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Seven Strategies for More Efficient, Effective Online Instruction

By Lori Cooper, Amanda Loster-Loftus, Jean Mandernach / October 2023

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The ubiquity of the online classroom creates a host of challenges for prioritizing instructional time to ensure that faculty invest available time in a manner that maximizes student learning, engagement, and satisfaction. Research on time investment required to teach online varies widely; a variation likely due to the long list of possible instructional activities combined with a lack of natural boundaries to guide the start and stop of asynchronous online teaching time. However, the reality of online teaching is that effectiveness is less a byproduct of overall time invested and more a function of investment of available time in activities that directly impact the student learning experience; this reality holds true across the spectrum of contexts and student populations in higher education. While course design directly influences where instructional time is devoted, the amount of time invested varies considerably as a function of the individual choices and priorities of each instructor. Recognizing the limited time most instructors have available, the following seven strategies will help instructors be both efficient and effective in the online classroom:

1. Reflect on your instructional time. Active reflection on your teaching process can help you to determine which activities are essential to effective learning and which are supplemental [1]. Start by keeping a teaching journal that documents where you currently spend your time. Keep track of how much time you spend doing the following tasks: grading, student contact, synchronous meetings, asynchronous discussions, content creation, solving technology issues, and anything else relevant to your online teaching. Analyze your teaching journal as a function of how much time you invested and the anticipated impact of each instructional activity. Create a priority list of activities that ranks your instructional tasks as a function of their value in the teaching and learning dynamic. Then, when you are teaching, start with the instructional activities highest on the priority list. This way, if you run out of time, you will ensure that the most valuable instructional tasks have been completed. Likewise, if you are investing time in activities that have very little impact on student learning, this is an opportunity to trim instructional tasks to match goals and priorities.

2. Create a teaching calendar. Regardless of whether the online course is synchronous or asynchronous, instructional efficiency mandates that you have a clear schedule for completing instructional tasks. Determine how much time you have available to dedicate to online teaching and when you will complete your instructional activities. Then schedule these tasks into your calendar. Within each schedule block on your calendar, specify what you are going to focus on (for example, engaging in discussions or grading assignments) and specific outcomes for that time block (for example, grade 10 term papers). As indicated by Parkinson’s Law, any given task tends to expand (or shrink) to fill the time allotted for its completion [2]. Knowing what needs to be accomplished in what timeframe guides attention and focus to enhance productivity without sacrificing the quality of instructional interactions. For example, if you have 50 term papers to grade that week, you can schedule five 60-minute blocks of time on your calendar that each specifies grading 10 term papers. Likewise, utilize batching to keep your focus on similar tasks during a given chunk of time. Rather than spending a few minutes on every task day, it is more productive to batch similar activities for completion at the same time. For example, you might batch tasks to grade all discussions on a Monday, call students missing work on Tuesday, create instructional content on Wednesday, etc. Utilize your priority list of instructional tasks to determine which activities need ongoing, regular scheduling (such as participation in discussion forums multiple times per week) and which tasks can be batched into a single day with no impact on the student learning experience.

3. Integrate tools to streamline work. In many cases, you can prevent procedural questions or provide quicker clarification by shifting from reliance on written text to more dynamic multimedia communication tools. While the back-and-forth discussion board typical of asynchronous courses is a valuable learning strategy, you may want to supplement asynchronous interactions with short synchronous discussions that can provide more streamlined clarification or explanation. For example, a quick video conference meeting (using Zoom or Teams) can be an efficient means of clarifying information or explaining difficult concepts. Rather than respond to individual questions, you can address groups of students simultaneously. Offering just-in-time instructional videos (using a tool like Loom or YouTube) can provide feedforward information that prevents common questions or conceptual challenges. Adding to the efficiency, faculty groups can collaborate to create a series of video instructions that can be used across classes; sharing this task can help everyone be more efficient with their time. Even something as simple as a phone call can help you to be more efficient; rather than spending ongoing time engaged in back-and-forth asynchronous discussions over the same question (particularly when there is a breakdown in the written communication), you can schedule a quick phone call to provide clarity in a matter of minutes. The key is to use tools intentionally to enhance efficiency or reduce workload.

4. Utilize analytics to guide your attention. Analytics is “the systematic computational analysis of data” [3]. You can leverage analytics in teaching and learning by examining the data that is automatically measured or tracked within your learning management system. From student participation, attendance, assignment completion, grades received, or content page views, each data point allows you to tailor and streamline your time and attention. To make student outreach more efficient, you can use available analytics to identify learners that may be struggling to offer proactive support, determine which resources are being utilized to streamline content development time, or pinpoint areas of confusion to target relearning support on only those topics that need reviewing. Using analytics allows the instructor to dedicate their time directly to the students who need additional support or to design content that is most utilized.

