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The Teaching Practices of Award-Winning Online Faculty

Online Teaching and Learning Teaching Strategies and Techniques

The Teaching Practices of Award-Winning Online Faculty

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Swapna Kumar, Florence Martin, Kiran Budhrani, and Albert Ritzhaupt (2019) recently released the results of a study of the practices of online teachers who had won awards from one of three professional organizations. These practices, summarized below, can serve as guides for all online teachers.

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Swapna Kumar, Florence Martin, Kiran Budhrani, and Albert Ritzhaupt (2019) recently released the results of a study of the practices of online teachers who had won awards from one of three professional organizations. These practices, summarized below, can serve as guides for all online teachers.

Real-world content and application

One common theme among survey responses is the importance of applying theoretical concepts to real-world examples. But the problem with online teaching is that once faculty are done creating the course content, they often do not review it later for updates.  In today’s world, where things change quickly, examples can soon go out of date. Thus, faculty need to review their content periodically to make sure that it still resonates with students.

The internet provides a near daily supply of fresh digital content that they can incorporate into their courses to bring a practical and relevant application to the topics. Kumar et al. provide some examples:

  • Radio show podcasts that students listen to and discuss in online forums. NPR and other sources host excellent podcasts that can be used in online courses. I used a series of podcasts on the impact of our current healthcare financing system on healthcare costs that NPR ran during the healthcare financing debate a few years ago.  It was a perfect supplement to the theoretical discussions in my medical ethics class because the episodes illustrated how the financing system influences medical practice. For instance, one pointed out how women in a certain town in New Hampshire are three times more likely to have hysterectomies than women elsewhere because of the number of doctors in the area who perform them and need to find income sources. NPR posts recordings of their reports, including transcripts, within 24 hours of broadcast, and faculty will find offerings on nearly any topic.
  • Videos that discuss cases related to class topics. Faculty will find videos that illustrate applications of their course concepts on YouTube, Vimeo, Ted Talks, and other sites. One faculty member in the survey, for instance, used courtroom videos of real cases to make legal concepts come alive for students.

While many faculty use real-life examples to illustrate points already made in the course content, they can even more tightly link reality and theory by reversing the order: starting a module with cases and then drawing the general principles out of them. I experimented by putting the cases I encountered in a hospital’s medical ethics discussion group at the front of my medical ethics modules and allowing students to debate those before covering the theoretical content. This had the effect of both making students more engaged in the topics and showing them that the pre-philosophical intuitions that they used to debate the cases can be generalized into principles that apply to a wide variety of cases. This demonstrated how theory is drawn from practice.

Multimedia resources

The study also found that award-winning faculty used a variety of multimedia materials in their courses. They created videos and podcasts as well as interactive flowcharts, screencasts, and VoiceThreads. Students appreciated instructors who understood that the web is an audiovisual medium and were willing to put the time into creating content that fits the medium rather than simply transcribing their face-to-face lectures into long text documents.

One interesting use of technology concerned an instructor who created screencasts explaining the answers after each quiz. Faculty often do not return to completed quizzes to explain why the right answers were right and the wrong answers were wrong, but this review is needed if students are going to learn from the quizzes. This simple technique will help ensure that students learn from their quizzes.

To teach their students communication skills for the modern world, these faculty also had students create digital content as assignments. For example:

  • Students created digital stories to explain a topic or illustrate how it applies to a real or hypothetical example. These stories combined voice narration with imagery and allowed students to exercise their creativity. Such stories can be easily created with free programs such as Adobe Spark Video. See the articles on digital storytelling in past issues of The Teaching Professor (e.g., this one and this one).
  • Students created podcaststo explain a concept or tell a story. Faculty interested in using this devise might want to direct students to the exceptional resources on how to create a podcast story found on the NPR website to provide them with hints on creating engaging podcasts.
  • Students created study guides for future students as webpages. Students have a natural desire to demonstrate their own expertise by helping other students; these projects benefit both the creators by giving them a learning experience and future students who use the pages by helping them understand course topics.

Student reflection on learning

Self-reflection on learning has been shown to improve understanding and retention, but it’s unlikely for students to engage in that self-reflection without prompting. Thus, some of the award-winning faculty build self-reflection right into their courses. One had students reflect on their learning after a quiz together. Though the authors do not say how, I can see this done through a post-quiz discussion forum about the answers. Another had students write self-reflections on their discussion participation, answering questions such as “What did I learn?” Still another had students assess their discussion performance on a rubric.

In a similar vein, these faculty created their own mid- and end-of-course student surveys to collect feedback that could improve the course. Such surveys not only provide valuable information for the instructor on what is and is not working but also allow students to think about how they are doing in the course and what they could do to improve. Students are usually too focused on the next assignment to think back to what they could have done differently on completed assignments; these surveys provide an opportunity for that reflection.

These faculty also created customized end-of-source surveys for their classes. Institutional student surveys are generally in a common format that provides limited practical guidance to the instructor. Instructors can make their own surveys to supplement institutional surveys, asking about specific course content and activities to learn whether students find them helpful.

Explanation of purpose

It is easy to forget to fall into the trap of thinking that grades should be all the motivation that students need to do coursework. But while a grade may be sufficient to motivate most students to do the work, it can cannot motivate them to learn from that work. When their work serves no apparent purpose other than obtaining a grade, students may not see learning as the goal of their education.

Award-winning faculty explain the purpose of all course activities in terms of how they will benefit the students down the road, often connecting them to students’ future professions. For instance, I explain to students in my medical ethics class that they will run into ethical issues as practitioners and that the course will equip them to solve these issues, just as their clinical courses equip them to solve clinical issues. This provides students with a different mindset for approaching their work from thinking of it as merely a means to a grade and degree.

Peer review of course content

Faculty are used to working on an island, developing and teaching their courses without outside input. But it often takes another set of eyes to see problems and potential improvements. The best faculty solicit peer feedback on their course content and activities. This is especially important in online education because many faculty learned to teach before online education existed and so do not have a clear model for good teaching online. Plus, other faculty may be using technologies and practices that they could recommend to their colleagues. For these reasons it is a good idea to have other faculty review your online courses to provide feedback. At the very least, soliciting peer feedback ingrains a mindset of continuous improvement in teaching, which is important in a field where new technologies and teaching resources are constantly emerging.


Kumar, S., Martin, F. Budhrani, K., & Ritzhaupt, A. (2019). Award-winning faculty online teaching practices: Elements of award-winning courses. Online Learning Journal, 23(4), 160–180. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v23i4.2077

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