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14 tips to teaching online from our Director of Teaching & Learning, Dawn Marie Gilmore, Ph.D.

Dawn Marie Gilmore, Ph.D. is the Director of Teaching and Learning at RMIT Online. In this role, Dawn provides thought leadership and pedagogical expertise to ensure best practice in online teaching and learning for our community of online teachers, mentors and tutors. 

In the current climate, we are seeing more and more teachers having to shift their content and teaching online. Being one of handful of people in the world with a PhD in the effective delivery of online university teaching and learning, Dawn has created this 14 step guide to effectively establish and maintain your online teaching presence.


Tip #1: Start by telling your students how you’ll be interacting with them

Why should I do this?

Clearly communicated expectations will help students to manage their time and expectations. For you, it will mean your email inbox won’t be bombarded with requests 24/7.

How do I do this?

Step one: Identify each tool that you’ll be using to communicate with your students.

Step two: Tell students how and when you (and them!) will be using each tool.

Step three: Follow through on step two so that your students trust you — this will be important to building your online teaching credibility with your students.

What does this look like?

The example below can be used and modified to communicate to your students how you’ll be interacting with them.

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Webinars (your online seminars, tutorials, or lectures) are where you conduct what’s effectively a teleconference with your students about a particular week’s content or an assignment.

Your webinar doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s a social interaction and social interactions aren’t perfect! But there are some effective approaches that you should apply so that you and your students can make the most out of your time together.


Tip #2: Tell students about their first webinar

Why should I do this?

You’re not the only one who just moved online. Your students’ routines are changing as well. What your students will want to know now are the specifics of each webinar event so that they can plan whether to attend or watch the recording.

During my PhD research, students reported downloading the webinar every week and (re)watching it up to three times. Imagine your webinar as a resource that you are creating with those students who attend BUT teach like everyone’s present.

How do I do this?

Step one: Communicate the dates and times of your webinars in advance. Try to use the same time/day each week to help your students plan their lives around the event.

Step two: Communicate your webinar agenda and timeframes at least 48 hours beforehand. This will help your students to mentally prepare for the webinar so that they can strategically read and research the topics, as well as prepare questions in advance.

Step three: Show up early but begin on time and stick to the agenda. Use the time before the webinar to build rapport between you and your students, and among each other. And don’t forget to record the webinar (or set it to auto-record) for those who can’t attend and for those who need to revisit concepts.

What does this look like?

Below is a sample email or announcement of what you might send to students before your first webinar. 

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Tip #3: Establish your discussion board presence

Let’s assume that your first discussion board is set up and students have started posting. It’s time for you to roll up your sleeves and establish your discussion board presence. I recommend three approaches to this: (1) be encouraging, (2) be instructive, (3) be the link between students’ ideas, content, and real-world application.

Why should I do this?

Your students need to “see” you posting to “believe” that you are reading the discussion boards. Your presence gives students confidence that they are on the right track.

Your students, on the other hand, will behave differently to this. About a quarter of your cohort will be actively posting, some others will dip in and out, but the majority will not post at all. I promise you this, though: your discussion board is an anchor for your students. You may not see them there, but they are checking it regularly and reading every post.

How do I do this?

Step one: Aim for about a quarter of your posts to be encouraging. Keep them short, upbeat and motivational.

Step two: Aim for another quarter of your posts to be instructive. Use these posts to direct students to more information, question their current approach, get students back on track, and offer feedback.

Step three: Aim for half of your posts to be linking. Students post to discussion boards in a linear way but you need to connect the conversation for them by showing them how their ideas connect.

What does this look like?

Below are some phrases and templates that you can modify for use in your own discussion board posts to students.

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Tip #4: Facilitate an engaging webinar

If you’re new to online teaching then it may feel most comfortable to sit in front of your computer and speak at your students. But the best approach is to help them engage interactively with what you’re saying or showing them. You can achieve this with your most basic webinar tools… the microphone and the chat box.

