Basics of Online Teaching

Basics of Online Teaching, Zoom workshop
Event date: Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Event Organizer: Professor Jenny Davidson
Event panelists: Professors Molly Muray and Aaron Ritzenberg

A Note about the Event

The goal of this Summer 2020 workshop was to cover the basics of online instruction, particularly for graduate students anticipating new TA assignments and/or graduate students and faculty who did not have teaching assignments when Columbia University switched to emergency remote instruction in Spring 2020. Jenny Davidson, Molly Murray, and Aaron Ritzenberg each shared a short list of recommended principles and practices, which have been collated below.

Basic Principles

  1. Be a person. This is more important now than ever: as your encounter your students this fall, keep your humanity front and center.
  2. Be a comrade of your students. Be responsive to where they are; find out what their circumstances are; check in often; be adaptable and willing to improvise.
  3. Prioritize inclusivity. Consider the various ways that you can improve access and “reduce friction” for students in order for them to meet requirements.
  4. Stay aware of limits. Less is more, in online teaching especially. Try out new or different approaches as needed, but don’t over-extend yourself or your students.
  5. Have some structure. Although you have to be flexible and responsive, students will want to know that there are certain parameters in place; they’ll need some center of gravity.
  6. Use multiple teaching modes. Keep in mind that discussion is merely one among many available modes. Be mindful of what teaching mode you’re using, and why.
  7. Use metacognition. Give your students plenty of opportunity to think about their thinking and reflect on the work they’re doing both in and out of the online classroom.
  8. Treat this as an opportunity. Online teaching makes it possible to get constant, real-time feedback from students, which will build community and improve your teaching.

Basic Practices

  1. Build the syllabus together. Share a provisional syllabus with your students and invite them to modify it collaboratively in order to fit everyone’s expectations and bandwidth.
  2. Communicate regularly. Build in recurring, consistent times to check in with students on how things are going. If possible, hold more office hours than you typically would.
  3. Teach shorter sessions. Zoom fatigue is real! Consider reducing synchronous class time, possibly by offering multiple shorter meetings instead (everyone’s schedules permitting).
  4. Teach asynchronously. Explore possibilities for delivering material or engaging students outside of synchronous class times, such as sending students pre-recorded mini-lectures or short guiding handouts 1-2 days before a class session.
  5. Use learning objectives. Be explicit with yourself and with your students not only about what you’re doing, but about why you’re doing it: what students are learning how to
  6. Don’t be afraid to cold-call. Engaging students in online discussion can be made easier if you treat the Zoom classroom as a space in which everyone’s hand is always “raised.” Call on students at will, but make clear to them that they can always decline to respond.
  7. Give free-writing prompts. Focused free-writing for a few minutes can help students prepare to engage in conversation or perform a new task.
  8. Give listening prompts. You might intermittently invite students to “say back” a classmate’s point, or to synthesize the major points of a discussion as it unfolds.
  9. Use breakout rooms. These are ideal not only for small-group work, but also for short breaks in which students can catch up informally with classmates.

Additional Resources

Columbia University affiliates have access to many online teaching resources offered by the Center for Teaching & Learning, including the following:

Teaching with Zoom
Teaching with Panopto
Accessibility in Teaching & Learning
Active Learning for Your Online Classroom
Graduate Student TAs: Adapting Your Teaching
Supporting Hybrid & Online Teaching & Learning (SHOLT)
Hybrid & Online Teaching Institute for Faculty

Author profile

Diana is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature. Her teaching and research interests include the Victorian novel, histories of science and medicine, studies of the environment, and theories of gender and sexuality. She has taught literature and writing classes at Columbia University, Barnard College, and Mills College, and she is currently a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow at Columbia's Center for Teaching & Learning.

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