Online Teaching Tips

online teaching

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The team at Adam Smith Works has been hard at work creating and providing a variety of online learning resources with the goal of increasing the use of Adam Smith’s work in the classroom. The sudden changes in education as a result of COVID19, however, mean that a lot of people are suddenly as interested in what we have to say about the pedagogical aspects of online learning as they are in what we have to say about Adam Smith.

We’ve collected the tips and suggestions in this document from our experiences and from the experiences of some of our website contributors. We hope it might provide some help and support as we all adjust to new and shifting educational platforms.


Synchronous online learning refers to learning that takes place with students and teachers together at the same time. This is the method you’ll want to use if you are bringing seminars/discussion groups online, and what matters is engaging the students in the discussion. Synchronous online learning therefore requires group conferencing software, such as Zoom, that allows all students to “meet” virtually, and ideally “face-to-face” (though it’s possible to participate with voice-only). 

Practical Considerations

  1. Be aware of your background when you are filming or participating in an online session. Having a window behind you makes you really hard to see. Make sure you take a quick look at your surroundings to eliminate distractions or embarrassing stuff you don’t want students to see. 
  2. Remind your students if they are in a discussion and can be seen on camera. Sometimes participants forget this, and we’ve had to be pretty quick to shut off a camera a time or two. 
  3. Have a plan in place, and let students know about it in advance, for what you’ll do if software goes down. Should everyone wait 10 minutes and then try again? Move to an online chat group? Check email the next day? Whatever it is, let them know about it before the meeting starts. Don’t plan to settle this in the first few minutes of your first session. Settle it by email or some other asynchronous tech before your first synchronous meeting.
  4. If you have access to a teaching assistant, have them monitor technical issues (having to cut off a camera, for example) note taking, and questions or comments unrelated to the discussion (someone has to leave early, is having technical difficulties and is working on them). 

Things to Try

  1. Establishing and maintaining a predictable set of rules for real-time participation is important because students cannot rely on normal in-person cues. For example, you may want a signal to indicate that students have a comment or question during a lecture, or you may want to hold all questions to the end. Students may volunteer or be called on. 
  2. Occasional intervention by the discussion leader can ensure that less active discussants can jump into the conversation (bump them up in the queue) is also important. Let participants know that you’ll do this, as often those who participate most are also most eager to jump into the discussion, and it helps for them to know why they’re not being called on when they expected. 
  3. As the discussion leader, take notes to ensure that interesting threads of conversation that get dropped with the conversation’s flow can be brought up again. This is important both to ensure tangential conversations don’t take over, and so that less eager participants’ questions aren’t dropped completely.
  4. Take a few minutes at the start of the first session to make sure everyone knows how to signal that they’d like to speak and to outline general rules for the conversation. 
  5. Try opening a discussion board or group apart from your online presentations for each class—a Facebook group works here, as do groups in WhatsApp, Slack, or Marco Polo. Your students may already use these for clubs, volunteer work, or general socializing, so the context will be familiar to them. You can let them take the lead here on choosing the app they use most often. This can be a nice way to have a space for a casual ongoing discussion about course content, as well as for general questions about the course, sharing resources, and so on.


If the software you will use for online lectures and discussions has a chat function, think carefully about how to use it. On one hand, typed side conversations can risk distracting students from the spoken conversation or lecture they are supposed to be paying attention to. On the other hand, we have seen the chat function used as a way to “footnote” the lecture by providing links to sources and resources for further reading. Which happens probably depends heavily on the participants and their level of engagement. Regardless, it’s important to develop specific guidelines for the chat box. (You will probably find that they emerge over the course of your first online session.) 


Asynchronous online learning refers to a teaching method that allows students to handle the material without concern for when they do so. When using “async”, the instructor curates an entire course (or whatever remains of the course you’re trying to transition) ahead of time. 

Content setup

It’s possible to set up your content so that every chapter in the textbook is a separate module. Students open the module at the beginning of the week and in it find content such as slide decks, video lectures you’ve recorded or linked to, and assignments to complete. Using modules allows students to work at their own pace and on their own schedule. 

Considering, “How can I make the material in this chapter more than just the book?” is more important with asynchronous e-learning than it is in a traditional class because it is more difficult to respond to “stuff that comes up” for the students when their work is being done separately and remotely.

As in the case of synchronous online learning, discussion boards or groups can play an important role--a journaling assignment or required posting to a discussion group works well to encourage ongoing engagement. Monitoring these discussions can help instructors find “the stuff that comes up” and realize when students are having difficulties before graded tests or assignments are handed in.

Incorporating Recorded Lectures

The lectures you expect students to watch on their own time as part of a teaching module should be no longer than 15 minutes per lecture. It is better to break a complex topic into smaller component parts than to film a single comprehensive lecture. 

Steve, an economics professor, is setting up an async course in environmental economics. For his intro class, he breaks the lecture into two parts: one on negative externalities and the Coase theorem and another on the optimal quantity of pollution. Neither of these parts is longer than 15 minutes. 

Sarah, a professor of English literature, divides her lectures into 15 minutes on the history/background/technical aspects of the literary piece the class is discussing and 15 minutes on a close reading of a section of the poem, chapter, or act of the play being discussed and records each segment as its own video.

Beyond content, the requirements for recording your lectures are simple: good lighting and sound are all you need. Remember: You are not recording classic videos for the ages. You are trying to communicate content efficiently and effectively. If you can be seen, heard, and understood, you have a good video that students will benefit from. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!

General Tips for Conducting Text-based Discussions Online

  1. In online discussions, shared familiarity with the text becomes much more important than it may be in-class. Having done the reading ensures that participants have a common ground for discussion. It may be helpful to conduct a quick content-based quiz before the discussion to encourage participants to prepare properly. We’d suggest providing a quiz that students can take offline. 
  2. Encouraging references directly to the text helps produce a livelier and on-topic discussion. 
  3. Have students prepare discussion question(s) and submit them to you in advance. This can also encourage students to complete the reading.
  4. Have students select the most meaningful/important passage and share. They could even highlight and scan their page selections to share with the group.

Some of Our Favorite “Starter” Questions

  • What most surprised you in the reading for today?
  • What is the most important thing you learned from the reading?
  • Make a prediction on what you think will happen next.
  • Why do you think this reading was chosen for today?
  • How does this reading relate to the last reading assignment?


Triage your material! 

Whether you’re preparing a synchronous discussion session or recording a lecture for students to watch later, focus on the material that will benefit the most from your added explanation and analysis. 

Combine your methods!

Most online classes and online learners will benefit from a combination of synchronous and asynchronous approaches. Don’t be afraid to use a little of each. You can begin projects and assignments in the "class" with students, and then they can do much of the work outside of “class” following directions on their own.

Additional Resources