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Five Priorities to Help Learners in the Online Classroom
Effective eLearning (Special Series)

By John Steele, Thomas Dyer, Jean Mandernach / September 2023

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Online teaching offers a host of possible instructional activities. From facilitating discussions to building content to providing feedback, the list of teaching tasks for online instructors is never-ending. Complicating the issue is a lack of natural boundaries (i.e., scheduled class meeting times or a traditional workday) to guide instructional time investment. Despite the flexible, ubiquitous nature of the online classroom, the reality is that instructional time is limited. As such, it is essential that online instructors prioritize limited time to focus on instructional strategies that have the greatest impact on student learning.

Research addressed this issue by asking students to rate the extent to which they believed various instructional components would impact their ability to learn [1]. The findings reveal five learner priorities to guide instructional time investment in the online classroom.

1. Invest time in providing individualized, one-to-one feedback. Students seek quality, individualized, substantial feedback to guide learning. Knowing that learners prioritize feedback by an overwhelming margin, instructors should dedicate a significant portion of their instructional time to providing individualized, one-to-one feedback. Feedback can be delivered in various ways: rubrics, feedback banks, and multimedia feedback. In the online classroom, gradebook feedback is a key aspect of the one-to-one guidance provided by the instructor to each student.

2. Integrate a holistic approach to feedback. Recognizing that the time investment required to provide one-on-one feedback is directly proportional to the number of students in a class, instructors can maximize the impact of their feedback time by expanding beyond traditional gradebook feedback to embrace a more holistic approach to feedback. For example, feedforward information can be provided to students in advance of assignments to prevent common mistakes or conceptual misunderstandings. Aligned with this strategy, following assignment grading, one-to-many feedback comments can be posted as announcements or shared in the discussion board to provide summative feedback to the class. One-to-many feedback comments provide a holistic overview of how students performed, offer instructional resources, and correct common misconceptions or errors. Likewise, assignment exemplars can be shared with students to provide a basis from which they can guide or compare their own work.

3. Engage with learners in asynchronous discussion forums. In addition to feedback, students also prioritized instructor engagement in the online discussions. Students need and desire engagement from their instructor. In online discussion forums, instructors can provide engagement opportunities by offering a variety of strategies such as higher-order questioning, incorporating your experience within the topic, using the Socratic method, or using Bloom's Taxonomy to get your students engaged in higher-order thinking. Engaging in a frequent and varied manner is beneficial because it provides additional engagement opportunities in the discussions for students and clarifies misconceptions during the active learning process. Using different facilitation techniques engages different students in different ways. Participating in online discussion forums on a consistent, ongoing basis is essential to creating a cohesive learning community and fostering lively asynchronous dialogue.

4. Curate relevant, supportive content resources. It is imperative that instructors curate relevant and supportive content. An analysis of instructor perceptions regarding support resources gave the highest ratings to module-specific videos, outlines, summaries, and websites. Interestingly, students indicated that text-based content was the most valuable of all instructional content resources provided and they indicated no increased preference for instructor-generated content compared to existing content curated from the Internet. While there may be value in instructor-generated video (despite students’ indicated preferences), it is important to remember that students gain no benefit from content that they do not engage with. Thus, when prioritizing limited instructional time, there may be a greater value in curating meaningful, existing text-based content compared to the increased time investment required to produce instructor-generated multimedia.

5. Provide instructional content in formats that are efficient and versatile. Students indicated a clear preference for instructional content that is versatile and easy to access. When possible, instructors should offer various options for accessing the instructional content to allow students to tailor their content consumption to personal preferences and context. For example, when providing a video or podcast, include transcripts or an alternative text-based source of information. Similarly, facilitate students’ access to information by providing direct links to resources or embedding directly in LMS.

Students value two components of online teaching above all others: instructor feedback and engagement in asynchronous discussions. While providing instructional content is important, it is not as important to students as the guidance, affirmations, and feedback provided by the instructor. Instructors are often limited by what they can do by time, course load, meetings, and other education obligations; therefore, the highest priorities for instructors should be providing quality feedback and offering engagement in discussion forums.


[1] Steele, J., Dyer, T., and Mandernach, B.J. You can't have it all: Faculty and student priorities in the online classroom. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 17, 1 (May 2023);

About the Authors

John Steele, Ph.D. is a professor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University (GCU). Steele has been teaching first-year series and psychology students at GCU for 12 years. In addition, he serves as a faculty mentor and on several university committees. Steele’s research focuses on several aspects of online learning including plagiarism, technology innovation, student learning, and psychology. He also has interests in social psychology and artificial intelligence.

Thomas D. Dyer, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University. He has more than 15 years of experience in higher education and online education. His research focuses on examining student engagement, participation, and community connection in the online classroom through social presence strategies. He explores strategies for integrating community cohesion, online proximity, and social presence literacy through careful and considerate technology integration. Dyer is an active teacher, advocate, researcher, author, and presenter in the field of online education and social presence literacy.

Jean Mandernach, Ph.D. is executive director of the Center for Innovation in Research on Teaching at Grand Canyon University. Her research focuses on enhancing student learning experiences in the online classroom through innovative instructional and assessment strategies. She explores strategies for integrating efficient online instruction in a manner that maximizes student learning, satisfaction, and engagement. In addition, she has interests in innovative faculty development and evaluation models, teaching and learning analytics, emergent instructional technology, and faculty workload considerations. Mandernach is an active researcher, author, presenter, and consultant in the field of online education.

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