Approaches to Instruction

Note to Faculty

Courses have been assigned a specific modality on the Schedule of Courses to facilitate room scheduling (e.g. determining whether an in-person space is necessary; to determine whether the class has synchronous meeting times). The course modality also helps students understand some of the basic structure of the course, such as whether they will be expected to attend synchronous sessions.

However, there is flexibility for varied instructional approaches within each modality. For example, faculty teaching in the mixed modalities will likely integrate elements from online, remote, and in-person courses. Additionally, faculty teaching in-person will often include online (asynchronous) components such as readings or discussion boards in Blackboard.

Within the basic constraints of your course modality (e.g., online courses should not have required synchronous sessions), we encourage you to consider how you’ll approach course elements such as lectures and active learning, and how you’ll prepare for disruption.

Begin at the End
The backward design approach to course design shifts the starting question from,
“What does my course have to cover?” to, “What do I want my students to learn?”

In their book Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe suggest these 3 steps:

  1. Identify the desired results: What do I want my students to learn?
  2. Determine acceptable evidence: How will I (and they) know that they have learned it?
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction: How will they learn it?

Your answers to the question “What do I want my students to learn?” form your course learning objectives which then become the foundation and guide for everything in the course.

It can be helpful to write: “By the end of this course, students will be able to…” followed by verbs that can tie into concrete assessment. For example, instead of, “Students will understand XYZ,” use more specific verbs such as, “Students will be able to identify and describe XYZ.” (See more about learning objectives.)

In this way you can connect everything that students engage with in the course—e.g. lectures, readings, discussions, assignments, projects, and tests—to a learning objective. Likewise, any instruction and activities that don’t have a clear tie to a learning objective can be eliminated.

Learning objectives should be included in the syllabus but also communicated to students throughout the course. Whenever you assign a learning activity, indicate how it will help them achieve one or more of the learning objectives.

Feel free to download this worksheet (docx) to help you articulate the learning objectives and identify how your students will achieve them.

This 8-minute CTL video describes more about the practice of writing learning objectives and aligning every course activity to them.

Lecturing in Each Modality – Best Practices
  1. Online “Lecturing” (Asynchronous)

    One of the most important things to remember about creating lectures for asynchronous online courses is not to lecture. It almost goes without saying that the online environment is so radically different than the in-person classroom, that we can’t use the same techniques. And since you can’t see students’ facial expressions and body language, you don’t have the cues about whether you have their attention and if they understand. In other words, rather than trying to replicate the in-person class experience, think of it as creating something new and different.

    Of course, you can use on your experiences of teaching the classroom in your online courses. When thinking about what to focus on, consider what in the past has been most interesting to students, where students are most likely to be confused, or what may make students uncomfortable. Also, consider your personal teaching style and how that is best conveyed online.

    Karen Costa, the author of 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos (available as an ebook to borrow through UVM libraries), provides guidance on how to create videos in ways that are sustainable for you (e.g., emphasizing showing your social presence, minimal production – don’t edit out the ums!) and support student learning. Alternatively, you might also consider using content that is already available on the web. You can curate a selection of videos and provide context for your choices, explaining how the videos you chose are connected to the course. (See the CTL repository for images and video on the web.)

    Here are some strategies to keep in mind:

    • Align content to learning objectives.
      Before creating a text or video “lecture,” or choosing one from the web, remember to review your course learning objectives, or module-level objectives (if you have them). Keeping these in mind will help you focus on what is important and decrease the likelihood of overwhelming the students with too much content, known as the “course-and-a-half syndrome,” (a common mistake made by new online faculty to add extra content in response to the perceived lack of rigor in online courses). Here’s a helpful resource from the University of Michigan to help you estimate the amount of time associated with an online course. Keeping this in mind will help you determine how much is enough.
    • Create “microlectures”: short and focused.
      To keep students’ attention focused, develop videos, podcasts, or written narratives that address only 1 or 2 concepts. If you’re producing videos, a useful guideline is 7 – 10 minutes per topic. Writing an outline or script will help you stay focused. Here are additional suggestions for creating videos from Association of College and University Educators. One of the most important ones, is “Don’t try to be perfect.” Editing out every “um,” cough, or interruption by a cat, is not only unsustainable for you, it also erases your “humanness.”
    • Present content in a variety of formats.
      Given that learner variability is the norm and not the exception, using a variety of ways to present your content will help students stay engaged in your course. These principles of Universal Design for Learning can inform your decision-making for when to use text, audio, and video (and perhaps a combination of formats.)
    • Make your content accessible.
      UVM is committed to making all learning environments accessible. Student Accessible Services will caption all videos, even if you don’t have a student who has that specific accommodation. Faculty can also make their own captioned screencasts using Screencastomatic. UVM also has Blackboard Ally working in all courses, a tool that:
    • Be visible and present in your online course.
      This pertains to how you translate your lectures as well as your feedback to and engagement with students. Practice making short videos not just to present your instructional content, but also to explain assignments (decrease the email questions), and to provide encouragement.
  2. Remote Lecturing (Synchronous)

