Top Tips for Teaching Online

Jonathan Tulloch, Learning Technology Adviser, Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT)

It’s rather disheartening.

We emerge blinking into the bright new dawn of 2021, only to discover that Covid has not taken the hint from our collective renditions of Auld Lang Syne and is continuing to lock people away in their homes…

So, since we face another term of having to teach online, it may be useful to go over some of the hints and tips we have found useful over the last year of working alongside lecturers.

1: Don’t fear the camera (it gets better).

Most sensible people agree there are few things worse than seeing your own face on camera, and this is a problem when joining online discussions because we have this morbid instinct to stare at ourselves. This is (apparently) perfectly normal and something to do with evolution, but it does mean that we can become highly self-conscious and uncomfortable when teaching.

The good news is that the discomfort lessens with practice: The more you engage in online teaching and discussions, the more comfortable you will become with it. And it is worth doing, because seeing your face will help students feel that they know you, and that they belong (Kuznekoff, 2020).

In the meantime though, there are some things you can do to help mitigate the irrational, disproportionate and totally normal anxieties you may be feeling.

1) Remember everyone is in the same boat. If you are feeling a bit ‘ookey’ about appearing on camera, then many of your students are going to be feeling much more so. It is something new, challenging and uncomfortable for everyone – and one of the best examples you can set for your students is to embrace the strangeness with reckless abandon.

Why not, for example, begin a class by explaining your own anxieties and discomforts – and giving space for your students to express their own fears? This way, both you and your students can reinforce the sense that you are all in this together.

2) Don’t strive for unrelated production values. When trying to get a picture of what good online teaching looks like, it is tempting to look for inspiration at the kind of things produced by slick content providers on YouTube. This is rather like trying to get a picture of what good face-to-face teaching looks like by watching the acting performances in Transformers movies. Looking good is not what we should be focusing on, and the more expensive effects and production we throw at our sessions the more confusing and alienating it can seem for students.

So don’t worry if your lighting makes you look a little sinister, if your cat jumps up on your keyboard, or if you knock the camera and everyone gets a glimpse of all the chocolate wrappers on your desk. This is normal stuff, and the more normal you can make the online environment seem the more comfortable students will feel joining it.

3) Use sticky notes. If you really do feel uncomfortable seeing yourself on the screen – then cover up your image with a sticky note! As ridiculous as this may sound, doing this means that you find yourself spending less time looking at yourself, and more time looking at other people – which is far more natural for a teaching environment.

2: Encourage students to use virtual backgrounds where possible.

It is very difficult to engage students when all you ever see of them is blank circle and a name because their cameras is turned off. Of course this may be simply because they have poor internet or an out-dated device – but we should remember that sometimes they simply don’t want their environment to be broadcast for all to see. This is especially true during a Covid lockdown, when real-life backgrounds may well be populated by self-isolating children and the wreckage of resultant mayhem.

Virtual backgrounds can help. By simply turning on their virtual backgrounds, students can have their cameras on without having to worry about whether or not they have tidied up the living room. This may not mean that every student turns on their camera – and we should avoid trying to force them – but it may help some students feel more comfortable than they might otherwise.

Video guide on enabling virtual backgrounds in Microsoft Teams

It is worth remembering that virtual backgrounds may not work on computers dating from before 2015.

3: Separate your lecture content and your interactions

If you have a group of students in front of you for an hour, then you will normally shuffle between activities that provide content, and interactions designed to reinforce that content. For example, you might go through a presentation for ten minutes, the follow this up by asking questions about it. You may even punctuate your presentation every minute or so by throwing out ‘learning check’ questions, or by scanning the students to see if there is anyone who looks confused or lost.

This kind of fluid movement between the presentation of content and interactions about that content works well in a physical context where people engage in large chunks of time once a week. It works less well in an online context where people are more likely to engage in small chunks of time frequently during the week.

The best way to organise online learning then, is to stop thinking in terms of 1hr or 2hr chunks of time and instead to separate activities into multiple smaller bite-size chunks.

For example, if you want to simply present students with information then this can be done with:

  • A short video
  • A shared document
  • A PowerPoint

Students don’t need to all be online at the same time to consume this information – it can be done at any time. However, you may then schedule a online meeting where you can discuss that content together.

