Colin McLaughlin-Alcock, Department of Anthropology

Educators are increasingly recognizing the value of active learning and other best practice strategies which allow students to take ownership of their own education. One domain which remains resistant to active learning, however, is the online classroom (Germain). In this article, I present suggestions for building best practice strategies into online pedagogy.

Building a Learning Community

Students are more likely to succeed if they feel like they are part of a learning community (Griffith et. al.). Yet the very architecture of online classrooms isolates students. It is thus extra important for the online instructor to cultivate interactions that work against student isolation. To this end, several resources stress the importance of planning ice-breakers and introductions for the first day of class, just as you would in a physical classroom. Discussion forums or mix-and-match-type activities serve this purpose very well, where students respond to an introductory prompt and then comment on other students’ responses.

After introductions, class interaction can be promoted through group activities. An easy way to do this is to have students provide peer-feedback to one another on regular writing prompts. Such prompts can be automatically graded for participation or through peer-review tools to limit instructor workload.

There are, further, several online resources which facilitate group work and collaboration. Some of these, like Google Docs, are already frequently used to facilitate group work in physical classrooms and can be used in much the same way for online assignments.

Finally, it is important for the teacher to work against student isolation by providing regular feedback, especially on graded assignments (even if its just a short “nice job!” or “I like what you said there,”) and by commenting on student discussion boards (Regan, Boetcher).

Flipped Classrooms and Active Learning

Flipped classrooms and active learning have gained widespread recognition as best practices, even if their adoption lags in online classrooms (Germain). These strategies, which reduce the traditional emphasis on classroom lecture in favor of hands on activities that encourage students to process learning, may actually be more important online than in person (O’Mally). Long video lectures or online readings are unlikely to hold student attention. Some resources recommend limiting video lectures to no more than 10 minutes (O’Mally), a couple of which could be grouped around a class activity during the online class period.

However, another challenge is identifying active learning tools appropriate for an online environment. Many popular activities, such as “think-pair-share,” “snowball fight,” “jigsaw,” debates, and “jeopardy” often depend upon physical classroom interaction. One strategy which is easily adopted is the “minute paper,” in which students are given a short amount of time to respond to a writing prompt. As noted above, this could then be used as a basis for online discussion, in which students are encouraged to comment upon one another’s responses. Another easy activity is having students work in small groups on Google Docs to build lists or identify pros and cons on a certain topic. Again, they can then use these responses as the basis for future assignments.

Also useful are “reading guides,” short questionnaires which encourage students to process reading (or lecture material). In lieu of face-to-face formative assessment, can help track student progress as the class moves forward.

These are just a few suggestions, and clearly more work needs to be done to integrate best practices into the online classroom. Thoughts on maximizing inclusion and developing multi-modal strategies for content delivery would be especially welcomed. Hopefully these provide a useful entry to thinking about improving online instruction.


Boettcher, Judith V.  and Rita-Marie Conrad “Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online,” The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips. Jossey-Bass. 2010

Germain, Elizabeth. “Five Common Pitfalls of Online Course Design.” Faculty Focus. July 6 2011. Accessed 2/27/2019

Griffith, Lauren Miller, Cameron Griffith, and J. Hunter Peden, “Tribes or Nomads: A Comparative Study of Collaborative Learning Frameworks,” Teaching Anthropology. Spet. 28, 2015

Keengwe, Jared and Terry T. Kidd. “Towards Best Practices in Online Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.” MERLOT Journal of Online Education. Vol6 (2) June 2010.

O’Mally Sharon “Effective Teaching Online.” Inside Higher Ed. July 12, 2017. Accessed: 2/27/2019

Ragan, Lawrence C. “10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching: Best Practices in Distance Education.” Magna Publications. N.d. Accessed 2/27/2019

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on April 23rd, 2019.

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