Why should I do this?

You don’t need me to tell you why an engaging webinar is a good idea. Students learn better, and have a better time, when they’re interacting with their content, peers, or teachers.

How do I do this?

Step one: Find a way to engage everyone early in the webinar.

Step two: Use the end of each slide or content area as an opportunity to engage with your students. As a general rule, you shouldn’t talk for longer than 5 minutes at any one time.

Step three: At the end of the webinar, encourage students to reflect on the session.

What does this look like?

Below are three simple strategies that you can modify for use in your own webinar with students.

Strategy One: Get students to rate something in the chat box at the beginning, and make it a little fun. For example: “From a 1 to a 5—1 being ‘I have no idea what’s going on,’ and 5 being ‘I’ve got this, but I am here anyway’—how confident is everyone feeling about this week’s content?” Modify your approach to the webinar based on their answers.

Bonus tip: at the end of the session, ask them again how confident they are on the 1 to 5 scale. This can let you know how effective the session was, and whether any extra follow-up might be needed.

Strategy two: Use transitions. Whenever you’re shifting from one topic or slide to another, pause to invite students to use the chat box or microphone to (1) ask questions, (2) provide examples or stories that illustrate the topic, or (3) answer a quiz or some true or false questions.

Strategy three: Encourage reflection. Ask them all to answer one of the following in the chat box at the end of the session before they leave:

  • What's the most interesting thing you heard about today?
  • In one word, how did you feel about the topics we discussed today?
  • What’s one topic that you will Google after the webinar today?


Tip #5: Email students who aren’t logging into the LMS


Start preparing students for their assessment at least two weeks before the due date, and provide multiple support options. Triangulating your assessment support can help you reach as many students as possible and set your students up for success.

At some stage in the first couple of weeks of an online course, you should set aside some time to email students who haven’t logged in yet. This is a critical opportunity to keep them engaged.

Why should I do this?

Students who don’t log in regularly are at risk of falling behind, not submitting assessments, and could end up dropping out of the course or of university altogether.

It’s important to not only provide support to these students, but also to be perceived as providing support. Believing that they have your support can give your students the encouragement they need to get re-motivated, and the confidence to approach tasks when you’re not around.

How do I do this?

Step one: Use LMS analytics to identify which students have not logged in yet (or if they haven’t logged in for a few weeks).

Step two: Send an email to each student who hasn’t logged in. It may feel like a lot of work but most of it should just be copy/paste, and in large classes you can even do a bulk email. Your email may well be the nudge that keeps them going.

Step three: Let those students know your availability and how to use it to stay on track. I promise this is manageable; less than a quarter of the students you email will even reply, let alone take you up on this offer. Don’t be dissuaded if they don’t respond. Those students who need the support will respond and those who don’t will benefit from the perception of support.

What does this look like?

Below is an email that you can use and modify to send to any students who haven’t logged in. Simply adjust the greeting and remember to do BCC for bulk emails.

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Tip #6: Encourage your students to prepare for the first assessment

Why should I do this?

Students with a high degree of self-efficacy feel confident that they will be able to perform well on an assessment. And that confidence will affect how well they perform for the remainder of the semester, or even their degree. Facilitating a supportive assessment environment is crucial to helping students feel confident in their own abilities.

How do I do this?

Step one: (student-driven): Two weeks before the due date, create a discussion forum dedicated to Q&A for each assessment. Make sure to check this every 24-48 hours. If students think you’re not responding in this space your email inbox will fill up quickly!

Step two: (teacher-driven): Also two weeks out, host a 30-minute webinar to unpack the assessment expectations and grading rubric with the students. This will tell students what they have to do and how they will be assessed.

Step three: (student-driven): Three to five days out, host a 30-minute drop in session for students to ask questions, problem solve with you, and get feedback and encouragement on their progress.

What does this look like?