4: Keep lecture videos short – and few

If we stitch together some of the research about how to make effective video lectures, we may come to the conclusion that the best thing to aim for is a small number of short videos that focus on content directly related to the assessment tasks or learning outcomes.

To begin with, some studies have suggested that few students get to the end of a video (Kuzenkoff, 2020), and others that long videos will generally have little impact (Luo, et al., 2018), so we can conclude that shorter videos are likely to work best.

A decent rule to aim for is keeping videos shorter than 6 minutes (Guo, et al., 2014).

At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that too many videos reduces their effectiveness – which makes sense if you can imagine students having to navigate their way down pages and pages of different videos (Luo, et al., 2018), so we can conclude that it is worth keeping the number of videos as small as possible.

Finally, some studies suggest students consider videos more valuable if they are “integrated with the other elements of a class especially to assessment” (Scagnoli, Choo and Tian, 2019), so we can conclude that our videos should be very clearly linked to other aspects of the course.

All this all sounds very different to the traditional 1hr lecture approach we might be used to – and everything seems to point towards having a very tight and focused approach to the videos we produce. A really useful tool for planning your videos is the Online Lecture Tookit:

5: Get students working more together

It does seem as though students tend to learn more effectively with active learning online (Cundell and Sheepy, 2018), and that this kind of active learning is overall significantly more effective than traditional models of simply talking at students until their eyes glaze over (Deslauriers, et al. 2019).

We should take advantage of this – but to do so presents us with one big fat question:

So, er… what do I do?

Faced with the sheer newness of everything, trying to get peer work going online is not always the easiest. As with anything, there will inevitably be a process of trial and error: Not all of your ideas will work – at least first time. However, the internet can provide a plethora of ideas and inspirations for getting starting with small and simple activities designed to get them talking to each other – and these can form a solid foundation for more advanced peer-to-peer interactions later on.

For example, Ruben Knapen has posted a number of activities on the website bookwidgets – all of which require comparatively little planning to be used online, can be adapted to any content, and can be combined and mixed in various interesting ways.

Another good example is the website Ditch That Textbook, that provides a range of templates and resources. Many of these can be adapted for getting students working together – such as:

There are a couple of things to bear in mind when getting students to work collaboratively online – both of these suggested by the Deslauriers’ study (Deslauriers, et al. 2019):

  • It is important to ensure that the process is one that is directly linked to the module assessment – or is something required and necessary. Students can quickly lose interest and enthusiasm if they are not clear how they benefit directly from it. A significant barrier to students engaging with online activities is the sense of frustration at what they perceive as a lack of fluency .
  • Student’s will not always understand the benefits of this kind of active learning, and may be dissatisfied. One of the ways that you can mitigate these effects is to provide clear explanations of the teaching methods you are employing, and why you are employing them. There are some excellent example strategies for this in study by Tharayil, et al..


Cundell, A. and Sheepy, E. (2018) ‘Student Perceptions of the Most Effective and Engaging Online Learning Activities in a Blended Graduate Seminar’, Online Learning, 22(3), pp. 87–102

Deslauriers, L. et al. (2019) ‘Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(39), pp. 19251–19257.

Guo P. J., Kim J., Rubin R., How video production affects student engagement: An empirical study of MOOC videos, Proceedings of the 1st ACM conference on Learning@ scale conference, March 2014, Atlanta, GA

Kuznekoff, J. H. (2020) ‘Online Video Lectures: The Relationship Between Student Viewing Behaviors, Learning, and Engagement’, AURCO Journal, 26, pp. 33–55.

Luo, Y. et al. (2018) ‘A MOOC Video Viewing Behavior Analysis Algorithm’, Mathematical Problems in Engineering, pp. 1–7

Scagnoli, N. I., Choo, J. and Tian, J. (2019) ‘Students’ insights on the use of video lectures in online classes’, British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(1), pp. 399–414

Tharayil, S. et al. (2018) ‘Strategies to mitigate student resistance to active learning’, International Journal of STEM Education, 5(1), p. 7.

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