Teaching online this fall? Tips and best practices on engaging students

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Content Author:
Cinzia Cervato

If you are planning to teach a face-to-face class, as you are putting it together, be mindful of what you will do if it suddenly switches to an online format part of the way through the semester. If the class is put together with that in mind from the beginning, the transition will be easier. Don't incorporate activities that do not transition to online learning -- or -- have a substitute activity ready to replace it if you suddenly have to shift to online. I heard from many instructors that filled their course with things that would only work face-to-face and panicked when it went online. (David Wahl, Iowa State University)


Suggestions from Leslie Potter (Iowa State University):

  • Embedded video quizzes in Studio/Canvas work really well for making students watch material
  • Alternatively, simple reflection assignments after videos that reference specific material also facilitate students watching videos
  • If you are monitoring how long students spend watching a video, keep in mind that they can do so at 2X, so only takes half as long as the video time
  • Extra time for online exams must be allowed if files need to be uploaded.  I found that 20 minutes was a reasonable amount.  Even then, it’s best to provide students with a “what to do if your technology isn’t working” set of instructions…email you?  Call you?  Is there a deadline for contacting you about issues?
  • The survey function in Canvas works really well for checking in to see how things are going
  • Students prefer midnight deadlines over end-of-course time deadlines
  • Canvas quiz logs provide a way to compare submissions if you suspect unallowed collaboration
  • A little good humor, trust, and humanity go a long way.  Ask yourself, is Type 1 error or Type 2 error more tolerable (we suspect well-intentioned students of misbehaving or we fail to catch students who do misbehave)…there are consequences to both.

Iowa State University faculty can use the ONCE template, created by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, to create a new Canvas course (Tera Jordan, Iowa State University).


Massimo Marengo (Iowa State University) shares his responses to a departmental survey designed to reflect on the spring semester experience, and plan for the fall.


1) Did you do asynchronous or synchronous teaching? for some or all of it?

I only did asynchronous teaching.

2) How did you format your video lectures? what software did you use? when/how did you record it? what feedback if any did you get from the students?

I used Panopto to record my lectures written in Keynote, then exported the “podcast" (1080p) format and posted it on Canvas (with the file hosted on CyBox). The students generally liked the format (because they could stop and rewind the video file when there was something they missed and wanted to listen again to). One common request however was to have the files split in smaller units to facilitate navigation of the topics covered in the lecture. Each class was posted the morning (8AM) of the class, and the students had time until the next class (two/three days later) to complete the quiz at the end of the lecture.

3) Did you do live sessions? what software did you use? what when/how did you record it? what feedback if any did you get from the students?

I didn’t. Several students however expressed frustration about the lack of live interactions, and would have liked to have at least one live sessions each week.

4) Did you do any kind of active learning or recitation style teaching? what when/how did you record it? what feedback if any did you get from the students?

I had a quiz at the end of each lecture (not graded, but useful to keep track of attendance).  The quiz could be taken through Canvas. The students generally liked the quizzes (even more than when I was doing it in class before the pandemic, since by being at home they could spend more time answering them, and doing some research to figure out the answers).

I also did a recitation class before the midterm and final exam, in which I went through the problems of a past exam and showed the students how to solve them, step by step, using a virtual whiteboard. The recitation was also asynchronous, accessed through Canvas (where the PDF file of the past exams and solutions was also available) and uploaded on CyBox. Each recitation was recorded on an iPad: split screen with the PDF on the exam on the left side of the screen (displayed using Acrobat Reader for iPad), and a white board (Apple's “Notes” program) on the right. On both sides I could write freehand with my Apple Pencil. The whole session was recorded with the native screen-recording feature of the iPad, imported in Panopto and then saved on Canvas/Cybox as for the lectures. Recording natively on the iPad is very resource intensive and prone to technical failures (e.g. audio stops being recorded midway through), so I had to split the recitation in smaller modules (e.g. one per problem). The format was liked very much by the students (they however still regretted the lack of interactions for the inability to ask live questions).

To allow students to ask questions I also set up discussion threads (one for each lecture/recitation/exam) using the Canvas “Discussion” feature. That worked up to some point: several students expresses reservation in asking questions on the boards  because they felt shy using a “public” tool (and preferred sending me their questions through “private” emails).

For the last two weeks of the semester instead of homework assignments the students had to work on a group project (downloading a stellar cluster photometric data from a peer reviewed paper of their choice and fit them with isochrones to determine age and distance). I used Canvas to let the students self-organize in groups (3-4 students). While the students generally liked working on the project, they found extremely difficult to work in group without the possibility of meeting in person. A common request was to start working in group earlier in the semester so that by the time the project start they already have somebody to work with (despite most students in my course being from either physics, mechanical or aerospace engineering, many students complained that they didn’t know anybody in class beforehand).

5) How did you structure your examinations? did you provide more than the usual exam/class time? did you go open book and/or open notes? what was the outcome? what feedback if any did you get from the students?

I posted the PDF file of the exam on Canvas, with a release time coincident with he official start time of the exam. At the end of the available time the students had to scan their work with their smartphones, and upload on Canvas.

I didn’t take any special measure to try avoiding the students to contact each other or look for references on the web or on books: I just appealed to their honor system (to tell the truth, my exams are unique enough that if they didn’t learn how to solve the problems before hand, the internet is usually not of much help, and even in the case of in-person exams they can still look at their notes). For the midterm exam I gave them 2 hours (2x regular time) but that wan’t really enough for several students, so for the final exam I gave them 24 hours. The comments I received were generally positive (although I still got a couple of students that run out of time even after 24 hours, and needed a small extension).

6) What would you do the same or different in the coming semester? Were there things that you would keep even if we went back to full in-person teaching? What challenges do you think you will have in the fall to implement your course fully online? What if it was some hybrid of in-person/online teaching?

Even if we go back to in-person teaching (which frankly seems a very unwise thing to do, given the risks associated to the virus in absence of a preventative treatment or vaccine) I would definitely keep the delivery and collection of exam/homework/project reports online with Canvas.

I do think that even in the best case scenario I would try an hybrid approach, allowing some in-person contact with the students but avoiding lecturing to the whole class (enrollment to my fall 300 level course is now at ~60 students). I would like to try having the lectures/recitations recorded and posted on Canvas so that at least part of the students that may not wish to come breathing the common air in a a closed classroom, because of pre-existing conditions or other personal issues, will be able to follow online.

If we have to go entirely online (at least for medium-size courses like mine) I would try to follow the requests from the students I listed above. In particular I would like to try offering synchronous (but recorded, in order to still post them on Canvas) live lectures, and live-video office hours (scheduled by appointment). I would also try to have students work in groups since the beginning of the semester, to reduce their sense of isolation, and get to a point in which they will be able to work together for the project (which in my fall course lasts an entire month of class).


Students with low bandwith problems were unable to download images that accompanied exam questions in Canvas.  This problem can be overcome by right-clicking on the image icon, and selecting “open in a new window”.  The image will load in the new window.  The downside is that it will take the student more time to answer the question, so if there are a large number of questions with images, the student may require more time in a timed exam (Jane Dawson, Iowa State University).


The Earth Science Women's Network created a shared Google Sheet with links to resources to teach online. The list of 100+ resources span the earth, environmental, and related sciences and continues to grow.