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4 Tips for Online Teaching

Think of a bad learning experience you had. Now think of a good one.

Want to be remembered as someone’s good experience? It’s probably a good idea to evaluate your methods, especially given the added challenges of online teaching.

As one of those lucky few to use Zoom pre-Covid, as well as the recipient of many subsequent online lectures, I feel adequately qualified to speak on this subject. I’ve also delivered quite a few teaching sessions online – some better than others – so have condensed the key points down into four major areas.

Remember: be the teacher you needed earlier in your training!

Tip 1: Techno? Tech-yes?

The most obvious point (hence why it’s first) is to be familiar with the technology. Hopefully you’ve had experience using Zoom, Teams and the other common programs, but a quick way to evaluate adequacy is if you can answer the following questions:

  1. How do participants enter the session?

  2. How do you share your screen/slides?

  3. How can you check if participants have asked questions?

  4. Can you ask questions in a poll/survey style?

Another key tip here is to have contingency plans. Make sure you have at least one other device with the program on it, preferably one that can connect in another way (if wifi is the issue) and make sure other members have your slides, if appropriate.

Technology issues happen to us all and students are generally forgiving, but you can eliminate basic errors by familiarising yourself with the set up and ensuring the session can even occur in the first place!

Tip 2: (Group) size matters

Whenever you want to encourage discussion, or even a simple Q&A, it’s essential to consider how many students are in the session.

Generally with small groups (less than about twelve, but this may differ), the tactic of “unmute yourselves and answer” works a bit better. With large groups, you’re relying on the few brave students, otherwise expect long silent gaps and a generally poor learning environment.

If you know the rough numbers of students, you can predict which method of discussion will be most effective. Larger groups could benefit from breakout rooms, thinking individually and then discussing in the chat or simply leaving them to ponder in their own heads and discuss the main issues yourself.

Some key points about this:

  1. Students not responding to questions is rarely an issue with their knowledge. It’s generally because they don’t feel comfortable speaking or typing their answer in front of the cohort, for fear of embarrassment or being “told off” by the teacher- i.e., you!

  2. It’s better to foster a positive environment where suggestions are rewarded and expanded upon, but also be aware that in large groups students will hesitate to answer unless it is anonymous

  3. Please don’t force students to respond or turn their camera on unless they were previously told this would be required. For students with anxiety, this can present a truly distressing situation and even for those without such disorders, they may not be ready for it!

Students not responding to questions is rarely a knowledge issue. It’s because they don’t feel comfortable speaking/typing in front of the cohort. It’s important to foster a positive learning environment and accept that larger groups may need alternative methods, such as breakout rooms, private messaging and polls.

3. Interaction is key

One of the difficulties of online teaching is that it eliminates the ability to see students, maintain eye contact, judge their reaction to topics, and so on. However, interactive teaching is still very much possible.

The best way to do this is using built-in poll/survey features which students can vote on. It encourages active participation, is anonymous and can guide whether your teaching is effective or not. It can even be used right at the beginning to gauge confidence/knowledge on the topic, enabling you to tailor your teaching to the level of understanding.

If built-in polls can’t be used (note: this is different to you not knowing how to create them!) then you can always use an external application or build it into the slides/teaching. However, these are sub-optimal as they present additional challenges and won’t enable the quieter students to participate as much.

4. Reflect and evaluate

Teaching is a difficult skill and it’s certainly something we all improve at over time- providing we reflect on previous performances. This isn’t just the responsibility of students to give feedback (admittedly, as a student I get more feedback forms to fill out than I’ve done successful cannulae), but also for you as the teacher to reflect on.

Did you feel like you used the technology at your disposal? Could you have prepared better? Did you adapt the material for the students? Could you have made it more interactive? Did you feel that students learnt and responded to your techniques?

Ultimately, online teaching can be enjoyable and does have some benefits over in-person teaching. After all, just like the students, it means you can potentially wear some comfy pyjama bottoms and enjoy a coffee in a comfy chair! However, it’s important to remember that students require a flexible, positive approach to teaching and online teaching gives an additional barrier that ordinarily does not exist.

I’d like to finish by re-iterating an essential point. The “old school” style of aggressive teaching, shooting down suggestions and making students feel inadequate is no longer acceptable. It doesn’t encourage participation and can significantly affect the mental health of your students. If this is your current approach then, online or not, it’s probably worth evaluating your reasons behind this and whether you could adopt a more effective strategy.

After all, we should all aim to be the teacher we needed in our training.

Author: Hardeep Lotay

I’m a Cambridge medical student with an interest in medical communication and education. In particular, I enjoy creating content for students, patients and professionals that addresses lifestyle education and general wellness; nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress and mental health. I hope to contribute to a pro-active healthcare model that embraces personalised healthcare and telemedicine.

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