March 25, 2016

Effective online teaching strategies for student success

by Htet Htet Zaw, Pharm.D, PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Holy Cross Hospital

In the United States, enrollment in online classes grew from 9.6% in 2002 to 33.5% in 2012.  And enrollment continues to grow due to technology and innovations in education. Online delivery of education is very important to adult learners as it enables them to meet family, work, and other responsibilities. Although online learning continues to grow at a quick pace in higher education, faculty members may be reluctant to adopt it and some students may be hesitant to enroll in online courses due to lack of face-to-face contact, a focus on grading rather than learning, and the perceived need for technological expertise.  Success in online classes requires learners to take responsibility for controlling the factors that affect learning and instructors to facilitate successful student learning experiences.1-6

It is important for the instructors to know their online audience in order to deliver a quality learning experience that meets the needs of all learners. First, the instructor should examine learner demographics and consider culture differences that could affect online learners and their social interactions. Second, consider the unique problems and issues that learners may encounter in the online environment.

During the orientation session, instructors should be very clear about the materials learners will need to complete the course and provide explicit instructions.  This includes a well-developed course syllabus, a list of weekly activities, a description of the assignments and their due dates as well as how to participate in discussion boards, how to access the grade book and instructor feedback, and the instructors’ contact information.

Although providing explicit and well-written instructions will provide a great foundation for an online class, many students will experience a sense of separation that may lead to them to dropping the class or, worse, failing. This is not simply caused by the physical distance between students and instructors but also due to a communication gap and a psychological separation called the transactional distance (TD).  The transactional distance (TD) is a "psychological and communications space to be crossed; a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner.’’ To provide a successful learning experience, instructors need to shorten or decrease the transactional distance. There are three key interactive components that work together to shorten the transactional distance:

Dialogue is the amount of interaction that takes place between instructor and student … and student to student. Dialogue and transactional distance are inversely related. The more communication and greater variety of communication strategies that instructor employes to increase dialogue, the smaller the transactional distance. Synchronous teaching activities with real time voice communication, chats and threaded discussion groups are good examples of high dialogue strategies.   Recorded audio and textbooks are examples of low dialogue.

Structure refers to the rigidity or flexibility of the educational objectives, teaching strategies, and evaluation methods, as well as the extent to which an instructor accommodates each individual learner’s needs. It is important to consider the amount of information and degree of challenge presented to the learners. Limiting the amount of supplementary resources and structuring information in chunks can make information easier to process and remember.  Providing clear directions also shortens the transactional distance.

Learner autonomy means the learner, rather than the instructor, determines goals, learning experiences, and evaluation decisions. The level of autonomy required for the learner increases as transactional distance increases since it requires independent learning and self-motivation.1-6

The diagram above shows how dialog and structure relate to transactional distance. High structure typically means high transactional distance, while high dialogue reflects low transactional distance. This means that as a course the structure increase and communication reduces, the greater the transactional distance. With less structure and more dialog, transactional distance decreases. And as transactional distance increases, a higher level of autonomy is required. Thus, we can design courses for different degrees of learner autonomy by varying dialog and structure. For example, learning autonomy would typically be different in first-year undergraduate courses vs. master degree courses.4

TD is closely related to the concept of immediacy — the level of dialogue between the teacher and the student. Immediacy refers to the physical or psychological closeness between student and teacher. One study showed that there is a statistically significant positive relationship between instructor immediacy and student affective learning, cognition, and motivation.3 Instructor can improve immediacy by selecting verbal and non-verbal communication behavior that promote physical or psychological closeness. In an online community, this can be achieved by the word selection of written messages found in emails and discussion forums, use of emoticon, and animated moves to express immediacy behavior. When synchronous web-based teaching method is used, verbal interactions that can improve immediacy includes the use of humor, frequent use of the student's name, using self-disclosures, and letting students share personal examples.2

Another study analyzed various activities in online courses to determine which teaching methods favor teacher-student immediacy. The teaching strategies that can enhance immediacy include creating collaborative activities between students, forums of voluntary participation, and discussion boards as well as asking questions and requesting summaries. The study also found that replying quickly to student questions or requests — on the same day — created a sense of “online” closeness between the students and teachers.2

Although there is no face-to-face contact, instructors can design courses where learners can master the course content as well as improve their problem solving and critical thinking skills. Understanding transactional distance and utilizing strategies that increase immediacy can increase the chances of success.


  1. Andrade MS. Teaching online: A theory-based approach to student success. Oream, Utah: Journal of Education and Training Studies [Internet]. 2015 3(5):1-9.
  2. Fahara MF, Castro AL. Teaching strategies to promote immediacy in online graduate courses. Open Praxis [Internet]. 2015;7:363-76.
  3. Baker C. The impact of instructor immediacy and presence for online student affective learning, cognition, and motivation. Journal of Educators Online [Internet]. 2010;7: Article 1.
  4. Moore, M. G. Towards a theory of independent learning and teaching. Journal of Higher Education,[Internet]. 1973: 44; 661-679.
  5. Kushnir LP, Berry KC. Inside, Outside, Upside Down: New Directions in Online Teaching and Learning. International Association for Development of the Information Society; 2014 July 01 [cited 2016 March 15]
  6. Teaching Online [Internet]. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University 2015.
  7. Stavredes, T. Effective online teaching: foundations and strategies for student success. [Internet]. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass, 2011.

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