4 Teaching Practices for Student-Centered Learning Online

Rachel Mack


Welcome to the online teaching chapter[1]! Teaching online is not only fun, but it also has advantages for both you and your students. In my online teaching, I have enjoyed the flexibility (Bates, 2012) of the online teaching process. While online education can initially seem intimidating to new graduate teaching assistants (TAs) and faculty, if you are feeling overwhelmed by it, you are not alone. Seasoned faculty sometimes have difficulty with online teaching, especially if they are not used to the format. When COVID-19 forced face-to-face classes to become online classes, some faculty and teaching assistants in academia were left scrambling to both meet the needs of students and present their material well (Kamenetz, 2020). Moving a class online can be especially challenging for those who are not well-versed in online teaching tools, or who are accustomed to using lecture-only teaching formats. However, an online course doesn’t need to be a challenge to create and implement.

If you find yourself overwhelmed at the prospect of teaching an online course, you may be overthinking it. There are ways to make your online course simple and useful at the same time. In this chapter, I will walk through the components necessary for a basic, easy-to-implement online course, so that you may quickly set yourself up for the delivery of effective teaching for your students.

In my teaching, I have seen critical thinking elevated by highlighting student questions and interests, which in online classes can make space for student ideas to influence the direction of the lessons. Student-centered practices that achieve this include, but are not limited to, being a facilitator rather than a lecturer, focusing on what students want to know, and encouraging students to brainstorm their own ideas on the topic. Read on for more detail about using student-centered practices to enhance online teaching.

This chapter will discuss…

  • How to make an online course more student-centered.
  • How to quickly convert from a face-to-face course to an online course.
  • Preventing yourself from throwing all of your efforts into creating your online course.
  • Creating online experiences that students will enjoy.

Online learning environments can be challenging for teachers who wish to promote student-centered teaching practices. Teachers of online courses cannot always observe students to gauge whether their students are responding well to the lesson. Online courses can be tricky for those teachers who wish to encourage student-teacher and peer-peer interactions. They can pose challenges for teachers who want to promote motivation to learn through activities, course content, and assessment (Briggs, 2015). Teachers wish to see students engaged, but the inherent physical separation of students and instructors that exists in online coursework can pose unique challenges for the use of student-centered teaching (Briggs, 2015). However, there are many ways that student-centered teaching practices can enhance the online classroom. With the employment of student-centered teaching practices, online courses can seem less mechanical for learners. Student-centered learning practices create a class atmosphere of interaction, focusing on learner needs, interests, and inquiries (ED, 2010). Using student-centered learning practices in online teaching helps students to become active participants in their learning through activities such as partnering in the development of course content, interacting with peers electronically, and making decisions on how learning will occur. Student-centered learning also avoids the use of rote memorization in teaching concepts and favors the encouragement of critical thinking in students (Schunk, 2012).

Beginning to Go Online: Planning Your Online Course

It is beneficial to plan the syllabus, the objectives, and the assignments to have a solid map to follow. Learning objectives are statements of what your students should be able to do after receiving your instruction (University of Colorado, 2007). The material you present should relate to your lesson’s objectives. This helps to focus the lesson and guide the students’ efforts as they work through the material. Therefore, identifying the objectives you will have for the class and for each lesson allows you to organize your lessons for teaching online more rapidly. Remember that lessons, and their objectives, do not need to be intricately written to be effective, and bullet points can help you to outline your lessons quickly.

Syllabus Development

  • Use the syllabus to clearly state the platform(s) you plan to use, and inform students of any additional technology or materials they should have.
  • Consider providing a how-to guide for students not familiar with the technology you use for the course.
  • If you use a synchronous web-based platform that requires clicking on a common link, consider including that link in the syllabus.
  • When posting the syllabus online, clearly title the file so students can identify it.
  • Use the syllabus to include information about activities in which students will interact in the online setting.
  • Include information about campus resources on information technology services, and accessibility services.
  • Use the syllabus to encourage students to contact you immediately if they encounter, or expect to encounter, challenges with access to course.