5. Automate repetitive tasks. After teaching the same course multiple times, instructors can typically predict student challenges, interests, and points of confusion; the same questions and conceptual errors tend to repeat themselves from term to term. Instructors can utilize this insight to automate repetitive tasks using feedback, discussion, and communication banks. These types of content banks allow instructors to save frequently used text comments for use each term. While content banks can be utilized simply by saving content (i.e., assignment feedback, discussion board resources, or email templates) in a Word document to be copied and pasted, it is more efficient to automate the use of content banks via a text-expander program such as Typeitin, PhraseExpress, or OSlash. (See Mandernach [4] for a detailed discussion of how to integrate these tools to streamline feedback.) When using a text expander, instructors can save frequently used content and assign it a hotkey to be automatically inserted. For example, if you find that your students frequently struggle with citation style, you can invest the time to write a thorough, corrective piece of feedback and then save this in a text-expander program to be inserted each time a student makes that citation error. While it takes additional upfront time to create, save, and organize content, this time savings comes back to the instructor via ongoing efficiency each time the content is utilized.

6. Utilize video technology. Research finds that people speak at least three times faster than they can type [5]. As such, integrating quick instructional or feedback videos can be more efficient than comparative written documents. For example, instead of typing out feedback, open student submissions and record a screencast of verbal feedback as you review it for your student. Not only will this save you time, but it puts a voice (and a face) to the name for your students, fostering a meaningful connection in the classroom between you and each individual student. Video recording can also be used to create content-based videos for tough-to-understand concepts, or even serve as an opportunity for you to verbally go over the nuances of a challenging assignment. It offers you an opportunity to answer student questions before they know they have them, humanize their learning experience, and has the added benefit of allowing students to go back and watch them over again for better understanding. There are several user-friendly, free video recording tools online (e.g., Screencast-O-Matic, Loom, private YouTube videos, Evid, or Webinaria); many of these tools even have a feature to create closed captioning.

7. Foster collaboration with learners and colleagues. To be more efficient, examine your teaching and learning context to determine opportunities for collaboration. If other faculty are teaching the same course, you can collaborate to share the workload of creating instructional resources or designing course content. Likewise, collaboration with other faculty can provide insights into instructional activities that can be enhanced to be more efficient. Learners can also be empowered within the classroom to be active partners in the teaching and learning dynamic. For example, you can create a frequently-asked-question forum for students to post questions and, when relevant, provide answers to other students’ questions. Or you can offer a collaborative site for students to coordinate note-taking; this type of shared resource not only reduces the number of questions you receive as an instructor but simultaneously connects students as resources for one another within a learning community. You can also create assignments that engage learners as curators of instructional content from the Internet; you can then use the curated content as a library of resources to supplement your teaching.

High-quality teaching and learning rests on good design, analysis of context, understanding of learners, and establishing scope and sequence for the instruction in alignment with learning goals. The efficiency strategies provided allow you to stay true to these basic principles in a manner that maximizes the impact of available instructional time. With a focus on high-impact instruction, you can integrate strategies to streamline repetitive tasks, proactively communicate to reduce the time required for one-to-one clarifications, and coordinate efforts to maximize the impact of your time investment.


[1] Darby, F. and Lang, J. M. Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. Jossey-Bass, 2019.

[2] Allen, D. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Penguin Books, 2001.

[3] Goodell, J. and Kolodner, J. (Eds.). Learning Engineering Toolkit: Evidence-Based Practices from the Learning Sciences, Instructional Design, and Beyond. Carnegie Mellon University ETC Press, 2021, p. 175.

[4] Mandernach, B. J. Strategies to maximize the impact of feedback and streamline your time. Journal of Educators Online 15, 3 (2018).

[5] Ruan, S., Wobbrock, J. O., Liou, K., Ng, A., and Landay, J. A. Comparing speech and keyboard text entry for short messages in two languages on touchscreen phones. Proc. ACM Interact. Mob. Wearable Ubiquitous Technol. 1, 4, Article 159 (2017).

About the Authors

Lori J. Cooper, Ph.D., is a full-time online faculty member for the College of Humanities and Social Science at Grand Canyon University. She has more than 20 years servicing higher education students, with 15 of these years teaching undergraduate online psychology classes. Her research interests include classroom assessment techniques, the role of emotional intelligence (EI) in academic achievement, Autism spectrum disorders (specifically executive functioning) and management of restrictive and repetitive behaviors, efficiency of instruction and classroom management in online learning, and the relationship between student achievement/outcomes and use of video instruction in the online classroom.

Amanda Loftus, Ph.D., is currently an assistant professor of psychology at Grand Canyon University.  Her passion is in teaching a diverse population of students and fostering a sense of community with her students in the non-traditional classroom environment. She additionally serves as an active content expert for several Doctoral Learners at Grand Canyon University.  Her research focuses are in areas of work-life balance, student success in the online environment, and innovative instructional methods.  She additionally serves on several college-wide committees aimed at improving faculty and student experiences and teaches a wide variety of psychology content courses.

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.

© Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/2023/10-3595382 $15.00


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