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Use the 3 Rs to Guide Effective Teaching

By Emily Baxter, Jane Sutterlin, Maria Wherley / June 2019

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What are your goals when teaching online? Meaningfully connecting with students? Helping students learn difficult concepts? Clearly illustrating the relevance of course material to “real life?” Ending the semester with good course evaluations?

These are all goals that teaching faculty have shared with us in our roles as learning designers in higher education. We believe that these goals can be approached by ensuring that the online classroom is grounded in the principles of the 3 Rs: relationships, relevance, and rigor, as described by Bill Daggett in an interview with Peter DeWitt for Education Week [1]. We will illustrate how online instructors can (1) support the development of positive relationships, (2) highlight the relevance of course material, and (3) engage students in rigorous learning experiences with their students. Relationships, relevance, and rigor, when fully addressed together, can frame best practices that will help to create an active online classroom environment where students may unleash their learning potential.


We recently asked workshop participants to think of a time when they were motivated to do their best work and to describe the characteristics of the leader of that learning environment. Participants described their coaches, teachers, leaders, and mentors with similar adjectives, such as: caring, encouraging, passionate, supportive, engaged and responsive. Effective teachers and leaders are able to connect meaningfully with others. In fact, relationships are the bedrock of effective learning experiences.

There is an abundance of research demonstrating the importance of relationships to effective learning. It is known that students value relationships with their instructors. Watson et al. outlined effective instructional strategies preferred by students in online classrooms [2]. Of the 35 categories they identified, the top six involve a positive interaction with the instructor. Examples include instructor availability and responsiveness, engagement and interaction with students, provision of prompt feedback, the fostering of interaction, and provision of learning guidance.

Following are some best practices for creating an online classroom community that emphasizes and supports relationships between instructor and students. First of all, never underestimate the value of personalized feedback. Feedback is appreciated by students [3] and is often one of the primary means of communication and engagement, especially in online courses. Respond promptly to student email messages and discussion posts, ensuring teacher presence throughout the course. Frequent announcements or course-wide emails can add significant value to the student-instructor relationship as well, especially in online courses where there is little or no face-to-face communication. These communications can be created using embedded video tools to add even more personalization.

Another important part of relationships is communication that allows us to learn more about one another. As an instructor, it is important that you share your personal and professional experiences as they relate to the course content. Communicate your research and experience in the area of study in order to highlight your credibility and competence in the field and to strengthen the development of relationships with your students. And don’t forget to reach out to your students to learn more about them. What drives their interest in the course topic? What are their experiences and/or career goals? What challenges do they face as online learners? The answers to these questions can help you differentiate material to the interests and knowledge levels of students. This also can help guide scaffolding of the student learning experience.

Finally, remember to challenge students in supportive ways. Let them know you believe they can do it. This is an important part of developing a positive learning community. That community can be further developed by having students communicate with one another throughout the course. Online video tools and discussion forums, many of which may be offered in your LMS, can be very effective for this purpose.

The following can serve as a helpful menu of strategies to try:

  • Use Zoom/Kaltura (video tools) to have everyone introduce themselves in a class (the instructor, too).
  • Utilize discussion forums (eg. Canvas or Piazza) to have class discussions and/or have students contribute peer support.
  • Use LMS gradebook messaging or video/audio tools to provide individualized student feedback.
  • Ensure that LMS notification preferences are set up (for students and instructor).
  • Use announcements to welcome students to the class, comment on class success, or provide guidance (text or video).
  • Encourage communication utilizing video in addition to text.


Now we would like you to think back to some part of your schooling where your learning experience was guided by the relevance of the topic you were studying. Were you more motivated to learn when you could see the connection of the topic to the practical needs of your daily life and/or career goals? Alternatively, have you had learning experiences where you just didn’t “see the point?” How often did you study course materials to discover that what you studied was not on the assessment? Understanding the relevance of the course materials and activities often increases student interest in completing assignments and investigating content further.

