Nine Strategies to Optimize Your Online Classroom

Part I: Data from the trenches on how to be interesting and effective online.

Posted Apr 15, 2020

Instead of another article taking guesses at what is going to happen in the weeks and months ahead in the time of COVID-19, I want to get practical.

From pre-school to graduate school, teachers are making an unprecedented switch to online classrooms. Many have never spent a minute teaching virtually. This is my 20th year teaching the Science of Well-Being, a class that I teach using lectures, thought experiments, group activities, and highly experiential exercises (often you can find my college students running around campus searching to break a well-established social norm in five minutes or less). The best classes occur when I don’t get past a single slide. It means the conversation was lively.

I offer this background for the teachers, professors, students, and parents reading this article. I am in the same boat. I have never taught virtually before. I actively sought out experts on digital learning techniques. I am going to take you on a tour of lessons learned in three weeks in the trenches. Use them as you see fit. Remember that this classroom experience is not about you. It is about improving the lives of your students.

Students and teachers (and especially overzealous parents) are skeptical about distance learning. Physically present with students, teachers believe the emotional resonance and connection cannot be replicated in distance learning. Students worry that without the social element of being near friends and a trusted teacher, learning will be boring and ineffective.

The skepticism is warranted. Here is a fact: if you sucked at teaching before COVID-19 by relying on lecturing to students, you will suck even worse. You should have been given feedback long ago to stop $#@! talking and engage your students.

I was motivated to write this blog post by college students in my classroom. Too many students tell me how professors are increasing their anxiety, flooding them with readings and written assignments. If this is you, remember that your students did not sign up for a MOOC. They did not ask for “death by PowerPoint.” They paid for an in-person experience as opposed to an online classroom. They are coping with major life stressors and your beloved class is ranked #18 in importance.

Lesson #1: Your grading plan and syllabus requires updating. Here is what I did before teaching a single class. I knocked down readings to one article per week, and even that is optional. I made all the written assignments optional. I made sure that attendance will not be counted against them. I told them that their grade concerns are off the table for my class.  I gave them an option: (1) retain the grade prior to COVID-19 with the exception of a shortened final paper or (2) if you complete assignments during this virus slopfest, your grade can only improve (it cannot go down).

As for the final project, in the original syllabus students had to design, conduct, and test the effectiveness of a psychological intervention to enhance their lives - a 25-page paper. I abandoned this final project for one that is more relevant to their lives now. However, students have the option to stick with the original assignment. To ensure the class is reducing rather than increasing their stress level, the alternative final project is a 5-page practical routine that students are to initiate to "maintain well-being during the COVID-19 outbreak." Email me for a copy of the guidelines.

Lesson #2: Give students real autonomy. I asked for student feedback on my changes to the course. I modified the assignment with their feedback. I made sure they approved assignments before moving forward.

Lesson #3: Be intentional about how much time is spent on the virus outbreak. My heart almost burst from absorbing the angst of my students. There was a unanimous preference for meetings and time spent to be virus slopfest-free; a place for minds to roam together instead of one more place where the virus and the government dominated the headlines.

Lesson #4: Day one and maybe two or even three should not be about content. Zero PowerPoint slides. Use video so that you can connect with students. For students with attention difficulties, it is hard to concentrate without a human presence to pivot on. The entire first class was devoted to the students’ needs and coping.

Lesson #5: Do not make assumptions about what students are managing. Some are bored. Others are taking high-risk jobs to pay rent. Others moved back in with parents or unwanted family members or guests and are dealing with the loss of autonomy. Others are grieving the loss of a graduation ceremony and their best years. Do not make the naive assumption that you are in this together and it is hard for both of you and it is just about committing to a routine. Find out what is happening so you can constantly tailor to real-life difficulties.

Lesson #6: Use the chat room effectively. The first few classes and every subsequent one is cathartic. The chat room feature at the bottom right is extremely valuable for everyone to chime in with questions, fears, and advice. My suggestion: Treat the first few classes like a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA). You have to give them free rein to ask off course topic questions.

Lesson #7: Hone in on students. Validate them. Don't try to solve their problems. Just listen and tell them you will contemplate the content and come back later with ideas, resources, etc. And be explicit about giving them permission to reach out to you privately. Ask for real candid feedback right there at the beginning of each class. To get candor, you must give them an out. Say it in a way such as, "tell me what I am sucking at so I can suck a little less today and next time." Just prepare yourself for brutal honesty. Show respect to students by integrating useful, albeit painful, feedback.

Lesson #8: Student names are to be used as often as possible. When students talk in the chat room and bring up good points I make a concerted effort to say their names to the class. The most beautiful sound in the world for many is the sound of their names in a positive light. Use this to fuel your students online. Use it so that they have concrete evidence they are visible and they are being heard.

Lesson #9: Revamp the content and even examples to be relevant to students’ lives, now. Anticipate a student asking – how is any of this relevant to me when my parents lost their jobs and I am wondering if I have a place to live next month? Put your syllabus away. Revamp the content to be relevant to their lives. I realize I teach psychology and it is infinitely relevant to helping students function under stressful situations. If you cannot find relevance, cut it. Sorry, but my second grader can use their time more wisely than learning which Native American tribes lived in which particular regions of the United States right now. If you want to teach them history, teach them about the global trends toward greater human progress in health, technology, and social cohesion over the centuries as a result of sociological norms and innovation. I am building classes around concrete skills and frameworks for students to manage their well-being now. The science they are learning is the backdrop. It will be work. It will be worthwhile for an increase in student engagement and learning.

This is Part 1. Read about the next 7 virtual teaching strategies in Part II, and the final 6 virtual teaching strategies in Part III.

Remember why you became a teacher. Go easy on the students. If you are a student, go easy on the teachers. And if you are a parent, chill the hell out. Few of us were trained to conduct online classrooms. I am only three months in and still learning every day. 

Good luck out there. Please use some of the advice above to offer what your students need, which is far more important than what you want. And if you have other tips or suggestions, please comment below. Pass this on so that we can get a clearinghouse of free best practices.