Steps in Teaching Online

Teaching Tips

Inclusive Teaching
Inclusive Teaching

Inclusive teaching is essential for instructors working at Montclair State University where students are diverse as at any university in the nation: students come from a wide range of experiences, identities, and cultural traditions, all of which have an impact on students’ learning environment needs. It can feel overwhelming, but instructors who embrace an inclusive mind-set, and express their commitment to inclusivity, to life-long learning, and to flexibility and accommodation, are recognized by students as inclusive.  Some advice to get instructors geared up for the specifics of inclusive teaching:

Assessing Group Work
Assessing Group Work

Various studies highlight both the benefits and the challenges of group work in the classroom. When it comes to assessing group work, many factors have to be considered before assigning a final grade such as whether all students participated equally, whether the grades will be fair, and the requirements of the assignment. Lambert, Carter, & Lightbody (2013) used a wiki as a collaborative platform to help with more just grading of individual contributions within a group project. Their grading suggestions include: initial grading of final reports; consideration of appeals process; and differential grading (p. 173). They illustrated the grading process through the following four steps:

  • Review of the Activity by User Log: instructor reviews the wiki log to assess individual contribution by looking at “timing, page activity, comments, and total contributions” (p.175);
  • Reviewing the Details of Individual Contributions: instructor reviews each student’s activity in more depth to assess the quality of contribution;
  • The Actions of Other Group Members: instructor reviews the Communications Page to assess the communication process among the students and the timeliness of actions (i.e. how quickly they shared or edited information);
  • Summation of Evidence and Decision: instructor takes into consideration all the evidence and assigns different grades to students within the same group.

Lambert, S.C., Carter, A. J., Lightbody, M. (2013). Taking the guesswork out of assessing individual contributions to group work assignments. Issues in Accounting Education, 29(1), 169-180. doi: 10.2308/iace-50637.

The Effect of Humor on Learning
The Effect of Humor on Learning

Numerous studies looked at the effect of humor on learning and found that humor has many benefits when used appropriately in the classroom. According to Sousa (2006) humor has psychological, sociological and educational benefits such as getting students’ attention, creating a positive climate, increasing retention and recall, improving mental health and providing an effective discipline tool (p. 63).

Here are some humor strategies by Ronald A. Berk you can try in your classroom:

  • Humorous material on syllabus: funny descriptors under course title or prerequisites, fictional instructor credentials, unusual teaching methods;
  • Descriptors, cautions, warnings on the cover of handouts;
  • Humorous problems/Assignments: funny real or made up situations in assignments both in-class and out-of-class, individual and in small groups;
  • Humorous material on tests: unexpected descriptions, funny directions, notes, test items, content-relevant and content-irrelevant strategies;
  • Opening jokes: stand-up jokes, quotations, proverbs, questions, cartoons, anecdotes.

Berk, R.A. (2005). Laughterpiece theatre: Humor as a systematic teaching tool. Teaching Excellence, 17(2).

Sousa, D. A. (2006). How the brain learns (3rd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Ideal Teacher Behaviors
Ideal Teacher Behaviors

Knowing what traits students prefer in a good professor is important because those qualities are linked to students’ perception of the value of the course, motivation to do well, their learning and performance in the class. However, students differ in their academic self-efficacy and motivation and because of that they place different value on traits in their ideal teacher (Komarraju, 2013).

Intrinsically motivated students, more independent and self-sufficient in their learning, are assured that they can put in the effort and have successful outcomes and because of that they do not place great value in their professor’s caring of professional traits. On the other hand, extrinsically motivated students, students who are unsure of their ability to succeed and anxious students who worry about their performance, strongly value when their teacher is caring and professional. Here are some examples to consider in your classroom to create a learning environment for those students who need your assistance:

  • display caring traits  i.e. be a teacher who encourages and cares for students, who provides praise for good student work, helps students who need it, offers bonus points and extra credit, knows student names, builds rapport, provides constructive feedback, and is accessible, humble and understanding;
  • display professional traits i.e. be a professor who effectively lectures, presents current information, relates topics to current, real life situations, uses recent videos, magazines, and newspapers to demonstrate points, talks about current topics, uses new or recent texts, who is well prepared, confident, authoritative, knowledgeable, and punctual.

