Oregon State University Online Education Tips for Student-Centered Remote Teaching

Double rainbow at Oregon State University MU

As we endeavor to provide remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, while it is important that we address the immediate needs in sharing course content with students, delivering lectures, and providing access to course materials, it is also critical that we create an environment that encourages and supports student engagement to ensure deep understanding of the course content. To help encourage student engagement, we can borrow lessons from online course design and teaching to help with remote instruction in this unprecedented time.

Many online educators have found that the key to successfully engaging students is to adopt a student-centered approach that focuses on creating opportunities for three forms of interaction for students:

  • Student-Content interaction, where we provide active learning experiences for students (meaningful learning activity + reflection)
  • Student-Student interaction, where we structure the learning community and make it clear to students how they need to interact with others in the class
  • Student-Instructor interaction, where we create a framework for how the instructor will interact with students during their learning experiences

There are many ways to encourage these three forms of interaction. Experienced online educators have found that making sure these three forms of interaction are happening throughout the course in some fashion helps to keep students engaged, even when at a distance. If you are an educator who finds yourself suddenly teaching remotely, you can borrow some tips and techniques from online educators to help engage your students.

This document will help you frame your thinking in a student-centered manner and will provide practical, easy-to-implement suggestions for putting student-centered remote teaching into action.

3 Questions to Consider in Student-Centered Remote Teaching

As we shift to new remote educational environments, it can be helpful to ask some very practical questions about how things will work in your course, now that you and your students are not in a physical classroom together. To take a student-centered approach to remote teaching, ask three questions about your course:

  1.  How will my students interact with the course content? Beyond reading, listening/viewing lectures, what will they actually DO with the course content? And how can they do so in their homes?
  2. How will my students interact with other students? Beyond completing assignments and assessments independently, how will students work together to ensure that they feel like part of a learning community and have the opportunity to collaborate, think critically, be intellectually challenged, and make meaning with others? How can students work with others while isolated in their homes?
  3. How will my students interact with me, their instructor? Now that you aren’t in the classroom with your students, how will students be able to interact with you? How might you guide student learning, while allowing flexibility depending on different student needs? What assignment expectations do you need to convey? What information will you need to clarify for students?

Asking these questions puts the instructor in the student’s point of view and opens up a new way of thinking about remote instruction. When preparing a course for remote delivery, sharing course content remotely can feel overwhelming. It can be helpful to extend your thinking beyond content delivery to these three forms of student interaction.

In online course design, a lot of time and effort is invested to create an architecture of engagement where these three forms of interaction can take place. The current health crisis has not allowed for the amount of development time we would have preferred, but there are some easy-to-implement instructional methods you can use to help encourage student engagement when delivering courses remotely.

Student-Content Interaction

Hands typing on laptop

Student-content interaction is all about having students DO something with the course content or topic. Reading and listening to lectures will be part of many classes, but passive receipt of information isn’t sufficient to help students engage with the course and meet course learning outcomes. Instead, we should create opportunities for active learning, which is when students DO something meaningful related to the course content and then reflect on their learning. Some examples follow.

Complete a course reading and …

  • Write a summary
  • Create a PPT slide that shows your key take-away from the reading
  • List five of your take-aways and one question you have based on the reading
  • Identify the reading’s clearest point and its muddiest point for you as a reader
  • Create a concept/mind map
  • Diagram a process
  • Make in infographic
  • Suggest quiz questions based on the reading
  • Create study aids (flashcards, pneumonic devices)
  • Critique the reading
  • Write an Op-Ed based on the content

Attend a synchronous lecture via ZOOM and …

  •  Zoom think-pair-share: Instructor poses a question, asks students to jot some notes down independently to form initial thoughts, then distributes students to breakout rooms to discuss, and pull the class back together as a group to discuss and synthesize
  • Participate in a poll asking if they would like additional examples, or quizzing on some of concepts
  • Illustrate ideas on the Zoom whiteboard
  • Flip the Zoom “lecture” by having students come prepared to discuss topics they have already read up on
  • Give students the opportunity to lead a discussion in Zoom

Other learning activities will vary by discipline and level of study. Consider these examples for inspiration:

  • Kitchen lab experiments and lab reports
  • Backyard or video “field” observations and field reports
  • Analyzing data sets, creating data visualizations
  • Preparing and giving multimedia presentations, including Q&A from classmates
  • Creating infographics, webpages, blog posts, collages, memes, or digital images related to course content