Communicate the ways in which you will be providing assessment support to your students and follow through on it. The messaging below is an example of how you can do this in your classroom.

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Tip #7: Build feedback loops into your online teaching practice

In our everyday interactions in the ‘real world’ we give off cues to each other that symbolise feedback and feedforward. In an online space we need to make these cues explicit. Feedback communicates to students how well they did on a task, activity, or assessment, and feedforward communicates what action needs to be taken next.

Why should I do this?

Regular and consistent feedback loops scaffold students’ learning by catching what needs to change, leveraging what needs to continue, and identifying gaps in a student’s understanding. In the context of your online course, these continuous learning cycles help students to build on the content from one week to the next.

How do I do this?

Step one: Find opportunities to give group feedback (e.g. in the discussion board at the end of an activity or in a webinar/announcement after grades are released). Focus on high-level themes, trends, and observations on what students are doing well and areas/skills that need to be revisited.

Step two: On all graded assessments include the student's name and a holistic feedback message that tells a student where they have achieved on the current assignment (feedback) and what to do before the next assignment (feedforward).

Step three: Label your feedback and feedforward. Literally say, “This is feedback” or include the words “feedback” and "feedforward" in your written message, announcement, or PowerPoint presentation.

What does this look like?

Use the table below to communicate your group feedback and feedforward to your students. Help you and your students to focus on what’s most important by only including 3 to 5 points in each column.

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Tip #8: Challenge your assumptions about student participation

“The students have stopped logging in.”

“No one reads or posts in the discussion board.”

“They want to be spoon fed.”

These are common assumptions I hear from first time online teachers. But if you are going to be successful in the online teaching space, you’re going to have to challenge your assumptions about online student participation. Drops in student participation are expected about a quarter of the way into any online course but don't mistake this for disengagement.

Why should I do this?

You and your students will have a much better learning experience if you accept that there is a natural trajectory to participation levels in most online subjects. Students are most active in weeks 1 to 4 of a 12-week course (Not teaching a 12-week course? It’s roughly the first 15-30% of the course). After this most students spend less time participating in the LMS and more time learning in other spaces (eg. conducting their own online research or joining a study group on Facebook).

How do I do this?

Step one: Trust your students to do the work. Online learning affords students the ability to study at times that best suit them more than face to face.

Step two: Show empathy. Students are situating their learning and the time required to complete the course into their everyday routines. Just like you, their routines are regularly disrupted, so keep this at the forefront of your mind.

Step three: Don’t be disheartened – a drop in participation is natural. And keep posting – even students who don’t participate check the discussion board regularly.

What does this look like?

I don’t have an example this tip! Unlike many of my other posts this isn’t about changing the way you interact with your students. This is about changing how you perceive them, and how you perceive yourself. So give them and yourself a break if you see participation levels dropping. It doesn’t mean you should change your behaviour—keep posting, keep responding, keep encouraging—it just means that you don’t need to worry.


Tip #9: Don’t forget to have a bit of fun

I don’t have an example for today’s post. Unlike many of my other posts this isn’t about changing the way you interact with your students. This is about changing how you perceive them, and how you perceive yourself. So give them and yourself a break if you see participation levels dropping. It doesn’t mean you should change your behaviour—keep posting, keep responding, keep encouraging—it just means that you don’t need to worry.

Remember to integrate social activities into your online teaching. Think back on your favourite learning experience when you were at university. I bet you were having fun!

Why should I do this?

Encouraging social engagement can promote a sense of belonging in your classroom. When students feel connected to their learning community this promotes academic success and wellbeing. When students don’t feel like they belong to their learning community this can amplify social isolation, de-motivate students from completing their work, and lead to cheating and attrition.

How do I do this? 

Step one: In the first week of your course use fun icebreakers to help students get to know one another.

Step two: Identify vulnerable moments in the student experience such as before and after assessments and after study breaks, long weekends or holidays. Surround these moments with social activities.

