Feature

It’s 10 a.m. on a Monday. Do you know where your Psych 101 students are?

It’s becoming more likely that they aren’t in your classroom. Nearly 30 percent of higher education students now take at least one course online, and that number is on the rise, according to a College Board survey. It found that more than 5.6 million students took at least one online course in fall 2009, a 21 percent increase over the previous year.

As the technology advances, chances are most psychology educators will be asked to teach an online course at some point. To help psychology professors meet the increasing demand for online instruction, the Monitor compiled these tips for effective online teaching, based on recent research, observation and the experiences of those who have been doing it for years:

Promote schedule flexibility. One of the greatest advantages of online education is that students who can’t make it to class — including people with disabilities, military personnel, parents and students with full-time jobs — can more easily complete their coursework.

Now, researchers are even finding that this flexibility may spur more critical thinking. A 2008 study in the Journal of Education for Business (Vol. 84, No. 2) by Oral Roberts University researchers found that when instructors and students interacted mainly through discussion boards rather than synchronous online chats, students took more time to reflect on what they’d learned, which stimulated their higher order thinking, such as analysis, synthesis, judgment and application of knowledge. Nearly all of the more than 200 students in the study also reported that their online course encouraged them to learn more effectively on their own — perhaps laying the groundwork for better lifelong learning, the researchers say.

• Get to know your students. Research has shown that building a sense of community within a classroom improves student engagement. How can you instill that camaraderie online? One way is by offering hybrid courses in which students come into the classroom for the first few sessions — giving students and instructors a chance to bond in person — and then complete the course online. Such courses lead to higher grades and test scores than face-to-face instruction alone, and greater student engagement than traditional online instruction, according to a 2010 Department of Education meta-analysis.

“On average, blended approaches combining online and face-to-face instruction had better student outcomes than conventional instruction,” says educational psychologist Barbara Means, PhD, director of the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International and a coauthor of the meta-analysis.

When time, resources or student demographics won’t allow for any face-to-face meetings, consider using icebreakers to help students get to know each other better, says psychology professor Jay Brophy-Ellison, PhD, of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning. In a 2007 study, Brophy-Ellison set up an online discussion thread for an introductory psychology course and asked students to link to their favorite movies and music (Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 11, No. 1). He then used those song lyrics and movie clips to introduce topics in online lectures. This encouraged students to interact with each other about common interests through the discussion board, and helped them make connections between those interests and the course material, Brophy-Ellison says.

• Be approachable. In his as-yet-unpublished research on online instruction, psychologist Richard Clark, PhD, found that the most successful online instructors were those who were more willing to help students who fall behind.

“It was pretty universal that the faculty who were doing an excellent job in terms of student retention rates and higher grade point averages were at least presenting themselves as being accessible to students for questions, problems and other issues,” says Clark, professor of educational psychology and technology and the director of the Center for Cognitive Technology at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Clark says some of the best ways to do this are by answering emails promptly and even providing a personal cell phone number for students to use in the event of an emergency.

• Use videos and images judiciously. It’s easier than ever to incorporate illustrations, photos, animations and videos into your lectures, but don’t go overboard, says University of California, Santa Barbara, psychology professor Richard Mayer, PhD, who examines how multimedia can enhance learning. Among his 12 instructional principles is the finding that people learn better when multimedia are used only to underscore the main point of a lecture.

“People can only pay attention to a few things at any one time,” says Mayer, whose research is summarized in the book “Multimedia Learning: Second Edition” (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

When instructors do use video or animation to explain a concept — say, a video showing how a neuron fires — Mayer found that they should break the animation into four separate, shorter videos, and require students to click an icon to proceed to the next video. “By doing that, people can digest one bite of information at a time,” he says. Mayer has also found that students learn better from graphics with audio explanations rather than graphics with printed text since students can easily be overloaded with visual information, he says.

• Find your voice. Whenever possible, Mayer also recommends that instructors narrate their lectures to coincide with online presentations. When text is printed on the screen, he says, students must split their attention between the graphic and the text. “You can effectively increase the amount of information people can process by offloading some of the material from the visual channel and putting it in the verbal channel,” Mayer says.

Just make sure the narration is done in a conversational style — through the use of first and second person — rather than a more formal one, he adds.

“It seems kind of bizarre, but it’s based on the idea that people will accept the computer as a social being if it acts in a more social way toward you,” he says.

• Use what’s already available. Online instructors don’t have to start from scratch when designing high-quality educational experiences, Means says. “There are a great number of open-source resources out there that can be assembled in combinations that fit particular courses and philosophies of instruction,” she says.

Crafton Hills College psychology professor T.L. Brink, PhD, agrees, adding that PowerPoint presentations, videos and illustrations abound online through websites such as YouTube and organizations such as the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching.

“The materials are by and large out there,” Brink says. “It’s just a matter of finding them and figuring out how to use them creatively.”


Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.