Actionable Steps from Small Teaching Online

Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby and James Lang provides very specific suggestions for improving your online course. As an aid in revising my own course, I’m outlining the points that really hit a note with me. But I highly recommend the book to anyone teaching an online course.

“Every student arrives at a different place in the journey.”

Flower Darby, Small Teaching Online

And if you’re not already familiar with the concept of backwards design, then I also recommend that you spend time absorbing the learning framework expressed in the book Understanding by Design. I keep a copy of that amazing book on my desk. It really helps shifts your pedagogy approach from a content-emphasis to an emphasis on learning outcomes. Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching also has an excellent primer on Understanding by Design.

The following tips are largely inspired by Small Teaching Online and also adapted from a range of other sources. My apologies for not having all the references for every idea. And some of these are based on my own teaching experiences. Things marked in red are new, or particularly exciting, ideas for me that I plan on adopting this Fall.

Asynchronous, if at all possible

I strongly believe that the best online courses are asynchronous, i.e., let the students do the course at their own pace rather than forcing everyone into a time slotted schedule 3 days a week. Asynchronous accommodates students in different time zones, particularly international students. Sure, you might want to try the occasional live chat with those who want it but requiring students to login often for a live lecture or attempting group work with a number of groups is setting the class up for frustration.

Make use of your LMS

If you’re lucky, your institution has a good learning management system (LMS). They all have their quirks but getting to know those tools can be really valuable in facilitating an online class. I’m really enjoying Canvas, which my institution recently switched to from Sakai. Admittedly, I never really liked Sakai and hardly used it. But Canvas is much more intuitive and feature rich.

Live office hours

Set a regular time during the week where students can just drop in online and chat with you. Enable the waiting room feature of whichever software platform you’re using. Depending upon the complexity of their question, I might advise a student to schedule a one-on-one meeting at another time.

Live one-on-one meetings

When a student has a specific question in a one-on-one, particularly a complex coding problem or difficult research question, I need to do some prep work. (I don’t know everyone off the top of my head!) Even with in-person courses, it’s good to require students to attend a one-on-one meeting with you at least once a term, perhaps more depending upon the class size and your other work load. Use part of the time just to get to know the student.
Suggestion: At lease one mandatory (~ 15 minute video) with each student during the term.
Optimal: more than a single one-on-one video session with each student during the term. Some students may need or desire less interaction. Or they may be shy and hesitant to ask questions. Be sure to follow-up with every student. Of course, some students may excel at the assignments. You’ll be able to tell who those are by the quality of their work. Still, it would be nice to touch base with them individually more than once in the term.

Screen sharing during office hours and one-on-one’s

Depending upon the course content, the ability for students to share their screens is remarkably helpful. This is a case where online is much more practical than in-person where you’re leaning over a shoulder and squinting at a student’s laptop. And, obviously, it’s much more sanitary.

Introductory video

Develop a short (< 5 minutes) video introducing yourself to your students. Make it personable, give them a sense of who you are as a person, your motivations for teaching this course. Make yourself approachable.

Connecting to the final project in week 1

Whether it’s an in-person class or online, students have difficulty grasping the overall scope and structure of the course. Sure, a detailed syllabus helps. But don’t count on all the students reading the syllabus that closely. During the first week have a low-stakes assignment related to the final project. This will give students a nudge to start thinking about how the final project relates to the entire course. Provide enough context about the final project so that students understand why it’s meaningful. Suggestion: have students share their ideas for the final project in an online discussion forum.

Scaffolding the final project

Scaffolding is probably not new to any experienced teacher, though I rarely recall it being a component of my undergraduate days. I certainly don’t recall any professor framing an assignment in those terms. Then again, that was a very long time ago, and I don’t think pedagogy was of a topic among faculty conversations.

Scaffolding a final project with incremental assignments provide much needed structures to students who might not be so attentive. Scaffolding also builds assessment into the project at different steps along the way. That feedback constitutes a significant difference between student taking your online course and just taking any random online course on the Internet.

It cannot be repeated too often: students have to understand the purpose of the assignment, i.e., what skills are developed through the work.

Connecting to the midterm exam

I have a midterm exam that covers concepts in how the Internet works. Students are always asking what type of questions will be on the exam.
Suggestion: low-stakes quiz with the type of questions that will be on the exam.

Bookend activities at beginning & end of term.

A theme running throughout Small Teaching Online is is to build in activities that continually help students view the course as a cohesive whole. Many of us are used to having a metacognitive assignment, most likely a short first-person essay, at the end of term.

Suggestion: create a metacognitive assignment for the beginning of the term (see the next section on understanding the syllabus). At the end of the term, have students review what they did for that first metacognitive task. In this way, the first piece provides a basis for reflecting upon the entire course.