When planning your course, you should also be aware that each class is different in practice, and you may not end up sticking to your plans precisely. In my teaching, I have found that while it is not typical for a class to stick precisely to my lesson plan, I can get them to work toward learning goals each week. Within the planned objectives, being flexible provides space for students to voice interest in a different direction than the lesson plan may lead. Keeping the class centered on the students helps them feel that they have a stake in the lesson, allowing them to bring their ideas to the table, and ultimately increases their engagement (McCarthy, 2015). Therefore, planning for flexibility in the course’s flow, within your objectives, is a good start towards setting up your online class to be firmly focused on your students.

How to Speedily Convert a Face-to-Face Course to an Online Format

Before we launch into student-centered online learning, we first need to discuss how to set up an effective online course. So you want to convert a class to an online format quickly, but you are not sure where to start? First, think about whether you would like your class’s sessions to be synchronous or asynchronous.

In a synchronous course, you and your students will meet at the same time (Cohn & Seltzer, 2020). An example is using a synchronous web-based platform to communicate with students at regular intervals. For an asynchronous course, you prepare your lessons in advance for the students to access at a later time (Cohn & Seltzer, 2020). An example of asynchronous course design is posting lessons and course materials for students to access via a course management system.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. Synchronous teaching can facilitate responsive communication and allows immediate personal engagement with students (Cohn & Seltzer, 2020). However, it may be challenging to schedule with everyone, and it has the potential for access or technical difficulties that impede its use for you or your students (Cohn & Seltzer, 2020; Flaherty, 2020). Asynchronous instruction is more flexible, self-paced, and allows you to retain your posted past lessons, but could reduce student engagement or understanding of your instruction (Cohn & Seltzer, 2020; Flaherty, 2020). I discuss options for handling the negatives associated with these approaches later in the chapter. For now, let’s continue brainstorming how to quickly and effectively set up your online class.

Increasing Accessibility

Sometimes students have challenges accessing course materials. Some ways that you can make your class more accessible for your students include creating transcripts of any videos you use in your teaching (Flaherty, 2020), including descriptions of any videos you use, and using captioning software to assist with student comprehension of your videos. You may also consider having assignments open long enough to capture all time zones, so all students may participate at a reasonable time. Additionally, crowdsourcing the class notes can help increase accessibility. Encourage student volunteers to post their class notes to a common location so everyone in the class can view them. Alternatively, create an assignment for a group of students to post the notes each week.

The next consideration is how you prefer to present your material. Potential options include pre-recording your lessons, maintaining a live class via a web-based platform, or using a format with no video of your teaching, but including resources plus an online discussion (Cohn & Seltzer, 2020). You could also customize your course’s presentation by combining the aspects you prefer from each of these options. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages.

If you are used to lecturing, pre-recorded lectures have the advantage of allowing you to teach as you usually would. However, students may find watching a pre-recorded video of you dull, so be sure to let your personality come through as you teach and avoid coming across as scripted. Keep your videos short (Myers, 2014)! A 5- to 7-minute video is sufficient, and if you have a longer lecture, it is good to break it into smaller pieces. Smaller videos are easier for you to upload and easier for students to watch (Myers, 2014). Search your lessons for where they naturally break into smaller units suitable for presentation in short videos (Myers, 2014). When you are recording yourself, speak like students are listening! If students are taking notes from your lectures, speak slowly enough that students can write without pausing the video. While students have the option of backing up the video, if they missed something, they will not be happy about having to do that, so it is best to speak at a pace at which students can easily follow.

To quickly use a pre-recorded lecture format for teaching online, try an approach that uses a lecture video, a quiz, and a live discussion (Johnson, 2020). First, create your module in your course management system. Then, create a video of your lecture (Johnson, 2020). You can create a video of your slides, where you provide narration (Johnson, 2020); or a video where students see you, or that feature some props or materials you are using to teach that day. A low-point-value online quiz posted on your course management system can serve as a way to check student understanding (Johnson, 2020). Finally, if you wish, you can engage students in a virtual class discussion using a course management system, where you and your students are all online at once (Johnson, 2020). Alternatively, you can have several such meetings to accommodate small group discussions.

