Mental gymnastics: Finding the balance in an online course

Cat looking out the window while woman works on laptop

This past spring was not something we expected. We’d all agree about that. For some, it was significantly more stressful than others. Throughout all my pandemic related research, I’ve heard several different statistics. Most recently, I read that nearly 70% of faculty in the country had never taught online before!

From a coach’s perspective

As you can imagine (or know personally!) those of us who support faculty have been quite busy, addressing many common themes. Faculty members ask us for insight into their course design; we notice things like excessive numbers of assignments; or, we see a long list of assignments—like showing the entire course at once.

Maybe there’s a lack of organization in the LMS. Perhaps the instructor was unclear about the student workflow, or there’s insufficient feedback for student work. Maybe the professor was not familiar with and then underutilized communication tools. We’ve had many discussions about selecting and delivering quality subject matter content; ways to deter and eliminate cheating; and the importance of having your course materials clearly set up and easy to navigate.

Extra points for balance and flexibility

The topic we haven’t had as many conversations about is the emotional side of an online course. Because of the urgency, many professors hadn’t had the chance to really reflect upon course design and effective tools to support students. Just how on earth do you create an online environment with that in mind? If we want students to stay enrolled and engaged, we need to strive to find a cognitive-emotional balance in your course.

We’ve got to be flexible.

Perhaps this might include reflecting about things like growth mindset, embedding study tips, or sharing best practices for students for online courses. Although we might acknowledge the importance of these in theory, their significance is frequently buried under a mountain of other concerns about accessibility, the content, tracking of student progress, and data reporting…

Let’s talk about the assignments first. There is a mind-numbing list of possibilities. What strategies do work? You can read more in The Learning Scientists, but they boil down to this:

  1. Utilize concrete examples: illustrate ideas with examples that students can easily grasp.
  2. Be a coder: a dual coder: integrate words with images.
  3. Utilize elaborative questions: ask questions that help students connect new learning with prior learning.
  4. Practice retrieval: have students practice with test questions on what they remember.
  5. Interleave the practice: mix practice test questions from a variety of lessons.
  6. Space the practice: delay interval periods between practice tests.

Ah, you ask, what happens when we really check these out? Read a recent article about student performance. In this study, note the role of student ability and the finding that spacing particularly increased quiz performance for low ability students.

Here’s a mental note: we should think about the amount of material we release at one time—that can be overwhelming. Instead of having the entire list of assignments show, many of us share only a unit or chapter at a time.

We know, however, that it’s not just content we need to think about.

Wowing the judges

Next, let’s quickly review the importance of communication! My team has heard complaints from professors recently that online learning means dumbing-down material. That’s not the case. It does mean, however, that your course material—as well as the ways your students engage with it and learn from it—will look different.

Many online courses become primarily asynchronous, for example, while others may preserve an element of synchronicity via video-conferencing tools. I find it helpful to have live “review” sessions and make use of tools like Live Response for engagement and practice.

How about some other things to do? Try weaving some of these into your discussion boards, orientation assignments, etc.

Introduce your students to mindset. Have them take a self quiz and watch a video or two, then share their reflections on the discussion board.

Do your students think about metacognition? “Metacognition is a superpower that helps elite students separate themselves from their peers.” Check this out, too; learn more about self regulated learning in this post.

Do students need strategies for time management?

How about helping your students choose the best way to study?

Need writing tips? Check these out.

Nailing the landing

Have you seen the “Keep Teaching” community hosted by Katie Linder, executive director for program development at Kansas State University, and her colleagues at the university’s Global Campus? You can “follow” several groups within the community, including a faculty group that is already a lively exchange of ideas and support.

Don’t forget—if your institution has a teaching-and-learning center, that should be your first stop as you begin to transition your course.

Obviously, the ways in which a course can be moved from an in-person to an online experience are virtually limitless. I want to encourage you to reflect and choose wisely. 🙂 Think of this as a smorgasbord—you cannot eat it all! I tell faculty—no one uses all the features. No one has every single thing in the course shell covered. You have to choose what works for you; you’ll have some combination of your own pedagogy, choices, experiences, and skillset. If we feel overloaded, imagine how our students feel.

We all need to strive to find the balance.

About the author
Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister

Diane taught in the K12 system and then higher ed since 1992. In June 2015, she resigned her full-time position as a professor and joined the Pearson Customer Success Team, where she develops training curriculum, does training, and helps instructors choose features for their courses. Diane still teaches as an adjunct for University of Maine, and enjoys learning about instructional design as well as neurobiological research and its implications in teaching and learning. You can read some of her articles on the Teaching and Learning Higher Ed blog posts. Currently, Diane manages the Faculty Advisor team; Diane and her team collaborate with their peers across North America.