    • Minimize distraction
      Attention is essential for learning and there are a number of ways you can help students attend to the lecture. Options include:

      • Provide a partial outline that students fill in as they listen
      • Ask a big question at the beginning of the lecture that students are tasked with answering by the end
      • Incorporate active learning strategies (see below)
      • Ask students to refrain from using the meeting chat function except when you pause to specifically invite their questions. You might suggest that they write their questions into a Word document or on paper to hold them in their mind until the Q&A times.
    • Pause and check in.
      Think about breaking your lecture into chunks of no more than 10 minutes. Here are a few ideas from the book, Classroom Assessment Techniques (Angelo & Cross, 2008), for breaking up the lecture.

      • Before beginning, run a poll to gauge students’ early thinking. After delivering some information, check in again. You could have students answer the same poll question again and discuss the changes.
      • Have them write down their clearest insight and biggest confusion (perhaps using the Blackboard journal tool).
      • Ask for a volunteer to summarize the main ideas.
    • Use OneNote for live notes.
      Do you write on the board in the class? You can still do so in remote teaching! Instead, use the Class OneNote Notebook to diagram concepts, work through problems, and demonstrate processes. Students can watch these notes live through their video connection and access them after class. See videos by UVM Mathematics & Statistics lecturer Laura Marthaler about how she uses the “Class Notebook” (OneNote) for remote instruction as well as how she organizes and shares remote lecture recordings with students through Teams.
    • Always allow students to ask questions via Teams chat (written vs verbal).
      For various reasons (e.g., bandwidth, shared home environments, barking dogs, attending to siblings, mental health issues, or “videoclassism“), it is not a good idea to require students to turn on their video or participate by speaking up. Instead, plan to solicit questions through the meeting chat, use the raise the hand function as an option if someone would like to speak, or a collaboratively edited document (which can be pre-seeded with questions).
  3. In-person lecturing (in a pandemic)

    Lecturing in the socially distanced classroom will be different.
    While you may have walked into your classroom hundreds, maybe thousands of times, the first time you walk in (wearing a mask) and see your mask-wearing students sitting six-feet apart, it will likely give you pause. With this in mind, we offer suggestions that will hopefully make this experience workable for you and your students:

    • Openly discuss COVID 19 classroom norms with your students.
      Help your students make a safe learning space by articulating the University’s expectations regarding social distancing, furniture placement, and mask-wearing. It may be difficult for you to adjust to these new norms, too. For example, you can no longer walk around the room. Talking about new behavior and norms openly and honestly will help your students adjust to the “new normal.”
    • Experiment with the classroom set-up.
      Work together with your students to decide what will work best for this space. Can they see the board or screen in front? If you are using the document camera or touchscreen display can they see what you are writing? When students have questions, can other students hear them? Does the sound quality in the room allow for distanced discussion in small groups? Be sure to regularly ask your students what their experience is like and adjust as necessary.
    • Learn to use the new equipment in your classroom.
      You may see, for example, a touchscreen display that you can write on to be projected on the screen, or a document camera that can also be projected. Using Teams, you will be able to capture and record many aspects of your lecture to share with the students in the classroom, or even with students who are quarantining.
    • Repeat and/or rephrase student questions and comments.
      When students speak, assume that they cannot be heard by everyone in the room, and will most likely be inaudible to students who are quarantined and watching remotely or on a recording later. You are the only person in the room who will have a microphone. If you are recording the session, student voices will not be picked up.
    • Not all students will be able to come to class.
      Quarantining or caring for others may keep them away. Consider how you will provide information and classroom assignments for students under these circumstances. For these reasons, recording your sessions using Microsoft Teams is strongly recommended.
Active Learning Ideas for Each Modality
  1. Online (Asynchronous)

    Here are some ideas for integrating active learning into your online teaching.