To quickly create an online course using a live discussion format, you can use a read, journal, discussion approach (Johnson, 2020). First, create your module in a course management system, making its title easy for students to identify (Johnson, 2020). Then, upload any reading material, videos, or links you wish to include in your module (Johnson, 2020). Let students reflect on the content through a reflection assignment (Johnson, 2020) or a discussion online in the course management system. Finally, send students a link for your virtual class meeting via a synchronous web-based platform, and have students discuss the material they read (Johnson, 2020).

Keeping the live-class feel to your course by regularly meeting using a web-based synchronous platform offers the ability to change gears and immediately address a student’s question. The lesson’s interactivity benefits the participants as the lesson flows in the direction of student interest, making space for student-centered learning to occur (McCarthy, 2015). However, connectivity issues can be problematic for you or the students, so you should have a secondary plan to use the chat feature or different software if connectivity is a little spotty. To preserve student privacy, consider giving your students the option of not turning on their video cameras and only participating through audio or chat.

A way to teach without posting a video of your teaching is to post links, annotated slides (Cohn & Seltzer, 2020), articles, or publicly available videos (Myers, 2014) for students to review and discuss. The flexibility inherent in using a diversity of posted materials is especially helpful when teaching students with varying interests. If you use a discussion, it is useful to guide students on length, content, and classroom standards for interaction with others. You can support standards rules for discussions by addressing them on the syllabus, sending a class announcement, participating in the debate yourself, or posting your guidelines for conversations along with the assignment. You may find it beneficial to share a discussion rubric along with your discussion assignment so that expectations are clear. You can adapt the read, journal, discussion format (Johnson, 2020) to teaching without posting any videos of yourself by making the class discussion online-only, such as in a discussion board of your course management system.

Student-Centered Practices for Engaging Students from the Start

At the beginning of your online class, your students may not know each other. Some may be friends taking the course together, but others may not know who else is in the class. An excellent way to begin the semester is to have students introduce themselves, even if it is through an online discussion board. For a large class, it may be helpful to break students into smaller groups, such as online discussion board groups or breakout rooms, and have introductions within the group. The introductions show who is in the class, and many students will share details about why they are in the class. From a teaching perspective, this information is absolute gold because it helps in understanding how learning can be adapted to meet the students’ needs in the class. The student’s active role in the construction of knowledge within the classroom’s social environment is a characteristic of student-centered learning (Peters, 2009).

Another exercise that I find very useful was taught to me by the head of Virginia Tech’s Graduate Teaching Scholars Program. This exercise involves participatory planning (Sullivan, 1996), with students sharing what they would most like to learn in the class. Similar to the introductions, student comments give insight into their reasons for taking the course, while providing the educator with direct statements about the students’ top interests. Participatory planning is excellent for helping me adapt my lessons to teach to the specific content that most interests the class, enabling learner input to drive the direction of the course (Peters, 2009). At the beginning of the semester, I ask students to provide this information, and I make a note of those interests so I am aware of what they want to know.

Tips for Student-Centered Beginnings

  • Ask your students what THEY want to know—let them help decide course content (Schunk, 2012).
  • Give students choices about how they would prefer class to be administered (Peters, 2009).
  • Use think-pair-share activities. Yes, you can do this online! Encourage interaction among students in small online groups and share them with the rest of the class.
  • Be a facilitator, not a lecturer. Facilitate open-ended, inquiry-based discussions (Peters, 2009).
  • Encourage students to offer up their ideas and new ways of approaching a topic (Brown, 2008).
  • Encourage critical thinking over memorization.

Adapting Your Teaching to Work Well Online

Perhaps you feel uneasy about adapting your teaching to the online environment. This feeling may be especially true if you are used to face-to-face lecturing and observing the understanding on the faces of your students as you speak. You may have to make some changes to the way you typically teach, but these changes do not have to be significant. Interaction between teachers and students can occur through online discussions, email, teacher-student messages/chats (Bennett & Lockyer, 2004), and synchronous web-based platform meetings. Use the information presented above to guide you in choosing the best options for your online teaching. Even if you make a mistake, keeping a positive attitude will help you be a successful online teacher. Confidence, adaptability, and positivity are characteristics identified in online facilitators conducive to supporting student understanding and meaning-making (Salmon, 2000, as cited in Bennett & Lockyer, 2004). So stay positive about your online teaching!

