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Teaching tips from an experienced online professor

Fri Apr 8, 2022 at 08:33 AM

Helena Riha, special lecturer of Linguistics and International Studies,contributes a number of teaching tips to the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning on a regular basis. The tips she provides are her tried and true ways to engage students with the material, with each other and with her. Riha shares some of her favorite teaching tips with us. 

Riha has more than a decade of experience teaching online courses and uses the skills she has acquired to provide tips and techniques for creating strong online classes and enhancing the online student experience. 

“I’m always thinking about teaching. I try to improve the way I teach and really be able to get at what I want the student to learn. I want to figure out the best ways to present the material so they learn it,” said Riha. 

To strengthen her own skill set, Riha said she participated in a lot of e-Learning and Instructional Support workshops. She also read the CETL teaching tips and also got hands-on with Moodle to try new things. 

“One of the things I’m really proud of, by using Moodle a lot and in a variety of ways, I know what Moodle tool will help me realize the assignment the way I want it. I’m not scared of exploring new tools and I’m happy to know what tools are out there,” said Riha. 

Moodle Surveys

Riha has been using Moodle surveys for several years. 

“I love Moodle surveys, especially for online teaching. If you just have the same kind of assignments all the time-quizzes, discussion–it gets really old. You need to have different kinds of assignments so students don’t get bored,” Riha said. 

Riha said using Moodle surveys, she can replicate surveys, create mini surveys to get student feedback on various topics, and design questions that tap into students views and experiences relating to course themes. She said the instructor can use the results for follow up or comment on them and move on to the next topics. For grading purposes, she will create a comment section of the survey. Students must write a minimum number of words addressing specific questions. The student completes the survey and answers the questions with the minimum number of words or higher for a grade. 

Riha suggests using the e-LIS Help Library as well as consulting with the Instructional Design team to learn more about what types of content are available in Moodle. 

“I find instructors tend to alternate between quizzes and discussions. Break it up and put in other items. Especially in an online class, it’s really important to have a variety of things that you do rather than the same kinds of assignments every week. 

Class guests

“I try to have class visitors when I can. It’s interesting to have somebody else come in and talk to students about a topic,” Riha said. 

This works for synchronous and asynchronous courses. For synchronous classes, she suggests having the guest speak to the class live via Zoom. Riha said her online classes are all asynchronous and she has developed a method for having students engage with the guest. 

“I ask the students to read a particular reading that pertains to the visitors specifically and then post a question in a forum and also post why they are interested in that issue. The visitor answers the questions in the forum,” said Riha. 

She said she typically asks faculty members to serve as class guests. She said they aren’t as worried about interacting with the class and with students through Moodle. 

“I do this in undergrad classes a lot. Students get a different voice from the visitors because it’s typically a faculty member from an area that isn’t my area of specialty,” said Riha. 

Develop a presence

“It’s really important to establish your teacher presence. A lot of professors think the way to do that is to respond to students’ postings. I like putting myself in the place of the students, so I do the discussion forums, or I do the assignments, and then I create my own posts. It lends more authenticity to the class,” said Riha. 

To do this, when she creates discussion forum posts or creates an assignment, she creates her example. This forces her to work up the assignment and make sure it is clear and the expectations are realistic. 

“It also lets me bring in parts of my own experience,” said Riha. "Students have commented they like seeing my examples."

Chat with the students

While Riha calls it “Chat with the Professor,” this tip is a way for her to get to meet her students–in a way that doesn’t have to do with class. 

“I take about 15 minutes to chat with each student individually after class. They sign up for an appointment and we meet. I base the conversation on the student questionnaire they complete at the beginning of the semester. I ask them a provocative question, like I have them tell me something they do really well, or their secret skill. It gives me an idea of what they are like and what they are interested in,” said Riha. 

The one thing she does not do is talk to them about their class performance or class-related topics. She wants to get to know who they are, and what types of experiences they have had. Sometimes the students reveal negative experiences they are having as well. 

“It’s so helpful for me to do that because, in talking to all the students, subsequently, I feel like I know each person in class. I really like to do that a lot,” said Riha. 

She said whether the class is synchronous or asynchronous, the professor can set a schedule for the students to sign up for time slots. 

Assign essays they want to write

Riha said she has a particular way of doing essays. She said it’s important to her that students read the material, watch the video or use the resources she provides and then summarize the relevant concepts. 

“I want to make sure they have internalized the information the way I wanted them to. I pose interesting thought questions based on their own experiences. I don’t like to just ask theoretical questions. I try to ask them questions that draw upon the material they’ve read or seen and also involve their own life experiences. This makes it more interesting for them to write and more interesting for me to read. I’m able to see if they understand the concepts and if they can relate it to the resources,” said Riha. 

Create an organized environment

“I think it’s really important to make the Moodle course super easy to use. I like to keep it visually simple, the way (e-LIS instructional designer) Nic Bongers likes to design it and the way he designed the Quality Online Teaching Certification courses.”

She said it’s not about eliminating text or items, it’s about being able to see and find everything clearly and easily. Making it easy for the students to see what they need to do and when it’s due eliminates a lot of anxiety for them. 

“I try to make my gradebook really clear. I give assignments informative names so students know exactly what the assignment is and they know their current grade at any given time,” said Riha. “I try to think about the class from the student’s point of view. If I was a student looking at the course, would I know what to do and would I know my current grade?”

Stay on track

Riha encourages her students to log into Moodle at the beginning of the week and check all items to see what is due that week–even if they can’t work on a module right away. 

“That way the students know what they have to do and can plan for it. It’s a really good idea to check in at the beginning of the week and plan your time accordingly. I also tell them to never miss an assignment–they are just needlessly missing points,” said Riha. 

She also encourages all students to do any extra credit work. 

“I don’t like to scale or drop grades, but I like extra credit because it gives the student extra points, and it achieves my goal of encouraging students them to engage with the material. Extra credit really helps. When you add it up at the end of the semester, it does make a difference. It’s worth the time,” said Riha. 

To keep things on track, Riha uses class texts. Students can opt in to receive text messages that Riha sends outside of the Moodle notifications and emails they get. She said she sends a brief summary of any course announcements as a text. 

If you need help with Moodle, contact e-Learning and Instructional Support. e-LIS provides tech support for Oakland University’s online learning tools and also instructional design services for online classes. To read more tips, visit the Teaching Tips section of the CETL website.