Step three: Join in on the activity – believe it or not, your students are curious about you and in some cases your profile is why they picked this course. Your students want to get to know you.

What does this look like?

I’ve listed a few of my favourite tried and true strategies below for you to use.

Strategy One: Use pop culture

  • Memes: Before a group work task or assessment, invite students to find and share memes that illustrate how they feel about having to do group work. Be prepared to be entertained!
  • Reference recent events: You may have noticed that I myself in previous tips have referenced the Great Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020 as well as the Bondi Beach Non-Exodus.

Strategy Two: Share life events

  • Invite students to share recipes for a Sunday roast or a dish from their childhood
  • Share virtual gifts with each other

Strategy Three: Use photos

  • Invite students to post photos of their workspace
  • Get students to use a photo to illustrate a concept from the course content
  • Share music playlists that students use to stay awake while studying, writing assessments, getting motivated, celebrating the end of the course, etc.


Tip #10: It’s okay to lean on Google and YouTube

I am offering this tip because a handful of teachers have reached out to ask about using online videos from Google, YouTube and various other websites. Curating content for your students is a fantastic approach to teaching online, if you follow these tips.

Why should I do this?

Using videos or recorded content from credible resources on the Internet has three benefits: (1) it's an effective way to supplement your course content, (2) it's an opportunity to bring in alternative voices to a topic or argument, and (3) it's an opportunity to explain a difficult topic in multiple ways.

How do I do this? 

Step one: Look for videos that are 7 minutes or less (2-3 minutes are ideal but some content requires longer). For videos longer than 7 minutes, call out which sections of the video the students should focus on.

Step two: Tell students why they are watching the video. Just like a learning outcome for the course, the students need a reason why they’re watching a video. Just one sentence will do, because it will anchor the video content to what you want the students to know/learn.

Step three: Tell students why you chose this video (as opposed to the millions of other videos on YouTube). Showing students that you put thought into the selection of supplemental resources is important for building rapport and sustaining motivation.

What does this look like?

Here are five prompts to communicate the context of the resources you are sharing with students. Feel free to use these in your classroom to provide content and purpose for your resources.

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Tip #11: Celebrate your students’ achievements

It’s easy to forget to celebrate the milestones in the context of the online course/unit that you're teaching. Some of these milestones for your students include submitting an assessment, passing an assessment, “aha moments”, overcoming personal adversity, or reaching a personal goal. Keep students achieving by reminding them to celebrate their accomplishments or by celebrating their accomplishments with them.

Why should I do this?

Recognising your students’ effort and achievements will keep them motivated and feeling good about their studies. Most importantly, by reminding students of their achievements you are reaffirming their self-belief and this will help them to be persistent with their studies. And, persistence leads to student retention.

How do I do this?

Step one: Encourage students to celebrate after each assessment submission. Post a group announcement acknowledging their achievement and then encourage them to take a break or treat themselves (while you work hard to mark their work, of course!).

Step two: Don't forget about high achieving students. Email, text, or call students who have achieved high marks on an assessment. Let them know they achieved the highest mark in the class or were in the top 10%.

Step three: Acknowledge how far your students have come every three to four weeks. You can do this by recapping what content you’ve covered so far or listing the skills they've learned.

What does this look like?

This celebratory message can be used for groups or individuals. Feel free to adapt and modify this to use with your students:

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These balloons are for you! Congratulations to everyone who has submitted their first assessment.

Please take some time out of your schedule over the next two days to treat yourself to something special. You can even let us know what it is by replying to this post.

Over the next five days I’ll be working around the clock to grade your assessments and get them back to you on Monday. Then we are all straight back to work because it will be time to gear up for assessment two.

Again, great job,



Tip #12: Show your students how to look beyond the classroom

Any course that a student undertakes is a stepping-stone on their lifelong learning journey. You are in a position to help them understand not just where they’ve come from, but what they might want to do as a result of learning new information and skills.

