The science behind making online classes effective

Concurrent Session 10

Brief Abstract

Instructors and undergraduate student researchers evaluated teaching in live, synchronous online courses. This session will share what they learned about instructor practices that foster engagement and learning, and a tool that can be used by teachers and institutions to train, assess, and research online teaching and learning.


Abha Ahuja is Academic Director at Minerva Project where she conducts program design and oversees curriculum delivery for Minerva Project's higher education partnerships. Passionate about diversity and inclusion in STEM, Ahuja realized the potential of online education early in her career, designing innovative virtual courses as an Associate Professor in the College of Natural Sciences at Minerva University. Prior to joining Minerva University, Ahuja conducted postdoctoral research at Harvard University and served as a Lecturer and Curriculum Fellow at Harvard Medical School. She studied Zoology at Delhi University (India) and earned her Ph.D. in Genetics from McMaster University (Canada).

Extended Abstract

The era of trial and error in online, synchronous teaching is over.  As universities embrace hybrid learning in its different formats, delivering online, synchronous classes should be based on pedagogical research. Dr. Abha Ahuja and two of her students conducted a study using three types of data to identify the best practices of online teaching.  From this data, the team iteratively developed a tool to observe and analyze instructional practices. This tool, called the Virtual Classroom Observation Tool (VCOT), was developed based on a review of existing literature, coding of ten class sessions from two subject areas, and survey responses from 70 learners. The process revealed best practices for instructors in four main categories: 

1) stewardship, or framing the instructor as a guide leading students to navigate their class session; 

2) facilitation, or equitably and effectively engaging all students; 

3) classroom climate, or setting a tone that builds community and self-efficacy; and 

4) presentation, or effective verbal and non-verbal communication in class. 

This session will share results and actionable insights from this research study by faculty who teach online and their students.This session is important to the OLC community as it brings an evidence-based contribution to the conversation around effective pedagogy in online settings. The results of the study around learner-instructor relationships, peer learning, and classroom community are particularly unique as it is often assumed that it will be difficult or impossible to build community in online classrooms as compared to in-person settings. 

Attendees will take away from the presentation actionable, evidence-based insights on ways that they can improve their own teaching or instructional design in the areas of stewardship, facilitation, classroom climate, and presentation. For example, we will share how an instructor can make explicit the structure and purpose of a lesson, connecting it to prior and future lessons, which is shown to increase student motivation, engagement, and investment in their learning. 

The session will apply active learning techniques throughout. The presenter will lead socratic discussion and invite participants to reflect on their own teaching practice in small groups. Participants will also gain practical experience of using the classroom observation tool by using it to evaluate a recorded class session.