Don’t forget reflection! For active learning to be implemented fully, students need to complete a meaningful action, as in the examples above, but also need to perform some sort of reflection about their learning. Remember that “reflection” can actually mean more than one thing, so  it can be helpful to provide students with direction about what kind of reflection you are requesting, specifically. Here are a few easy ways to guide student reflection:

  • Invite students to share:
    • one thing they feel most confident about and why
    • one thing they struggled with and how they overcame it or how they plan to
    • one thing they still don’t fully grasp
    • one most helpful resource from the week/lesson/etc.
    • one resource they wish they had during the last week/lesson/etc.
  • Use Grossman’s Continuum of Reflection as a guide:
    • Content-based reflection, where you ask students to provide evidence and make inferences
    • Metacognitive reflection, where you ask students to think about their thinking, e.g. noting differences between thoughts and feelings
    • Self-authorship reflection, where students gain distance from earlier thinking and are asked about how feelings and thoughts influence each other
    • Transformative and intensive reflection, where students are asked to note how their feelings and thoughts have changed over time
  • Use Ryan’s Levels of Reflection as a guide:
    • Reporting and responding, where students are asked to observe, provide evidence, ask questions and state opinions
    • Relating, where students make connections between content and prior learning or personal experience
    • Reasoning, where students analyze content, including discussions of relevant research literature
    • Reconstructing, where students imagine future applications, such as in future professional contexts

Pairing a meaningful activity with some sort of guided reflection helps students get the most from the active learning experience.

Student-Student Interaction

Students interacting with each other helps learners feel like part of a learning community, but also helps them engage in higher-order thinking that would be more challenging to accomplish if studying alone. Through collaboration, students brainstorm, deliberate, disagree, compromise, and achieve consensus–all ways of thinking that are difficult, if not impossible, to do alone.

Some examples of how to encourage effective student-student interaction when remote teaching follow:

  • Discussion forums in Canvas
  • Peer review for writing assignments and projects
  • Group projects
  • Group presentations
  • Think-pair-share
  • Study groups
  • Collaborate on a Case Study
  • Develop a guide of resources for future students
  • Participate in a role play/debate using the Discussions
  • Create or adapt a board game based on course content (Trivia game, etc)

Students can arrange their own meetings in Zoom, or may choose to use other video conference solutions such as FaceTime or Skype. They can collaborate using Google Drive,  Box, or other web-based tools.

Student and laptop

Student-Instructor Interaction

The third form of interaction is student-instructor interaction. In student surveys about online education, this form of interaction is routinely and resoundingly rated as most important to students. Student-instructor interaction is more than just answering student questions. The U.S. Department of Education requires for fully online classes that instructors provide regular, substantive, and instructor-led interactions to distinguish online classes from correspondence courses:

  1. Regular means on a regular basis. Students need to know what the pattern of communication and interaction will be, and that pattern should be fairly frequent.
  2. Substantive means that the instructor should be communicating about the course content and learning activities, not just grading work or providing classroom management instructions.
  3. Instructor-led means that the instructor needs to initiate the communications and interactions and should not merely be available for answering questions.

These guidelines help online instructors provide strong student-instructor interaction. Remote instructors can use these guidelines to help engage students, too.

Some examples of how student-instructor interaction when remote teaching follow:

  • Discussion forums in Canvas, where the instructor participates and engages students in discussion about course content
  • Providing a short video to introduce a major assignment, then holding a Q&A session
  • Detailed feedback on assignments (written and/or recorded)
  • Voice-over screen recordings using tools such as Screencast-o-matic to provide demonstrations, discussions of diagrams/graphs, slides, and illustrations
  • Writing conferences to discuss draft assignments
  • Regular check-ins to make sure everyone is doing ok during the pandemic
  • Weekly intro and/or recap video announcements
  • Open or by-appointment office hours by web conference, phone, text
  • Videos of the instructor in their home or safe outdoor environment, with pets, families, etc. to provide social presence

Additional Resources to Assist with Student-Centered Learning in Remote Teaching Environments

Actively Engaging Students in Online Asynchronous Classes (lots of concrete examples that can be adopted for Remote Teaching)

Adjusted syllabus statements for humane and compassionate teaching during the pandemic

Online Open Office Hours with Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris on critical digital pedagogy

Open Letter at Hybrid Pedagogy Journal with links to new primers, What is online learning? And What is digital pedagogy?

10 Questions to Ask — a preparatory checklist for students from the Academic Student Success Center

10Qs – Homework — a checklist for students about completing online homework from the Academic Student Success Center


Thanks to Meghan Naxer, Dorothy Loftin, Deborah Mundorff, Clare Creighton and Weiwei Zhang for contributing to this article.

Photos: Keyboard by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash; student with laptop by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

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