Why should I do this?

Inviting your students to “pause for purpose” can inspire them during the low points in the semester by bringing your online content to life. This is particularly a good exercise for students who are extrinsically motivated, such as those who might be studying to get a job at the end of their experience. Encouraging them to see that light at the end of tunnel will keep them motivated. 

How do I do this?

Step one: Ask students to reflect on the content in your course and where it might lead them. Were there any topics worth further exploration? If so, they might want to seek out electives in these areas.

Step two: Encourage your students to update their CV’s. Recap the skills, tools or artefacts students produced during your course. Then ask them if there is anywhere on their CV where this could be included.

Step three: Encourage students to look at job advertisements. This is a useful exercise for thinking about where they want to go, how to get there, and if they are on the right track. 

What does this look like?

Here is an example of a simple activity that you can add to your online discussion boards when your students have gone quiet and they are not preparing for an assessment.

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Tip #13: At the end of the semester, say goodbye to your students

Don’t let students’ final exam be their last interaction with your course. Their final interaction should be with you or their classmates. So, before you close your laptop for the semester don’t forget to send your students one last message.

Why should I do this?

Students need academic and emotional closure. Academic closure reminds students what they have learnt over the last 12 weeks. Emotional closure shows appreciation for what the students may have had to overcome to complete your course. Remember, your students have juggled work, family, and other life demands while studying online. Closure is what they need to unwind between your course ending and the next course starting.

How do I do this?

Step one: Use the final assessment feedback to say goodbye. In your feedback congratulate them on submitting their final assessment and wish them luck.

Step two: Send your students off with a group message. Use your group message to summarise what they’ve learned this semester, something you’ll remember about the cohort, and a final piece of advice that you want them to remember going forward. 

What does this look like? 

Ideally you should personalise your goodbye message. Remember that this is your closure too. But if you’re stuck, here’s an example to get you started:

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Tip #14: Reflect on your approach to teaching

Reflective teachers are continuous learners. They achieve this by purposefully taking time to consider their approach throughout the semester and holistically at the end of each semester.

Why should I do this?

Setting aside time for purposeful reflection helps you to make sense of situations and their outcomes. Reflecting on your teaching experience allows you to learn from the past and prepare for the future. When done regularly, you will move beyond understanding yourself and begin to understand students' experiences of your approach to teaching.

How do I do this?

Step one: What happened? Recount your experience of what happened by considering your approach, your students’ reactions, and try to describe the outcomes of what happened.

Step two: So What? Evaluate and analyse what happened. Be curious and keep an open mind as you explore reasons for why the events in your course unfolded the way they did and if anything should be done differently.

Step three: What’s next? Take action based on your previous answers. Create a three-step plan that outlines what you will do within the next week and what you will do in the next six months. 

What does this look like?

Below are some questions to guide your reflection and action. Use these questions for self-reflection or to reflect with a colleague, mentor, or coach.

Guiding questions for “What happened?”

  • What aspects of the course did/didn’t not go as planned?
  • What aspects of the course were you most proud of?

Guiding questions for “So what?”

  • How has what happened changed the way you understand your students or your approach to teaching?
  • Based on what happened, how will you approach teaching differently? What would you do again, why? What wouldn’t you do again, why not?

Guiding questions for “What’s next?”

  • How will you apply what you’ve learned from what happened and your changed understanding? Try to formulate a three-step plan.
  • What information can you share with your colleagues for feedback?


Additional resources

Want to learn more about becoming a reflective practitioner?

The approach in this post was adopted from:

Rolfe, G., Freshwater, D., Jasper, M. (2001) Critical reflection in nursing and the helping professions: a user’s guide. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

My other favourite resources on this topic include:

Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Gibbs G (1988). Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further Education Unit. Oxford Polytechnic: Oxford.


Note: This article originally appeared on Dawn's Linkedin page. 




This article was originally published on 2 April 2020