A great way of connecting with students in an online class is by being you. That means that you should not aim for perfectionism, as nobody is perfect, and you will only end up disappointing yourself and your students. Many of your students are looking up to you and are rooting for you to teach the class well. If it is your first time teaching an online course, you may make some mistakes, but remember that students are surprisingly forgiving when they know you are trying. You do not have to try to get a teaching award on your first try in online teaching. Your attitude will shape the students’ experiences in the course. If you have a good, positive attitude, students will notice and they will appreciate that you are yourself even if everything does not go perfectly the first time. When you stay positive, it also helps your students to focus less on content transmission and more on learning (Salmon, 2000, as cited in Bennett & Lockyer, 2004). This positive behavior helps students connect better with you and reduce the psychological distance between students and teachers. It also helps mitigate the potential for the online course to become impersonal. Even online students want to learn from a person, not a robot.

Who Takes Online Courses?

The differences between online teaching and face-to-face teaching also affect who you teach. The average student you see in an online class can be different than those who may enroll in your traditional courses. One study shows that compared to other majors, business majors are more likely to take online classes (Mann, 2012). Those in the bench sciences are the least likely to take online courses (Mann, 2012). Students residing out-of-state are more likely to take online classes than in-state students, and freshman are more likely to take online coursework than seniors (Mann, 2012). Such differences in the types of students you see in online classes can affect how you teach the class. In my own experience teaching online, I have noted a higher number of students who are unconventional and have busy schedules, such as people who work full- or part-time. More of my students in my online teaching practice have been student-athletes. Other students took heavy course loads and needed the convenience of not showing up to a regularly scheduled class.

What does a different type of student mean for your instruction? Teaching a mixture of nontraditional students and traditional students means you will need to be flexible. Here are some tips from my online teaching practice:

  • Have regular days when assignments are due, so students always expect to turn in something those days.
  • Contact any stragglers as soon as you notice that they are falling behind. You are often the only teacher who reaches out to them.
  • Message the class at least once a week to keep them on track, reminding them of what is due that week. Students appreciate this reminder.
  • Issues with module access, course requirements, or personal challenges the students face are often emailed to me by students within 24 hours of my weekly message to my class. From my experience teaching online, I can say that, but for my reminder message, some students in my online courses would not have remembered to begin their online assignments until it was too late.

Teaching Labs Online

When teaching your lab face-to-face, students have direct access to the lab equipment, so how do you teach a lab online? Advantages to teaching labs online include the obvious: Students cannot easily hurt their peers or you if they are taking the lab virtually. If they get bored, they will not likely start fiddling with the Bunsen burners, or playing with the chemicals, as students in a face-to-face lab might. Disadvantages include the lack of direct access to laboratory equipment (Taft, 2020), so students may not feel that they are getting the first-hand experience of watching laboratory procedures. When possible, and especially if students emulate you as you lead an experiment, build your virtual lab around items that they can find in their homes (Taft, 2020). Avoid using a cookbook approach to your lab, which removes student decision making from the process and is teacher-centered rather than student-centered (Peters, 2010). Be mindful of what is missing in a virtual lab and fill in your teaching gap. Items with scents, such as certain chemicals, molds, and even farm animals, cannot be smelled virtually. Position your camera so that students can see small items you want them to notice, such as a glass slide. Provide a detailed description of any missing elements, or those less accessible to their senses, due to the virtual format of the lab. It won’t just make the lab more real for the students; it will make it more fun.

Student-Centered Learning Online: Building Community

Building community is important to any classroom. However, in an online class, it is especially important to build community. Students taking online classes can feel that the human element of learning is lessened in the online class format. Sometimes, students just crave the experience of talking with others when learning. There are several ways in which you can make the online classroom feel less mechanical and impersonal, and in which you can build classroom community.

Encourage Interaction

There are various ways that you can encourage interaction in your classroom. You can build classroom community, increase student decision making, use group work, and harness online platforms to mimic the back-and-forth dynamic of a face-to-face classroom. Below, I discuss each of these items in more detail.