Suggestion: provide format options (text or audio or video) for how students can present their metacognitive feedback. Some students might prefer a short audio response or even a video rather than a written response, which might seem much more formal to the student.

Suggestion: if you’re going to use the word metacognition, or its variations, with undergraduates be sure to explain the term. Help students understand the process of thinking about their own thinking. Don’t just throw out terms. Otherwise, your teaching might just become a drinking game: take a drink every time the prof says “metacognitive” or uses “foreground” as a verb.

Understanding the syllabus

I love syllabi! I really do. I really enjoy reading syllabi from other courses, especially those that I’m never going to take. I enjoy writing a syllabus. Well, I don’t care for the boilerplate course policy stuff or even the grading scheme. I like the schedules: the way that a syllabus structures information into a coherent set of knowledge. Yes, writing a good syllabus is easier said that done.

Suggestion: a low-stakes assignment on comprehending the purpose behind different modules of the syllabus. I like for those to be open-ended questions with prompts that encourages students to reflect on how different modules impact their career interests. Another approach is to have students identify which modules they find most appealing and have them explain why. The aim of this assignment is to help students understand the value of the course.

Low-stakes assignments

For in-person classes, I weigh class participation very high. That encourages the students to be more vocal and involved in class discussions. With an online asynchronous class, you have to think deeper about the forms of class participation.

Suggestion: utilize a larger number of low-stakes assignments than you would with an in-person class. Assignments worth a few points each provide structure, consistency in workload, and motivation without the pressure of a major assignment.

But a low-stakes assignment doesn’t necessarily indicate that it’s a participatory task. Make use of discussion boards, prompts for short responses, and forms of peer review. (See the section below on discussion boards.)


Structure your course in modules not days. Begin each module with a short description introducing the topic and essential aspects of how the module relates to the overall course. Refer to the Understanding by Design framework for some guidance. Suggestion: List the learning goals for the module and explicitly connect those with the learning outcomes for the course. Articulate how the module helps students in the class and also in their careers.

Be sure this section is brief and provide different modes for students to understand the purpose of the modules. Suggestion: prepare a brief ( <5 minutes) video introduction to the module.

Demonstrable skills

Students are skill driven. Let’s accept that and not debate it. And, quite honestly, if a student is not focused on developing new skills, then the teacher really owes it to the student’s well-being to put an emphasis on skills. Without skills: students can’t find jobs to support themselves; let’s be real about what college is really about. (And I’m saying that as a liberal arts grad myself.)

Flower Darby provides a template statement: “After successfully completing this module, you will be able to ….”. Then provide a bulleted or numbered list of specific demonstrable skills students will acquire through their work in the module. (This also forces you to connect how the assignments align with specific skills and life preparedness.)

Suggestion: align a skill-oriented outline with the description of the module. Specifying the skillset connects the students with why the module even exists. You might think the module is to learn or to understand. If you think that way, read Understanding by Design and explore what it really means to understand something.

Video announcements & clarification

Suggestion: If students seem seem unclear about an assignment, create a quick video overview clarifying those points where the students are lost.

Students don’t read email. They may barely look at the noticeboard in an LMS. Use video announcements to “reinforce the reasoning behind class activities…prepare a few talking points to further explain the purpose and the reasons for engaging in that week’s classwork….tell a story that illustrates your pedagogical thinking, or describe a video or blog post that you just came across that reminded you of the relevance of that week’s work.”

Suggestion: Get comfortable talking to the camera. Relax, talk naturally, just as you would in class or in your office. Don’t write out a script. Have notes, your own bullet points as an outline and then just start talking. Keep the announcement videos short (< 2 minutes). You can say a lot in two minutes. You can be really boring in two minutes. Aim for under a minute and see how well that works. You’ll be surprised at how much you can convey in less than a minute. And students are much more likely to engage with shorter material. Who wants to look at a 20 minute video announcement from their instructor at 11pm?

Assignments are “experiences”

I love how the writing instructor John Warner explains that assignments are experiences. Of course, we all know that at some level, but making it explicit to students reinforces that there is a purpose behind the assignment and it’s not just some task, some busy work to fill time. Write the assignment in a way that helps the student identify how it helps them learn. Make it clear to them that they are actually getting something from doing that assignment.

Personally, I hated assignments as a student. Just hated it. And I realize now that I didn’t see the purpose behind most of the assignments. I felt like I was just jumping through a hoop for a grade, like I was in training as a circus animal.

Suggestion: use specific headings that prompt reflection on what the assignment is accomplishing. For example, Darby provides examples for instructions as

  • Here’s what I want you to do
  • Here’s why I want you to do it
  • Here’s how to do it

Most of us are going to recognize that as good rubric writing.