Demonstrating the relevance of class activities can help students understand why they are being asked to perform them. Students often ask why they need to show their work. It is important to explain that seeing the processes of their problem solving is just as important as providing correct answers. It is also worth explaining the relevance of course assessments, considering that, according to Tovani [4], assessments that are perceived as little more than “busywork” may contribute to higher rates of cheating: “When [students] perceive tasks as busywork, they look for shortcuts.”

Let’s take a look at some ideas for how emphasis on relevance looks in actual practice.

First of all, remember the importance of communicating learning objectives to your students, as well as the purpose of assignments. Go the extra step and explain to students how the homework that you are assigning will help them to meet the learning objectives for the lesson and/or the course. Even better, share how the course content and assessments will help to prepare students for their eventual career aspirations. Involve students in thinking about this and making those connections for themselves, as well. Even more effective is when you can encourage students to be reflective about these relevant connections.

When teaching abstract ideas, it’s important to provide several concrete examples to make the concepts more relatable. This might involve offering content in a variety of format types (text, images, drawings, demonstrations, or tables). There are numerous applications and Web 2.0 tools for this purpose, such as Google docs, H5P, VoiceThread,, etc. Remember it is important to engage with students to determine their understanding of concepts if you are to open them up to new ideas.

You might also think about building in course materials and assessments that have relevance to the “real world.” Tovani [4] reminds us, “giving students an audience to whom they can demonstrate their learning is another way to create authenticity.” This may even extend to how we scaffold students’ collaborative work. The ability to collaborate effectively using interpersonal skills is highly valued in the workplace; try building in a collaborative element into the assessment experience.

Finally, continually search for ways to connect classroom content to current events. What is happening in the world right now that directly relates to your field of study? Who are the leaders in your field—locally, at your institution, or in the world? Can you find ways for students to interact with experts in their field? Online webinars using videoconferencing tools, such as Zoom, are one easy but effective way to accomplish this.

Here are some additional ideas to try in your class:

  • To direct student engagement, specify learning objectives or essential questions before assigning readings.
  • Find ways for students to interact with and learn from experts in the field.
  • Use announcements to send out summaries highlighting important content or concepts.
  • Utilize LMS content pages to add commentary on readings or homework.
  • Create an assignment (using VoiceThread) requiring students to reflect on connections between what they are studying and current events.
  • Following assessments, use Piazza/announcements/a gradebook tool to provide feedback on misconceptions.
  • Have students draw, diagram, or chart connections between concepts.
  • Have students ask “how” or “why” questions about concepts.


We have now arrived at the third, and final, “R.” In our workshops, we ask participants to reflect upon something at which they excel. Examples participants have shared include cooking amazing Indian food, playing bagpipes, earning ribbons at dog agility shows, and being an outstanding teacher or parent. We then ask participants to consider how they achieved mastery in that skill. Most acknowledge that practice, effort, focus, and determination are a big part of achieving mastery.

Cognitive scientists agree [5] learning must be effortful in order for it to be durable, which allows it to be applied to other situations or experiences. When learning is too easy, it is often forgotten and critical thinking is not applied. There has been much research dedicated to the science of learning. What practices can be put in place to help structure a rigorous learning environment? Sumeracki, Madan, and Weinstein have outlined evidence-based teaching strategies that enhance student learning [6]. Their suggestions include spaced practice (having students recall information at spaced intervals) and frequent quizzing. Practice, practice, practice.

So, how can we ensure that the online courses we teach are rigorous learning experiences for our students? Here, are some suggestions.

First off, consider applying the tenets of spaced practice to your course design. Schedule instruction and assessments in order to provide opportunity for spaced practice, and encourage students to practice their understanding of the content [7]. Make sure the content you covered in lesson one is assessed multiple times—maybe in lesson one, lesson three, and lesson five. The more opportunities students have to retrieve information from their memories, the more durable it will be.

Have students try retrieval practice by recalling information from memory [8]. This can be achieved with a quick quiz to end or open an online learning module. You could also have students complete an assignment at the conclusion of a lesson that has them list three things they learned and two things they still have questions about. Graded or not, this will help them retain more information.