One way that you can build community is by encouraging students to increase their interactions with each other. Engagement activities can help students connect with one another and feel that the class matters to them (VT TLOS, n.d.). Some ways you might increase student engagement through student-centered activities include using roleplay, simulation, service learning, drama, a simulation, and problem-based learning (Freiberg &Driscoll, 1999). Examples of applying a few of these suggestions include giving students an exercise where they each take on a character surrounding an issue related to your material or having students work to solve a real-world problem (Freiberg & Driscoll, 1999). In online discussions, you may consider assigning your students different titles for roles. For example, roles you may give include those of a responder, a summarizer, or someone who introduces additional resources (Cohn & Seltzer, 2020). Each student takes on their role while participating in the discussion. A responder responds to others in the discussion, and the summarizer breaks larger selections or comments down into more easily digestible statements. The person who introduces additional resources finds material that helps support the debate, such as an article about the topic. Having roles helps structure the discussion while providing each student a good opportunity to contribute to its depth.

Give your online students choices and provide room for them to assist with class decision-making to help make your class more student centered (Brown, 2008). The opportunity to make decisions translates into making the course feel less electronic and more people centered. Many instructors use online discussions as assignments. When I use online discussions to get my students engaged, I provide several prompts for students and allow each student to choose which prompt(s) they wish to discuss. Letting the student choose their prompt will translate into each one engaging in the discussion they are the most interested in, leading to a richer conversation. Permitting students to choose their prompt adds enthusiasm to the class, and seeing who chooses which prompt makes the course more interesting for everyone.

Using group work in your online teaching can help increase student interaction (VT TLOS, 2020). It is important when considering the use of group work to keep in mind those aspects of group work that drive students crazy. Many students can relate to the experience of being the only one in the group willing to do the work for the group project. Others may have had the anxiety-laden experience working with a group that does not begin the assignment until the night before it needs to be submitted. Other times, students in the group simply do not get along. Online classes have the potential to magnify these issues. Communication is not always optimal among students in an online course, and students may conduct all group project communications via email. Because students may not ever see each other’s faces in an online class, it can be easier for them to depersonalize communications with their fellow group members. Having students interact will promote connectivity among students and raise student perceptions of the course as a whole (VT TLOS, 2020). You can do this by placing students in small discussion groups online, which helps them connect as a small group while not feeling overwhelmed by comments of the whole class.

Dividing students into small groups helps them have and enjoy deeper discussions than if the whole class engages in a debate. Research demonstrates that students perceive such groups as better for developing their critical thinking than a larger class discussion (Hamann, Pollock, & Wilson, 2012). Although small groups are beneficial, even whole-class discussions can be helpful to students, because they assist students in more clearly understanding concepts (Hamann et al., 2012). An issue with teaching online while using discussions is that they can lack the back-and-forth of an in-person conversation (Hamann et al., 2012). Therefore, it is important to be creative in getting students to interact. A way that I, and other colleagues, do this is to ask students to post their initial response to the discussion prompt early in the week’s lesson. Reactions to others are due later in the week, and students are encouraged to discuss more than what is “required.” Setting up online discussions in this way helps students to present their ideas, and then answer the points of others, using the online discussion board, while mimicking the back-and-forth dynamic of a face-to-face conversation.

Other ways that you can help your class to develop that same back-and-forth seen in a live discussion include having students participate in a small group chat or discussion using a synchronous web-based platform. I have also seen good results in a class when students record videos of themselves using the course management system’s video feature to present their responses to discussion prompts. Give students helpful feedback on those discussions and on any other assignments you give them online. Students are more motivated to learn when they receive personalized outreach (Boretz, 2012).

Tips for Student-Centered Teaching Online

  • Ask students questions! (Brown, 2008).
  • Make the course personal by creating options for students to apply the coursework to themselves, their goals, or what is going on in their own lives.
  • Do not give direct answers. Lead students to solutions (Brown, 2008).
  • Use activities like case studies, scenarios, and roleplaying that allow students to explore options, create solutions, and solve problems.
  • Think carefully about your online assignments, walking yourself through each task and what it entails. If you feel it might be online busywork, the students probably will too!
  • Give students personalized feedback, considering their own interests, goals, or aspirations. Sandwich a bad feedback sentence between two good feedback sentences, so it ends on a positive.