I love and hate rubrics. I love rubrics for the clarity that they provide for students. I hate rubrics because rubrics free students from handling complexity. The ability to deal with complexity is one of the most important life skills obtainable. Suggestion: In your rubrics, make sure that students know that you are modeling learning and work patterns for them to adopt and adapt throughout their lives. You’re not giving step-by-step instructions. You’re providing an example of problem solving. Hmmm, I would be curious to hear about examples where students write the rubric for their assignments.

A dangerous thing that can come out of the undergraduate classroom is that students graduate and then expect a supervisor to provide them with a detailed list of what to do in order to perform the job. That doesn’t happen in any job where you make more than $50,000/year.

It’s important for student learning to provide clear directions in rubrics. Just be sure to put those into an overall context as to why the assignment exists in the first place, and that real world work does not provide a recipe for success.

Signposts for feedback

In an online course, seek even more opportunities for providing feedback. In online courses, students have a great sense of isolation. Build in more periodic reminders that require students to review learning outcomes at various points in the course.

Suggestion: at the end of each module, prompt the students with a series of questions that enable them to review the learning objectives and to reflect (in one or two sentences) on the progress that they’re making. This could even be done weekly. Craft the prompts in a way that help the students realize why the learning outcome is significant and encourages them to identify the next step to keep learning in that topic. These small regular reflections help build a pattern for learning on one’s own.

Don’t bunch all end-of-term assignments and metacognitive reflections into the last few days of the class. Recognize that students are taking other courses and may not be able to give deep attention to what you’re asking. Suggestion: 3 weeks before term ends–ask students to identify the most important things that they have learned in the course. Then, ask how will they respond to maintaining awareness of that new knowledge and to continue developing it.

Peer review

I used peer review in a writing course but not in a coding course. But peer review is a common technique among professional software developers. Suggestion: create at least two peer review assignments. Be sure to provide plenty of guidance for the peer review so that students know what they need to do.

Incremental sequencing of tasks

For me, this also reinforces the power of adopting an incremental approach to work and life, which I find to be very important. The cumulative benefit of incremental steps is very powerful for its impact on productivity. Consistent small steps emphasize process over content. You can use mini assignments to help students scaffold a larger project. Get to the point later in the term where the students are building the scaffold rather than just having one handed to them. Suggestion: low-stakes assignment in crafting a list of logical tasks needed to solve an assignment. In my case, I’ll present them with an outcome, and then they have to identify the steps involved in breaking down the complexity into logical steps of code. Tackling complexity in a logical manner is of utmost importance in learning to code.

Learning through multiple sources

Every field has its own set of resources for research. Lifelong learning depends upon one’s ability to navigate and grasp the information landscape of a field. Suggestion: low-stakes assignment that requires students to prepare a list of sources accompanied by a set of bullet points describing the value of each resource. Explain to students that this assignment is a practice in identifying sources for their own lifelong learning efforts. Follow the assignment with a peer review task so that other students can see what their classmates are finding.

You, the instructor, do not have to be the only source of information for the class. Model how students can learn on their own. As a librarian, I like to emphasis the importance of students finding and evaluating research resources.
Suggestion: a low-stakes assignment in which students find other resources on the Internet that explain a specific topic, and then have the students explain its value on a discussion board. Require that students not duplicate resources already explained by other students on the discussion board. Have students articulate one new aspect that they learned from that resource.


Timely feedback is important on every assignment. You have to build time into your own busy schedule to do the grading and feedback. It’s so easy to delay that but progression in learning depends upon feedback while the assignment is still fresh in the students’s minds and, definitely, before the next assignment.

Make sure that all assignments are meaningful. Specifically describe how the assignment matches the needs of the course. Make the feedback meaningful. If the feedback is barely more than just a grade, then the assignment might feel like busy work to students.

Conditional release of content at strategic learning moments

In learning to code, the student needs to demonstrate sufficient skill before moving onto a more complex task. If not, the student is going to fall behind quickly. I emphasize sufficient skill and not mastery. In an introductory programming class, I do not ever want students to feel that they need to master something before moving forward. Mastery comes later. First, they need to learn what is good enough. Suggestion: release the next module when the student has demonstrated sufficient skill in an assignment. This process could be problematic if a student falls really far behind. However, as the teacher, this conditional release process should help you to more quickly identify students who are struggling. Then you can offer them the needed level of attention to get them over that hump.