To find out whether your students are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated and to assist the ones who will be receptive to your efforts, try assessing them early on in the semester by surveying their motivation for attending college, interviewing them during your office hours, or by keeping track of data such as attendance, completion of assignments, both in-class and homework.

Komarraju, M. (2013). Ideal teacher behaviors: Student motivation and self-efficacy predict preferences. Teaching of Psychology, 40(104), doi:10.1177/0098628312475029.

The Last Class
The Last Class

One of the possible assignments for the end of the semester is what Professor Elizabeth Bleicher calls, “The Last Class”, an assignment that “constitutes a metacognitive exercise that requires students to use the critical thinking skills developed in the course to process the educational experience in which they have been mutually and individually engaged” (2011). She reports that students enjoy this exercise because it gives them a clear summary of the semester’s worth of learning, encourages collaboration and participation in shaping the course, and it builds community of engaged and active learners.

Here are some of the prompts Professor Bleicher uses for “The Last Class” to engage students in critiquing the class they just completed:

  • Readings – what readings did you enjoy, which reading were valuable, are there any readings that shouldn’t be used next semester, would you like to suggest any other readings;
  • Units – which units were the most valuable, and which were the least valuable, were they presented in a good order, would you like to recommend any other units;
  • Writing – which assignments should be used the following semester, were the instructions helpful, would you change anything;
  • Activities – what activities did you like the most, which didn’t you like;
  • Suggestions – do you have any advice for improving the class, what could we do without, was there anything you would change;
  • Favorites – what did you like the most about this class, what did you like the least about the class;
  • Advice – what is your advice for future students in this class;
  • Big Questions – what was this course about, what questions did this course try to answer, are there any other questions you would like to have discussed;
  • Films – can you suggest any films that cover the issues we discussed;
  • Media – can you advise on which media to use (artifacts, audio or video clips) to start our discussions;
  • Future – would you like to stay involved and assist with the course after the semester is over (please include your name).

Bleicher, E. (2011). The last class: Critical thinking, reflection, course effectiveness, and student engagement. Honors in Practice – Online Archive. Paper 130.

Syllabus Tone
Syllabus Tone

Many factors influence student perceptions of their instructors such as gender, likability, formality of dress and also one that the professors can manipulate, the tone of the syllabus. A study conducted by Richard Harnish and Robert Bridges found that when students read the syllabus written in a warm, friendly tone the perception of the professor was that he was “more warm, more approachable and more motivated to teach the course” (2011). Other studies suggest that positive initial perceptions like this make for a better learning climate for more effective teaching and learning.

According to Harnish et al. (2011) some characteristic of a positive or friendly syllabus tone are:

  • Using positive or friendly language;
  • Providing a rationale for assignments;
  • Sharing personal experiences;
  • Using humor;
  • Conveying compassion;
  • Showing enthusiasm for the course.

For specific examples of both friendly and unfriendly syllabus tones, please see the full article.


Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education 14(3), 319-330. doi: 10.1007/s11218-011-9152-4

Harnish, R. J., O’Brien McElwee, R., Slattery, J. M., Frantz, S., Haney, M. R., Shore, C. M., & Penley, J. (2011). Creating the foundation for a warm classroom climate: Best practices in syllabus tone. APS Observer, 24, 23–27.

Asking Questions
Asking Questions

Asking questions in class is an important teaching skill that encourages students to think and learn. Students’ answers also help faculty assess their learning. However, not all questions effectively do that. Questions you ask your students should “capture students’ attention, arouse their curiosity, reinforce important points, and promote active learning” (Davis, 1993).

Consider using the following tactics for effective questioning:

  • Ask one question at a time because multiple questions at once may confuse the students;
  • Avoid yes/no questions and ask “how” and “why” questions instead;
  • Pose questions that lack a single right answer to elicit discussion about a variety of theories and possible answers;
  • Ask focused questions because overly broad questions may steer discussion off topic;
  • Avoid leading questions to allow for a range of possible answers;
  • Pause in silence after you ask a question to allow for students to think about the answer;
  • Search for consensus on correct responses by involving other students in discussion;
  • Ask questions that require students to apply knowledge and demonstrate their understanding rather than just asking them “Do you understand?”, to which the answer is yes or no;
  • Structure your questions to encourage student-to-student interaction by asking them to respond to one another;
  • To encourage the quiet students in the class, pose your questions as if you’re musing on it such as “I wonder if …”, rather than seeking right or wrong answers such as “What is the definition of …”;
  • Use probing strategies by asking follow-up questions such as asking for specifics, clarification, relationships, explanation, etc.;
  • When talking to a student, move around the room to include other students in the discussion.

