Best Practices for Teaching

Best practice in teaching begins with good course design.

Engaging Content

The first step in designing engaging course content is making sure that it supports your course outcomes or objectives. Covering a lot of material does not ensure that your students are learning. Providing time and opportunities for your students to be able to do something with information is key in getting them to transfer that knowledge into long-term memory. Streamlining content and establishing priorities for learning increases student engagement because it makes it obvious to students that their work is tied to course outcomes.

When going online with a course, the tendency is to upload one’s lecture material to the learning management system and consider it the instructor’s main contribution to the teaching-learning process. With discussion threads, the Web, multi-media resources, and synchronous/asynchronous tools available to faculty today, technology provides instructors with a wealth of new approaches to designing course content online. Here are some design tips to keep in mind when you are re-envisioning your course for the online environment.

Lecture Material

As foundational information for a course, lecture material is most effective in the online environment when it is used to set up a framework for an upcoming module or when it connects ideas among different parts of the course.

The benefits of audio-visual lecture include creating instructor presence, conveying voice inflections, and addressing the most common learners, both visual and auditory. When using this type of lecture, keep the audio presentation concise and break up long segments into smaller “chunks.” Be sure to vary lecture material – whether it is text-only or audio-visual in nature – with activities, discussions, interactive multi-media, and other web-resources.

A note about PowerPoint Slides: Uploading one’s PowerPoint presentation to the course management system without revision or audio is limiting and disengaging. Presentation slides are just that: slides that reinforce what the speaker is saying. Whether they are packed with information or contain only key words or messages, slides alone do not convey the complete topic, provide a cohesive narrative, or create the same emotional impact as an in-person presentation.

When adding voice-over to your slides, avoid reading them word for word. This can be a frustrating experience for students who can read the slides faster than they are read aloud, and it reduces efficiency in the learning process.

"Chunking Content"

Students learn more effectively when they are presented with smaller amounts of information that they can absorb in one sitting. Therefore, avoid overwhelming your students by placing all of your information for a module or instructional week on one HTML page or in one audio-visual lecture. A process known as “chunking” material is recommended. Take naturally occurring topics and place them on separate pages or in separate videos. Build a logical structure of information and provide transitions to guide your students from one page to the next. Mini-lectures, a form of presentation voice-overs, are one technique for chunking instructional content for online delivery.

Online Resources

When thinking about creating engaging content for your students, remember that there are plenty of Web resources that can be incorporated as course content and activities. Think of credible Web sites, government sites that provide public information, news sources, etc. Using current events in healthcare, public policy, and scientific research adds a fresh and exciting lens to course material.

Content "Creep"

When adopting new strategies or tools for the online course, instructors report that they end up adding more to their original course, and that it essentially becomes a course and a half. This often happens as a result of adding new material or tools rather than revising the existing course by deleting items and incorporating the old and the new materials, tools, and strategies. Remember to avoid adding to existing course materials; delete, replace, and integrate materials from your face-to-face course.


While communicating with students is vital to the teaching and learning process in any course, good communication is especially critical in a largely asynchronous online classroom where visual and aural cues are absent. Carefully consider and plan what you want to communicate to your students, both in the design and facilitation of your course.

Welcome Page

Creating a welcome page for your course is important because it sets the tone and expectations for students in your course. In addition, uploading a picture or a video and a brief professional biography adds a personal touch to your course that enables students to “see” and to feel connected to you.

Course Schedule

Communicating a carefully planned course schedule enables students to work at their own pace and block out time for study in their busy personal and professional lives. This includes open and close dates for modules as well as any assignments, quizzes, exams, etc. for the entire semester.

Overview Page

Starting each module or instructional week with an overview page is particularly helpful to students because it gives them a snapshot of what activities they need to complete in the near-term. Typically, and overview page consists of

  • An introduction
  • Objectives
  • Activities


Use the Dropbox tool in D2L to include all your instructions for course assignments and be sure to include due dates. It’s important to avoid placing separate copies of instructions and due dates in multiple areas of the learning management system since it makes updates and maintenance from semester to semester more difficult to track. Multiple copies of assignment instructions also increase the likelihood of discrepancies among the copies.

