communication can zero in on the issue at hand.

photo by William Hartz

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.

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