    1. Build in activities for interaction.
      As a part of the course’s weekly schedule, include assignments or activities that require students to interact with each other.

      Without intentional planning, students may feel isolated in their online classroom. Requiring students to interact with each other is some way, can help them feel connected to the class and more engaged in their learning.

      • Discussion There are several options for discussion, text-based using the Blackboard Discussion Board or Piazza (useful for collaborative problem solving) or video-based using FlipGrid. Small group discussions (using Blackboard’s Group Tool), can help students go deeper in their peer conversations and help them manage their time, as there are fewer posts to read. Many factors contribute to effective peer discussion, most importantly: asking open-ended questions that invite multiple perspectives; articulating clear expectations for how students should respond; and providing models for how students can respond to their peers in ways that respectfully challenge ideas and use questioning techniques to promote clarity in expression. Please see the Association of College and University Educator’s Online Tool Kit for specific examples on “Planning and Facilitating Online Discussions.”

      • Peer Feedback Assigning students to provide feedback on each other’s work is a valuable learning experience, as it not only provides them with an opportunity to practice the art of providing effective feedback (a desirable skill in the work place) it also helps them to self-assess their own work, based on the feedback of their peers. In order to be reciprocal, it is good to:

        Articulate the purpose of peer review, including its value as a life skill, your expectations for quality feedback, and how peer feedback will be assessed.

        Provide students with the tools they need to succeed. For informal, lower stakes review (which may be a good practice assignment before higher-stakes review), the Blackboard Blog tool is a good tool. If you are expecting more detailed review (such as involving document mark-up), then provide students with the file exchange tool in Blackboard groups. Consider providing a rubric to guide students in providing feedback to each other.

        Allow student enough time for the peer review so that feedback can be incorporated into the next draft or final work. Consider breaking your peer review assignment into multiple parts over the course of the semester. This allows your students to benefit from their peers’ feedback early on.

        Model respectful, specific comments and ask probing questions when providing feedback. It might be helpful to have a class discussion on what constitutes helpful and unhelpful feedback.

    2. Develop assignments that ask students to apply content knowledge.
      Even if your course learning objectives focus primarily on knowledge comprehension, assign students to apply content. For example:
      • Have students participate in decision-making scenarios.
        Provide a short description of a thorny problem related to the course content that requires a decision. Ask students (working in groups or individually) to arrive at a decision and explain their reasoning.
      • Provide low-stakes quizzes or other activities that require information retrieval. The relationship between frequent, low-stakes quizzing, retrieval, and increased comprehension of course content has been well documented. Not only will this activity support student engagement in the course, it can actually help them save time studying in the long-term for comprehensive exams. Using the Blackboard Test/Quiz tool faculty can design self-graded knowledge check quizzes that automatically provide feedback for incorrect answers. This type of formative assessment provides students and the instructor a snapshot of understanding.
    3. Use Assignments That Require Students to Engage with Content
      • Assign regular activities
        This will help students keep up with the course and focus their attention on what is important. If you explicitly state your rationale for assigning this work, you are less likely to get push back for perceived “busy work.” The Association for College and University Educators describe some strategies (PDF) including providing guiding questions for readings, asking students to annotate readings, and asking students to share calculations.
      • Support students’ metacognitive skills development.
        Most students will benefit from identifying what they want to learn, where they are now, and how they can close that gap. As Weimer (2012) notes, “We must regularly ask, not only ‘What are you learning?’ but ‘How are you learning?’” Asking this question is particularly important for online students to help keep them on track in the course.

        You may not realize the many different ways in which you support students during class time—everything from clarifying assignment details to answering complex questions about the content. Since those structural supports are missing in the online environment, consider way that you can deliberately help students set goals, prioritize work, monitor their own progress, and understand how their behavior impacts their academic success. Consider using practices such as Exam Wrappers (or Cognitive Wrappers), One-Minute Papers, and using the Blackboard Journal Tool for reflective journaling. Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching offers helpful resources on metacognition, for helping learners “think about their thinking.”