Good practice in communicating expectations for assignments also includes providing students with grading criteria such as rubrics, a sample assignment, and a file naming convention for assignment submissions. As part of an effective teaching and learning feedback loop, be sure to return the graded assignments, with any comments, soon after the submission due date, and let students know when they should expect to receive grades for their assignments. Timely feedback on assignments enables students to learn from their mistakes and gives them a chance to work toward successfully achieving the course outcomes.


For general or content-specific discussion posts, e-mail, chats, or Adobe Connect sessions, it is very important to include guidelines and expectations for participation. For example,

  • How often should students post in discussions? Should their responses be “off-the-cuff” or should students include a little bit of research in formulating their responses? What happens if a fellow-student’s response is incorrect?  Should students correct it? If so, what are some constructive ways to do so? Or, will the instructor correct wrong responses?
  • When should students use e-mail rather than discussion posts?
  • Are video chats formal presentations or are they informal opportunities to talk through some course material?

Fostering an Online Community of Learning and Inquiry

It is crucial for an instructor to coordinate and facilitate the dynamic interactions among students, faculty, and content when the course “goes live.” This includes being responsive to general and content-specific discussion forums, e-mail messages, and any just-in-time news feeds such as the announcements feature called “Course News” on the home page in each D2L course.

As an instructor you set the tone for interaction among students and faculty through the ways you respond to students in class discussions and e-mail. If you offer encouragement and ask follow-up questions to help students gain a better understanding of course material or case studies, for example, they will take your lead.

Setting up general discussion topics at the beginning of the course can be very helpful in creating a sense of community among online learners. A topic of student introductions helps “break the ice” and provides some professional and personal details that might spark connections among students and help create cohesive groups later in the course. Some instructors also include a separate discussion thread that is strictly social in nature. Some have called it Café Chat, Coffee Break, or Water Cooler. You may wonder why one would bother to do this. Such a discussion thread fosters social interactions, prevents off-topic comments in content-specific exchanges, and helps students begin their professional networks with their peers.


Organizing a course with the students in mind ensures that it is easy to navigate. Effective course design provides direction to students so that they know what to do upon login, and it guides students throughout the course with prompts and transitions.

The content pages, resources, and activities should have a consistent layout within each module or instructional week and throughout the course. Content items should reflect the material they contain, and each item should show a logical relationship among topics within a module or instructional week. Be sure that all content and activities are easy to find and access. When working with a blended course, it is important to let the students know how the online portions of the course interact with face-to-face components of the course.

Visual Design

The look and feel of your course should remain consistent from module to module. Be sure that your graphics, images, banners, and fonts maintain consistency. You may want to consider branding for your school or program of study and using it as a basis for all course pages.


Planning many forms of assessment throughout the course lets the instructor and students know whether or not students are meeting course objectives. Formative assessments provide students with opportunities to find out how they are doing. If students do poorly on formative assessments, they have the chance to correct their misconceptions and areas of weakness. On the other hand, students who do well gain confidence as learners. Formative assessments should be low-stakes because they are used to gauge when further review of course material is necessary. Formative assessments also prepare students for summative assessments such as exams, projects, and papers. In addition, give students opportunities to reflect on their own work since it fosters behaviors of the life-long adult learner.  Lastly, offer chances for peer feedback since it has shown to be quite effective when designed well.

Further Readings

Creating a culture of success: A framework for addressing at-risk student (Authored by MGH IHP SON faculty)

MGH IHP Tips for Teaching Current Events

Student Content Creators: Convergence of Literacies:

Faculty Focus - Five Common Pitfalls of Online Course Design:

Quality Matters Website:

Peer Instruction with Clickers in an Online Course -

Lazry, N., Mazur, E., & Watkins, J. (2008). Peer instruction: from Harvard to community colleges. Am. J. Phys., 76, 1066-1069. RWJ Vulnerable Populations.


Clark, R.C., Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2005). Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Crouch, C. H. & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer instruction: ten years of experience and results. Am. J. Phys., 69, 970-977.

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