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Reframing Our Thoughts About Online Teaching

Reframing Our Thoughts About Online Teaching

“The process of developing an online course, starting with a clean slate instead of converting resident instruction via technology, leads to an examination of our classroom-based course design, assumptions about learning, and ultimately improves instructional practice.” —Dr. Lolita Paff

Are you teaching courses online that you’ve traditionally taught in-person? Don’t worry! Here are some areas of consideration to help you reform your curriculum to an online environment.

For more ASL content, read Teaching ASL Online: Making the Transition With GoReact


First Impressions 

From the minute we enter the classroom, students are sizing us up and making predictions about their instructor and the course. Our appearance, demeanor, voice, word choice, and mannerisms project an image. Similarly, the teacher may notice a variety of student characteristics: clothing, tone of voice, behavior, and level of attention. All this happens automatically when we share a physical space with our students.  

To make a strong first impression online, be sure to have a clear idea about the virtual image you want to portray. This includes your LMS, course organization, materials, and resources. It’s likely that your university or institution has provided you with IT support to help with this.

Two questions you might ask yourself are: 

  • How will I build relationships with my students with an online class? 
  • How do I foster a sense of community?

In conversations with many teachers, a  top concern is how to connect with students and get the engagement and social cues that were the foundation of our traditional face-to-face teaching style.

To build your teaching style into a virtual classroom and promote engagement, consider including some of Dr. Lolita Paff’s “Getting to Know You” tactics. One of her ideas is creating a virtual  “water cooler” where students can answer each other’s questions or connect about non-course related topics. Think of it as a virtual space for informal interactions. Student feedback suggests that students appreciate being able to connect outside of formal course discussions. Here’s an example:

Hint: Use attention-getting graphics to motivate students to engage.


A critical aspect of online teaching is predicting and avoiding points of confusion. This applies to how the materials are organized, instructions for assessments, and clarity in content delivery. When students are frustrated because they are too busy figuring out the structure of the course and expectations, this leads to missed or incomplete assignments, late drops, and poor course evaluations. Create a format that explains the assignment clearly: a learning objective clearly stated, outlined expectations, and assessment method or tools listed.  Repeat this format for each and every assignment given.

Student Interaction

Many teachers want to promote and encourage discussion and interaction. To do so, teachers can incorporate real-world issues that allow for open-ended prompts and activities with multiple outcomes and explanations.

But how can we facilitate discussion and interaction while they’re still learning the target language of ASL? This is where providing a balance of English-based and ASL-based assignments is important. Always keep in mind your objective: Is it for students to develop skills or engage with the topic?  

A Format for Engaging Students With the Topic

If your objective is to engage students with the topic, allow them to discuss via online forums or through written assignments. Find the “right” balance of encouraging them to be able to sign the content. 

One way to achieve this is for them to discuss in English, then give a summary in sign. This will help them to digest the information in their L1 (primary language) first and move towards being able to sign it. Give them tools or examples that show how we summarize in ASL such as topic introduction, listing, and summary/closing comment.

There are additional benefits to this format. Introverted students may feel free to share their insights in a setting that works to their advantage. Online discussions also provide a record that students can revisit as they prepare for exams. Last of all, Lolita Paff explains that the opportunity to discuss current events, apply concepts, and wrestle with ethical issues outside of class time means students engage with the content more deeply and more frequently.

This format may also improve your ability to facilitate face-to-face discussions. You may learn to allow the discussion or exploration to unfold naturally through student comments, rather than needing to force or control the outcome of the discussion. This is another way of connecting to your students at their level.


The switch to online learning may cause you to rethink your approach to assessments too. Do you require a midterm and a final? How about weekly quizzes, homework, lab assignments, and practice?

Remember that there are two kinds of assessments—formative and summative. The purpose of a formative assessment is to provide feedback and inform students of their progress and what they need to improve upon. Summative assessments are more final and should be used to evaluate students on their level of learning, skill development, and overall achievement in the course.  

Look at your list of assignments, quizzes, and assessments and determine which approach—formative or summative—is best. 

Formative and Summative Assessment

If the skills and objectives are meant to be a part of the summative assessment, call it a formative evaluation and focus on providing feedback. As Dillan William explains, formative evaluation is used more effectively if it is separated from the grading process and used primarily as an aid to teaching. 

Don’t waste your time giving feedback AND grading. Have your students be responsible for the formative feedback either in the form of self or peer assessments, as this is more engaging. You may also consider giving students a chance to have a rough draft reviewed (formative) before the final draft is due (summative). For the final draft, don’t provide a lot of feedback. Instead, use a rubric to grade and evaluate skills and requirements.

Reframing Thoughts about Online Teaching Share on X

Don’t Try to Do It All

We all want to be the best teacher we can be. However, the nature of teaching is one of constant and continual improvement. Don’t expect you’ll get everything right the first time around. While there are numerous things to consider, focus on the biggest impact on student learning.