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This article is reprinted from The Best of the 2019 Teaching Professor Conference (© Magna Publications). You can learn about this year’s virtual conference here.

Online courses present unique challenges for both students and faculty. We’ve been teaching and learning in person for millennia, and we know a lot about how to do it well. The same is not true for online education. This modality has existed in its current form for only about 20 years. We’re still learning what works. We’re still getting familiar with what a good online classroom looks like—where the front of the room is, where the desks are, and where the light switch is. Indeed, many students and faculty today are relatively inexperienced in online learning environments, especially considering that we’ve taught and learned in physical classrooms for years.

And yet the demand for online classes continues to grow. Students who would otherwise be unable to attend college due to work and family obligations now have a way to pursue credentials and improve their lives. The flexibility afforded by online classes makes it easier for more people to earn a higher education than if the only option were to take classes on campus. We can improve our online teaching so that our students have a rich and rewarding learning experience—and we can do it one small step at a time.

Based on the approach James M. Lang and I outline in Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes (2019), which presents minor modifications to our classes to produce major learning gains, we’ll explore eight practical, evidence-based strategies we can apply in our online classes—approaches that are neither overwhelming nor time-consuming, techniques that won’t place an undue burden on our time. These strategies are organized according to four guiding principles that are especially relevant for online classes.

Tomorrow, next week, or next semester, consider making just one change to the way you set up or teach your online course. Because these strategies are grounded in research and intentionally applied, you’ll likely find that this small change will have an outsize impact on student learning and engagement.

Surface backward design

Backward design is a method that helps us plan effective classes in all modalities. I like to compare this method to planning a road trip. First, we decide where we want to go. What is our destination? Similarly, where do we want out students to wind up at the end of the semester? What do we want them to know and be able to do? Second, how will we know we’ve arrived at our desired location? What will our students do to demonstrate their learning at the end of the course, and what incremental signposts (assessments) are needed to ensure they’re on track to reach their destination? Finally, what do we need for the trip? If we’re heading to the beach, we need towels and beach chairs. If we’re going hiking in the mountains, we need sturdy boots and trekking poles. In both cases, we’d do well to pack an ice chest with cool drinks and snacks for the drive. When planning our classes, we think about what our students need to succeed throughout the
journey. What content and learning activities will help them successfully complete the final exam or project?

Helping our students see the intentional design of an online class is especially important because we don’t typically meet with them two or three times per week (like we do when teaching in person) to provide guidance and reminders and tie different concepts and learning activities together. To help your students see the purpose of online tasks and how each one helps them prepare for the final assessment, you can do the following:

Harness the science of emotion

Emotion and cognition are inextricably linked, and emotions are powerful tools for grabbing and holding our attention (Cavanagh, 2016). We can put this power to work in online classes to better engage online students so they can learn more effectively.

Design for persistence

Online courses have higher attrition rates than in-person classes. For students who are still developing time management and organization skills, the flexibility afforded by this format provides too much leeway. Let’s help our students develop these attributes and make steady progress in our courses with activities such as these:

Help students make connections

As an expert in your discipline, you know exactly how concepts relate to and build on one other. Your students don’t have that expertise. We can help them learn new material more effectively by helping them connect and organize new information for themselves.

Making small adjustments such as these can bring about big improvements in student engagement and learning in online courses. Don’t try all of these at once; rather, pick one, try it, refine it, then add another. You—and your students—will be glad you did.


Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.