Davis, B. G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Student Reflections as Assessment of Learning
Student Reflections as Assessment of Learning

Student reflections are an important assessment form that allows students to think about how, why and what they are learning. They are valuable because they encourage metacognition and synthesis, two important skills of understanding, analyzing and managing one’s learning, and the ability to put together pieces of learned information and see the big picture. By assessing students’ attitudes, values and opinions about learning processes through student reflections, instructors can quickly gain insight into progress and potential problems, and are able to address them accordingly.

Some opportunities for students to reflect are:

  • Minute papers: students briefly answer a couple of questions (e.g. “What was the most important thing you learned during this class?”);
  • Other short questions and prompts: students answer questions about their learning processes, attitudes and values (e.g. “Describe something major that you’ve learned about yourself from this assignment.”;
  • Before-and-after reflections: allow for assessment of students’ growth and development by comparing their responses at the beginning and at the end of the course (e.g. “Why is this discipline/course important?”);
  • Longer self-reflection assignments: students write essays to reflect on the learning experience (this form requires the instructor to provide detailed prompts such as “set explicit goals, monitor your progress, seek out feedback, evaluate your learning, assess personal strengths,” etc.)
  • Journals: written assignments throughout the semester to develop skill through repeated practice, study skills, conceptual understanding, metacognitive and synthesis skills;
  • Self-Ratings: students rate themselves on their knowledge, skills, and attitudes (e.g. students rate a course-related skill on a scale from 1 to 5);
  • Interviews and focus groups: instructor poses open-ended or questionnaire-type questions to elicit discussion (e.g. “What did you think was the best part of this course?”).

Suskie, L. (2004). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide. San Francisco, CA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.

Active Learning from the First Day
Active Learning from the First Day

Smith (2008) reports that when students learn about learning, or when they acknowledge the linkage between their goals and the implemented learning methods, they have a new appreciation for why learner-centered instructors do what they do. Furthermore, these learners come to value these teaching methods, such as encouraging and providing opportunities for active learning, so long as they are used effectively and they can measure their own learning.

Students learn best (Davis, 1993) when they take an active role:

  • When they discuss what they are learning,
  • When they practice what they are learning,
  • When they apply practices and ideas.

To start the discussion about importance of active learning with your students, try asking them the following questions on the first day of class:
Thinking of what you want to get out of your college education and this course, which of the following is most important to you?

  1. Acquiring information (facts, principles, concepts)
  2. Learning how to use information and knowledge in new situations
  3. Developing lifelong learning skills.

Then ask them to think about the best approach in accomplishing each one of the goals: is it studying alone, or learning with peer and instructor influence. This discussion can explain active learning methods they may find in the class syllabus.

Some methods to include in your syllabus that promote learning:

  • Administer weekly online assignments to serve as a guide to both you and the students, to encourage reading the content and for students to come to class prepared
  • Allow for in-class peer work for students to apply what they read
  • Limit lecturing; focus presentations on topics students struggle with.

Smith, G. (2008). First-day Questions for the learner-centered classroom. The National Teaching and Learning Forum 17(5), 1-4.

Rehearsal and Practice
Rehearsal and Practice

As we are nearing the end of the semester and final exams are in sight, provide opportunities for guided practice and rehearsal to your students to reinforce learning and increase retention. Two major factors affect the quality of the rehearsal: the amount of time and the type of rehearsal activity.

  1. Rote rehearsal is for remembering and storing information in the same form that it entered working memory. This method is used for memorizing lists, facts, definitions. Strategies to teach students:
    1. mnemonic devices
    2. number memory techniques
  2. Elaborative rehearsal helps students process the information so that it’s more meaningful. It takes more time but it results in deep learning. Elaboration strategies include:
    1. forming associations
    2. organizing information into categories
    3. outlining
    4. clustering concepts into taxonomic categories with shared characteristics
    5. paraphrasing
    6. summarizing
    7. creating analogies
    8. self-quizzing

Barkley, E. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Updated 6.28.20