  2. Remote (Synchronous)

    • Assign a deliverable that students should submit ahead or bring to class, connected to the previous or upcoming class content. This could be a burning question, a photo or video (found or created), a quote from the reading, results from a calculation, a point of contention or confusion, a web resource, etc. Make a plan for how you’ll use this deliverable – call on one or two students to share with the whole class, break students into small groups for equal sharing, put all responses in a collaboratively edited document, etc. Allow the students’ ideas drive the learning.
    • Use polls or iClickers with “turn and text.” Teams Polls allow you to ask multiple-choice or multiple-answer questions to check students’ understanding. iClicker Cloud has additional question types (including short answer, numeric, and image hotspot). Have students respond individually, then use Teams Chat to text with a classmate or small group of classmates to discuss the best answer. Re-run the poll to see how peer instruction shifted the group’s responses.
    • Collaboratively edit documents. If all students respond to a prompt by typing in one shared document, you can see a range of perspectives emerge quickly. From a collected set of responses, you can ask students to identify themes, have students vote (with an asterisk) for the responses they are most interest in diving into, or you can select the response that you believe will most effectively move the class forward.
    • Use engaging discussion prompts and vary facilitation techniques. Starting with the goals of a discussion (e.g., exploration, integration, or resolution), give students a prompt that will encourage them to think (PDF, Purdue University) deeply about the subject. Give students time to think independently (as homework or during class) before moving into the discussion phase. To include a wide range of voices in discussion, try “affinity mapping” (Jessie Drumm, YouTube) where students share and then organize their ideas using virtual sticky notes on a whiteboard such as Padlet. Or consider hosting a fishbowl discussion where a set of students talk with one another and the other students observe, take notes, and then share a summary of main points and raise clarifying questions. Depending on the size of your class, you may want to break into small groups.
    • Provide transition time and clear instructions.Students may be navigating between various technologies to participate while juggling more than one device (e.g., meeting audio and iClickers on their phone/documents on their laptop). Additionally, be explicit in your expectations and create structure so all students are prepared to participate, being mindful of varying access to technology and varying degrees of comfort with the hidden rules of college. For instance, help groups establish ground rules, assign rotating roles in groups, and write down instructions with clear time limits. (see advice about surveying your students).
    • Have fun. Learning is, after all, a social endeavor. Early in the semester, make time for fun community building with icebreakers such as “Two Truths and a Lie.” For concept review, try “Emoji Slides” where students put a happy, neutral, or sad emoji in the chat in response to a concept to indicate their level of understanding or a “Who Am I” guessing game where you describe a concept and students have to identify what it is.
  3. In-person (Synchronous)

    The socially distanced classroom will be, at best, unfamiliar to students. However, active learning is possible even under these circumstances.

    Before COVID 19, you may have had mixed feelings about the use of personal devices in the classroom or you may have prohibited their use. Needless to say that we are teaching in radically different times. With this in mind, we encourage you to allow students to use their devices during class, as an intentional designed aspect of their classroom experience.

    The ability to use collaborative applications or to access their Blackboard course space on their devices while they are sitting six feet apart, wearing masks may make some types of active learning not only possible, but also effective. Here are some concrete ideas for you to try:

    • Focus student attention and recall with short writing prompts. Using Microsoft Teams, create a shared document for students to write, brainstorm, build, or comment on each other’s work.
    • Use a “Quick write/Muddiest Point” prompt. Pose a question and ask students to write their answer during class. Example questions include: What was the most important things you learned today? Or, what was the most confusing thing for you today? If students have their devices with them, they can post to the Blackboard course space in a Journal, Discussion Board, or low-stakes Quiz. The Muddiest Point question is also useful for planning where to start in the next class session.
    • Try a Jigsaw activity. Students work in small groups and learn about an aspect of a complex topic well enough to teach it to others in the class. Traditionally this requires a lot of student movement around the room. Elizabeth Barkley offers a way to implement this popular student engagement technique using collaborative instructional technology. (Note this link will take you to Barkley’s book Student Engagement Techniques on UVM Libraries E-book collection and will require logging in with your UVM NetID and password.)
    • Use Polling. Try using an online student response system, like iClicker Cloud. If you become familiar with using online polling applications early in the semester, you are more likely to use them if you need to accommodate student absences due to quarantine or other reasons. You can also poll students using Microsoft Teams.
    • Promote active note-taking. Provide pre-class notes with examples or blank areas in your Blackboard course space. Students can download and print before class or download to their devices to fill in during class.

