Teaching online isn’t like teaching in the classroom.

It requires a different approach and specific online teaching strategies to boost learning. In a digital learning environment, you often have limited time to ensure that your instruction is effective.

No matter your audience, you have to provide maximum value. These five online teaching strategies will help you increase engagement and retention for both kids and adults.

Want to learn how to put them into practice? 

1. Cooperative Learning

In 2013, Chin-min Hsiung found strong evidence that students perform “substantially better” in classroom tests after cooperative learning.

Cooperative Learning, sometimes called small-group learning, is an instructional strategy in which small groups of students work together on a common task. The task can be as simple as solving a multi-step math problem together or as complex as developing a design for a new kind of infrastructure.

One of the weaknesses of online and distance learning is that students have fewer opportunities to interact and collaborate.

Or is it?

Modern learning software allows for a great deal of interaction between participants. Social features have become a hallmark of learning software. Just because it’s not the same type of interaction as in the classroom doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial.

Basic features like commenting and discussion forums let learners interact asynchronously. One-on-one and group chat using tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams foster real-time communication. File co-authoring, user groups, polls, and surveys also increase student interaction.

Learners can also create their content with blogs and wikis. These tools increase learner agency and encourage learning outside of the class syllabus. Users can share their thoughts, comment on others, and share knowledge.

All of this makes project-based learning (PBL), a hallmark of collaborative education, more accessible than ever. PBL sees students working together on a real-world problem over an extended period.

Many of the steps of project-based online learning offer opportunities for collaboration:

Source: PBL Works Blog

This type of learning requires that students work together to find new solutions to real problems. It’s one of the best ways to prepare learners for the requirements of the real world. This applies to both young students and experienced professionals.

Online learning provides the tools for various types of interactions that support PBL.

Number 2: Differentiation Instruction

Differentiated instruction has long been a central tenet of classroom teaching. But what constitutes differentiated instruction is difficult to pin down, but here’s how Concordia University defines it:

Differentiating Instruction means teaching the same material to all students using a variety of instructional strategies. It can also require the teacher to deliver lessons at varying levels of difficulty based on the ability of each student.

Concordia University
Source: Education Week

Every learner has a different learning style. They come to the training with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and educations. And everyone has their preferences and innate skills.

Offering the same training to all of them reduces the teaching effectiveness, which is why differentiation is essential.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to develop unique content or presentation methods for classroom teaching. It takes a lot of time and effort.

This is where online teaching blows classroom teaching out of the water.

For example, you can offer different tracks of the same training. One might be for people who are new to the subject matter. Another can teach somewhat familiar people. A final one might be for experts.

Each track will have the same core material, but you can present it differently or supplement it with different materials.

We’re going to talk in more detail about a few different ways you can differentiate your online teaching in a moment.

But first, an important note: make sure that the training core stays the same for each differentiated group. Or else you’ll be offering different courses to each group instead of separate tracks of the same course. And that’s a lot more work.

One of the ways you can effectively differentiate your learning is by letting each learner go through at their own pace. Keep reading to find out how self-paced learning can take your online training to the next level.

Number 3: Self-Paced Learning

Self-paced learning accommodates different learning rates and needs by letting the learner control the speed of the course.

You might be reading this article as fast as you can. Someone else might be re-reading each section before moving on. There’s no right or wrong way, and none is better than the other.

Aside from learning habits and preferences, life situations often result in students only having a few hours a week to learn online, while others have a few hours a day. Self-paced learning is the best way to accommodate both types of situations.

Self-paced learning can help students learn better, even when they spend the same time studying the material.

Online teaching offers effective self-paced learning for all types of students. If you’ve ever completed online training, you’re probably familiar with the typical presentation. You see a list of videos (or audio files or text documents) that you need to go through to complete the training.

Here’s an example from Hubspot:

Source: Hubspot

Learners can choose when to watch the videos and when to take the quiz.

In most cases, you can choose to go through learning files at any pace you want. You may have a final due date, but there’s no requirement for watching specific videos at specific times.

This means it’s easy for learners to take the content at a pace that makes sense for their learning style (we’ll talk more about learning styles in the next section). They can even go over lessons more than once if they need to.

Yes, that means that people will finish the training at different times. But if it means better learning, isn’t it worth it?

Number 4: Multiple Learning Tools

There’s debate over whether learning styles are scientifically valid, but anecdotal evidence points out that some people learn best when they see, hear, read/write, or act out information.

With modern technology, it’s never been easier to address various learning styles and preferences among your learners.

If nothing else, presenting information in multiple ways helps to reinforce it to your learners. Hearing something once is a good start. But hearing it, reading it, seeing it, and talking about it (or problem-solving with it) is a lot better.

This mix of learning methods combined with self-paced learning allows for effective spaced repetition, contributing to more efficient and effective learning [PDF].

And modern tools like live-streaming allow you to engage with students in a variety of methods. You’re no longer limited to video, audio, and text. You can also have live discussions, work on a project simultaneously, or collaborate in real-time.

(It’s also important to remember that you may have learners who are blind, deaf, or otherwise unable to engage with a particular style of learning thoroughly. Providing a mix of learning tools ensure that everyone can learn the material.)

Number 5: Teacher-Student Interaction

One of the most commons fears about digital learning is that the lack of face-to-face interaction will be detrimental to learners.

Most studies on the topic have shown that teacher-student relationships are essential for school-age children. Little time has been spent studying (or at least publishing about) the effect on adult learners.

But social connections and interaction are important to humans in general. So it’s a safe bet that these interactions foster learning.

Just because you’re teaching online doesn’t mean there’s no interaction between the teacher and the learner. But you have to be intentional about making it happen.

Much of it comes down to choosing the right instructional methods. Live streaming, for example, lets students ask questions during a lecture or a Q&A session. It also feels more personal than simply watching a video of the instructor.

Whether by chat or video, these Q&A sessions help connect people across the digital divide.

The social features mentioned above can facilitate interaction between students and teachers—not just between students.

And many online programs do include face-to-face interaction. Corporate training, for example, may use all of the methods above with a group of learners in the same building. Occasional meetings or projects are much easier in this situation than with a group of learners spread across the world.

All that said, it’s easy to forget about interaction when designing an online course.

But it’s more than just an online teaching strategy; it’s good practice.

Experiment with Online Teaching Strategies

Not every online class or course will use all of these strategies (though it’s worth pointing out that many of them are related). It’s best to start with one or two and see how well they work.

Maybe you’ll find that your learners don’t need differentiated instruction. Or that they respond best to a particular type of learning tool. You can adapt to that.

The important thing is to find a platform that supports these strategies and start testing them. See if more cooperative learning gets you better engagement or outcomes. Try different tools, like live-streaming or podcasts. Experiment with different methods of interaction.

After a while, you’ll find the best combination of online teaching strategies for your particular group.

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