7 Online Teaching Habits For a Low-Stress Semester

Woman biting yellow pencil in her mouth in front of a computer

Let’s be honest: you approach the start of every semester with the perfect plan for a smooth online course. But as finals roll around, you find yourself buried in a heap of ungraded assignments, student emails, and rushed lectures. 

Dr. Amber Webber, an Instructional Design Manager at FIU Online and a seasoned professor, has been there.

Instant Replay: Practical Habits for Great Online Teaching

In This Semester Will be Different: Practical Habits for Great Online Teaching, Dr. Webber presented a number of effective habits she acquired through her own practice and diligent research. Her practical habits will not only help ward off that final-stretch stress but enrich your teaching, too. 

How It Started vs. How It’s Going 

Dr. Webber knows what it’s like to be an online learner. And yet, when a small midwest college quickly offered her a teaching job, she developed an “idealized view” of what the class would be like and prepped accordingly. It didn’t go as planned. 

A screenshot of Dr. Webber’s contribution to the popular “How it started vs How it’s going” meme from her presentation of online teaching habits
A screenshot of Dr. Webber’s contribution to the popular “Hot it started vs How it’s going” meme.

Creatures of Habit 

After reflecting on this common experience, Dr. Webber identified four common needs that when left unmet can lead to burnout: The need for Improved student experience, less administrative hassle, more efficient grading, and instructor satisfaction. Dr. Webber formulated beneficial habits targeting these needs based on literature about online teaching and habit formation. 

Some of the books Dr. Webber drew from to form her online teaching habits.
Some of the books Dr. Webber drew from to form her online teaching habits.

Check-In Daily

Instructor presence, Dr. Webber reminds us, is one of the most important practices for student retention in an online course. One way to display presence is to do some simple tasks each day, tasks that don’t require longer efforts like content building, course design, or written feedback. Instead, set a reminder for each morning for tasks like clearing your Canvas inbox, racing through quick grades, nudging students, and drafting announcements. 

Completing these smaller tasks each day helps you avoid turning your class into a mounting chore of small to-dos. It keeps the class alive and models the level of engagement you would like to see in your students. 

Create Community

Research shows something curious: though learners are more connected than ever, online learners often report a lack of community connection in their online courses. When students do support one another, your workload gets a bit lighter. That’s why Dr. Webber urges instructors to adopt multiple channels of communication in courses with platforms like Slack, WhatsApp, Discord, and YellowDig. 

Dr. Webber paid YellowDig special attention. She believes the platform is revolutionizing online discussions by overcoming the student tendency to write bare minimum “post once, reply twice” discussion posts. YellowDig can even grade itself––a win-win.  Ask your instructional designer about adopting YellowDig in your next course.

Instructions, Instructions, Instructions

Another habit Dr. Webber encourages is making information in your course as explicit as possible. Though it may feel repetitious, practices like descriptive labels and consistent naming conventions, among other signposts, mean students are less likely to “get lost in a sea of links.”

Woman at table with coffee sending communications through the phone

For example, always label “assignment” where appropriate. Or you can write the word “due” (with a date) on any and every item a student must submit. 

Automate Everything You Can

High tech, low effort wins. That’s how Dr. Webber describes the benefits of using every tool at your digital disposal for automating procedures that instructors often handle manually. Most of these automated tools require an easy “do it once and never again” setup. She finds PlayPosit, a video platform that helps you integrate interactions and gradable quizzes right into videos, especially favorable. 

Enable Feedback Loops 

Another habit worth adopting is delivering prompt feedback, which doesn’t always have to come from instructors. For instance, peer reviews and well-crafted discussion forums allow students to think critically about each other’s work while building community. Offering feedback also means you get a chance to plug in quick grades. The more grades you get in a day, the less you’ll be drowning in them at semester’s end.

Dr. Webber really presses instructors to create opportunities for receiving student feedback. The best way is to simply be transparent. Being open about your own time and workload disarms students, which helps you get a better sense of what’s going on with them. The information you gather in the process affords instructors the ability to adjust courses according to specific student needs or to write more empathetic and targeted announcements. 

Overcommunicate Why & WIIFM

Dr. Webber again stresses the importance (and discomfort) of over-communicating. It’s important students understand the “why” behind each item in your course. Doing so provides a clear answer to a common bottom-line student question: “What’s in it for me?” In short, keep “selling” your course. The result is deeper engagement and fewer emails. 


Numberless clock

Dr. Webber’s Canvas know-how shines when asserting “nudges” as another positive habit. Nudges are the different means by which instructors can keep students on their toes. These actions are not only beneficial to the second-chances crucial to student success. They also help you get more of the assignments you need to be submitted at the right times. 

Just some of the easy Canvas hacks she suggested are adding due dates to every course item and writing “look ahead” notes wherever possible. One of Dr. Webber’s favorite features is the Canvas Message Students Who function that lets you send select students targeted messages at the same time. 

Adjustments and Down Days

Sometimes, Dr. Webber said, the most empathetic thing you can do for yourself and for your class is to cut your course down to essentials. It’s entirely possible to engage in your topic meaningfully while reducing pressure and anxiety. There’s one more habit she thinks we can’t ignore: Take a down day! “Sometimes you need to reset and tackle things with a fresh perspective.”

Young man at computer tosses papers in relief; one of the online teaching habits is to take a down day or day off

Even with these excellent habits and strategies, Dr. Webber has no illusions about things going according to plan. Our job as instructors is to make sure we do what we can to make any situation better for you and for your students. FIU instructors are really already good at this. Just look at how quickly instructors and students needed to adjust expectations at the start of the pandemic. 

Watch This Semester Will be Different: Practical Habits for Great Online Teaching before the semester ends. You won’t regret it.

Instructor Webinars

Future Instructor Webinars

Be on the lookout for FIU Online’s future webinars on instructional strategies and effective ways to use technology in your online classroom. If you have any ideas for future webinar topics, we’d love to hear them. Contact Christina Schettini (cschetti@fiu.edu) to share your topic ideas.

In the meantime, enjoy reading some of our other instructor webinar instant replay articles.

Michael A. Martin is an instructional designer and writer for the Continuing and Professional Education team at FIU Online. He is also an adjunct lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at FIU.

Related posts