Preventing Cheating

Cheating can be a serious problem in online classes. Watson & Sottile (2010) found that while cheating did not occur at a higher rate in online courses than in face-to-face courses, the online students were more likely to get answers for online exams or quizzes from others. If you post a quiz or exam online, a student can share screenshots with other students or call their friends and tell them the questions. It can be challenging to know if a student is looking up the answers to an online quiz or exam. Some instructors handle this by putting a time limit on the exam, so students do not have spare time, but I do not personally advocate for this option, as it makes students feel that they do not have the time to show you what you know. And why do the assessment if the results cannot help you find out something about what the students have learned? Some educators try to find a “sweet spot” where the exam is tightly timed, but not too tightly. In my experience with timed assessments online, the educator is a poor judge of the appropriate exam length, and most underestimate how long their exams take. If you are considering tinkering with an assessment’s timing, you are probably going down the wrong online assessment road. Read below for some better approaches to avoiding cheating.

Tips for Avoiding Cheating in Your Online Class

  • Make clear what constitutes cheating (Feeney, 2017). Define cheating on your syllabus.
  • If you have a quiz or exam, ask questions that are reasonable, not obscure. Obscure questions invite cheating.
  • Designate all exams as open-book (Barret-Fox, 2020).
  • Avoid assessing a speed-reading test. Remember, some students have English as a second language, while some students may have disabilities (which are not always diagnosed before they attend college!).
  • Use questions that require students to analyze, explain, evaluate, create, and otherwise demonstrate their mastery of the material (Budhai, 2020). These strategies make their answers personalized.
  • Offer low-stakes quizzes, so the likelihood of cheating is decreased (Feeney, 2017).
  • Don’t have quizzes or exams at all. Have subjective assignments (Watson & Sottile 2010). Have students turn in all assignments as discussion posts and papers, where they are required to apply the material they learned.

General Tips for Online Teaching

  • Keep the focus on the student, not the technology.
  • Remember that not every student will have taken an online course before. Check understanding of platforms or software you will be using.
  • Be gentle with students who have internet accessibility issues. Some students are accessing the class on their phones.
  • Resist the temptation to post too many resources. It can cause sensory overload when students have to view many links, articles, or videos.
  • Be clear in your expectations regarding assignments, due dates, and policies from the start, but be flexible. Online students may be working, be parents, or have other responsibilities.
  • Group projects can take longer to put together for online students. Allow more time if needed.
  • Communication with students can be more challenging online. Be as clear as you can be.
  • Make yourself accessible via online office hours and regular communication.
  • Let your personality come through in your communications with students.
  • When you provide students written feedback, always send an announcement. Leaving students feedback online is only effective if they visit the page to read it!
  • Technology does not always work the way we want it to. Ask students to let you know if they have issues!
  • Think about whether your students have proficiency and access to technology, like cameras, and whether privacy issues could affect participation.

Conclusion and Summary

Online teaching does not have to be a challenge for new graduate teaching assistants or professors. This chapter has outlined simple ways to make moving a class online easier and discussed the disadvantages and advantages of the most popular methods in which online courses are presented. It also highlighted important points to consider when setting up an online system to support student-centered teaching. I hope that with the student-centered tips in this chapter, you can confidently create an online course quickly and help keep the class’s focus on your students, not the technology.

Reflection Questions

  • What methods can you use to make your online class more engaging?
  • How can you make your online class less mechanical and more personable?
  • How can you improve communications with and among your online students without making the technology the focus?


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VT TLOS (2020). Setting student groups and group work. https://tlos.vt.edu/continuity.html

Watson, G.R., & Sottile, J. (2010). Cheating in the digital age: Do students cheat more in online courses? Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(1). https://mds.marshall.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=eft_faculty

  1. How to cite this book chapter:

    Mack, R. 2022. Teaching Practices for Student-Centered Learning Online. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. https://doi.org/10.21061/universityteaching License: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.


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Teaching in the University Copyright © 2022 by Rachel Mack is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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