Prepare for Disruption
  1. Online (Asynchronous)

    Flexibility is built into online, asynchronous courses so if students are in quarantined, they can continue their coursework if they are well enough to do so. However you may still need to think about building in extra flexibility in other ways; for instance, you may want to increase the total number of assignments and allow students to skip or drop some of them. You may also consider policies that offer extra flexibility in deadlines (e.g., all students can turn in one or two assignments late without penalty).

  2. Remote (Synchronous)

    1. An advantage of remote synchronous sessions is that quarantined students can continue to attend synchronous sessions if they feel well enough to do so. However, other situations, such as severe illness or caretaking responsibilities, may increase absences from synchronous sessions. Consider how a student who must be absent will make up this missed work.
    2. For lectures, recording synchronous sessions via Teams, and link the recordings in your Blackboard course space provides an excellent way for students to access course materials (remember to send these recordings to SAS for captioning). You might consider asking students who attend class to create a shared notes document that can be accessed by all students. If you already have a notetaker through SAS, consider whether it would be possible to make these notes available to students who must miss class.
    3. For active learning activities, such as class discussion or small group work, consider whether watching a recording of a synchronous session will provide an equivalent experience. If not, consider whether there be a way for students to independently complete activities that replicate or extend the whole class activity (e.g., summarize the discussion; contribute to a shared edited document after the session). 
  3. In-Person (Synchronous)

    • Student absences may occur more frequently due to quarantine, illness, or caretaking responsibilities. Consider how a student who must be absent will access missed work from synchronous, in-person sessions.
    • For lectures, consider whether you would like to use lecture capture to record sessions and make them available for live-streaming or later viewing (make sure to remember to send the recordings to SAS for captioning). If you plan to use lecture capture to livestream your lectures, make a plan for how you will involve remote students, e.g., can you have a TA to monitor chat for questions? If you would prefer not to use lecture capture, you might consider asking students who attend class to create a shared notes document that can be accessed by all students. If you already have a notetaker through SAS, consider whether it would be possible to make these notes available to students who must miss class.
    • For active learning activities, such as class discussion or small group work, consider whether students could participate synchronously using livestream lecture capture. If so, make a plan for how you will manage the logistics (e.g., a chat discussion for remote students that parallels in-class discussion; creation of Teams breakout rooms for small group discussion among remote students). If you want to use lecture capture to record the active learning activities so that students can review them later, consider whether watching a recording of a synchronous session will provide an equivalent experience. If not, are there ways for students to independently complete activities that replicate or extend the whole class activity (e.g., summarize the discussion; contribute to a shared edited document after the session)?
References and Resources

We are still collecting all of the citations, so check back soon.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum

Angelo, T. A. & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass. (Note: this ebook is available through the Howe Library, but requires you to create a free Internet Archive account to view the entire text)

Boston College Center for Teaching Excellence. (n.d.). Teaching an online synchronous session.

Jackson, T. (2020, March 27). COVID-19 and videoclassism: Implicit bias, videojudgment, and why I’m terrified to have you look over my shoulder. Linkedin.

Lederman, D. (2020, July 8). What worked this spring? Well-designed and -delivered courses. Inside Higher Ed.

Penn State IT Learning and Development. (2018, June 15). Zoom: Questioning strategies to increase engagement. (Note, while this document is branded as being useful for Zoom, the suggestions work equivalently with Teams)

Richardson, J. C., Sadaf, A., & Ertmer, P. A. (2012). Varying your discussion prompts as an instructional strategy. Purdue Repository for Online Teaching and Learning.

Santhanam, S. P. (2020, April 29). A reflection on the sudden transition: Ideas to make your synchronous online classes more fun. Faculty Focus.

Sathy, V. & Hogan, K. A. (2019, July 22). How to make your teaching more inclusive. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Weimer, M. (2012, November 19). Deep learning vs. surface learning: Getting students to understand the difference. Teaching Professor Blog.

Chick, N. “Metacognition.” Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching. Retrieved, July 22, 2020.