Finally, help students structure their time management. As Beasley [9] states, “… poor planning and the tendency to procrastinate [put students] in … situation[s] that ultimately led to … cheating act[s]. These students were usually wishing that they had started projects earlier and had not put themselves in such a pressurized situation.” You can accomplish this by carefully assigning due dates and assignment access requirements within the LMS. These techniques can help scaffold students’ exploration, review, and assessment of material. But it is also important to communicate with your students about the intention of your course design to support effective learning.

Give these strategies a try:

  • Challenge students to go above and beyond—let them know you believe they can do it.
  • Offer suggestions on how to study and critically read content.
  • Assign a quick quiz at the beginning of every class (questions from last class, some from two weeks ago, some from further back) using Clickers/Poll Everywhere, Kahoot, quizzes, or assignments.
  • Use Piazza/another discussion tool to post how and why questions and have other students try to answer; chime in for clarification or to endorse answers.
  • For larger projects, have check-in points for students to obtain feedback from peers and/or instructor.

We have offered practical ways to easily leverage technology to develop positive relationships, demonstrate relevance, and increase rigor in order to create an active online classroom where students are motivated to learn and understand the benefits of working hard and submitting high-quality work. Many of the ideas we outlined are not new, but it is important to remember the framework of relationships, relevance, and rigor because when one R is missing, the other two will be affected. It is important to keep these elements in mind as you make thoughtful choices about your online classroom.


[1] DeWitt, P. 2012. Rigor, relevance & relationships: An interview with Bill Daggett. Education Week. January 4, 2012.

[2] Watson, F. F., Bishop, M. C., and Ferdinand-James, D. Instructional strategies to help online students learn: Feedback from online students. TechTrends 61, 5 (2017), 420-427. DOI:

[3] Blair, A., Curtis, S. , Goodwin, M., and and Shields, S. 2012. What feedback to students want? Learning and Teaching in Politics and International Studies 33, 1 (2012). DOI:

[4] Tovani, C. 2014. How we drive students to cheat. Educational Leadership 71, 6 (2014), 50-53.

[5] Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., and McDaniel, M. A. Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014.

[6] Sumeracki, M., Madan, C., and Weinstein, Y. Four simple strategies from cognitive psychology for the classroom. Essays from E-xcellence in Teaching 16 (2018).

[7] Benjamin, A. and Tullis, J. What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology 61, 3 (2010), 228-247. DOI:

[8] Roediger, H., Putnam, A., and Sumeracki, M. Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. In J. Mestre & B. Ross (Eds.) Psychology of learning and motivation: Cognition in education. Elsevier, Oxford, 2011, 1–36.

[9] Beasley, E. Students reported for cheating explain what they think would have stopped them. Ethics & Behavior 24, 3 (2014), 229–252. DOI:


About the Authors

Emily Baxter is an instructional designer in the e-Learning Design Innovation Group (eLDIG), part of Penn State’s Smeal College of Business at Penn State. Previously, she spent five and a half years as a learning designer in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Emily earned her M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction from Penn State. In the last 20-plus years, Emily has designed instruction for a wide range of learners—from preschoolers through adults—in widely ranging subject areas, from meteorology to music! In her position as an instructional designer, Emily enjoys having the opportunity to collaborate with faculty to create meaningful course experiences that utilize best practices in online education. She is particularly passionate about cultivating meaningful engagement and applying learning science research to reinforce retention.

Jane Sutterlin is a learning designer in the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University. Since 2005, Jane has designed face-to-face, blended and online courses that utilize technology as a tool for learning in the K-12 and Higher Ed environments. Jane joined Penn State in August 2012 as an instructional designer in the College of Nursing and recently joined Dutton Institute as a learning designer in December 2016. In her current role as a learning designer, Jane collaborates with faculty to design fully online and hybrid courses for a wide range of learners, including Penn State undergraduates and returning adults in the disciplines of geography, energy business and finance, energy and geo-environmental engineering, petroleum and natural gas engineering, mining, and geoscience

Maria Scalzi Wherley is an editor and learning design assistant with the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute. She has over a decade of teaching experience, serving a wide variety of learners a diverse range of subjects. She has also worked at the state level to design curriculum for public schools. Maria holds a B.S. in secondary education and an M. Ed. in curriculum and instruction from Penn State.

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