The type of conditional release assignment should be low-stakes, perhaps even without points. A few examples described in Small Teaching Online:

  • a vocabulary quiz on key terms;
  • a metacognitive reflection on key concepts;
  • a beginning of module task, with detailed instructions, in which students reflect on how the upcoming module fits into the overall course;
  • a quiz on a video lecture before the assignment is made available.

The beginning of module task listed above really forces the students to think about what they are about to start learning and its relationship to knowledge that they already have developed in the course. This might seem like a very foreign task to most students, so you probably should model it earlier in the course so that they have examples as to what you’re expecting.

The video lecture quiz seems very useful since we know that students might not watch all of video, even if it’s only a few minutes. Or, even if they watched it, have they grasped the significance?

The experts caution not to overdo this approach. Use it sparingly, not for every lesson but at strategic moments in the course. Otherwise, it falls into appearing as busy work.

Discussion board

Provide meaningful discussion prompts throughout the term. Make sure that students check the board. Their postings on the discussion board could be part of the class participation grade. Encourage postings by providing deadline dates for initial posts and replies. For students not participating, nudge them early in the term to do so. If you let it go, then students feel that it’s not important.

Respond on the discussion board yourself so that students see that you are engaged in the class. Schedule 30 minutes a day on your calendar regularly to check on the class discussion. Post short replies as needed. For more complex responses, consider posting a video response.

Depending upon class size, segment certain topics into small discussions groups.

Have one discussion board that is purely a Q&A forum. Encourage students to submit all questions to you through this Q&A forum. Provide extra credit points for students who can help answer the questions of other students.

When you need to provide private feedback to a student’s work, write up an anonymized version of that feedback and post it to the board. Just be sure to protect the student’s identity when necessary.

Use the board’s sticky feature to pin your important responses to the top of the discussion so that students don’t have to wade through everything to find the critical things that you are saying.

Before each class, send an announcement highlighting key points and questions that will help students be prepared for the class. This process not only place emphasis on the key concepts but also forms a study guide for the course. In a totally asynchronous class, this textual announcement could serve as an accompaniment to the video “lecture”.

Group work

So much of active learning is structured around group work. These projects are already difficult enough with in-person teaching. Online teaching adds an extra layer of difficulty. How can we make the purpose of distributed group work relevant?

Suggestion: provide guidance on the importance of learning how to work in a team. I like for my students to view this TED talk from Matt Mullenwegg (founder of WordPress) on “Why working from home is good for business.”

With group work, it’s always so hard to know whether to let students self choose their groups or if you should group them. With online instruction, it’s much more difficult to get a sense as to what students are personally close to each other. You can’t see the friendships by how they sit near each other or by their conversations with each other. Unless you already know the students, you’re going to be making some guesses if you try to organize the groups. And you might guess very badly. I’m going with self-selection and see how that goes.

If you teach coding: use GitHub

I’m a big fan of GitHub and use it daily in my own work as well as with my teaching. I won’t go into all the details of how I use GitHub or its possibilities for educational use. It’s valuable even for non-coding courses. Plus, it’s a marketable skill that students should learn about if they’re going into any technology-based industry. Suggestion: even if you don’t code, you can still use the issue tracking and project management functions of GitHub very effectively.

Show up for class!

As with everything: relationships are the key. Students have to see that you are interested in this topic and motivated to help them learn. If you don’t demonstrate that in every interaction with your students, don’t expect them to be very enthusiastic about your course. When a class is asynchronous online, use some of the techniques discussed in this post to enliven your own engagement with the course. Just because it’s asynchronous online, don’t treat teaching as a passive activity. Indeed, ideally, you’ve already done so much prep work in making it online, you are able to devote extra time to individualized interactions and feedback. After all, your individualized time provides the most value to each student. That’s what they’re paying for: your time. If you go asynchronous online, figure out how to show up for class even when there is no schedule class time.

Empathy for the students

This should go without saying. Take this as a gentle reminder. Remember that your students are just people trying their best in busy lives with many demands on their time. Your course might be a brand new subject to them, and perhaps even very intimidating. You might be intimidating. (Self-awareness is always difficult.) For remote students, remember that they live in all sorts of conditions that might impact their ability to focus on their studies. And remember that the Fall of 2020 is a highly unusual time: global pandemic, civil unrest, political crisis, a collapsing economy. All combined, in the US, it’s also a hugely significant presidential election year. Recognize that students are under even greater stress than ever before in our lifetimes.

A metacognitive note

The primary reason I wrote this post and an upcoming video is to implant this information into my own mind so that I can structure it effectively into my course. I read the book, highlighted a lot of sentences, nodded my head vigorously when I read key points. But, I know how I learn: it’s not just through reading. Suggestion: talk to students about your own learning process. Demystify the professor. You weren’t born with all this knowledge.