Teaching Through the Coronavirus, Together: A Small Teaching Approach to Starting Right Online

Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Message from Wendi Dew, Assistant Vice President, Teaching and Learning and Isis Artze-Vega, Vice President, Academic Affairs 

Congratulations on completing the Spring 2020 term! We hope you’re feeling proud of your awesome efforts and found a bit of time this week to rest and reflect.

With the start of the summer term only three days away, this communication focuses on modest, but powerful evidence-based teaching adjustments for improving student learning, ones that can be implemented without a great deal of time. This “small-teaching” approach was popularized by James Lang, who partnered with longtime online faculty member and instructional designer Flower Darby to extend the approach to online teaching, described in their co-authored book: “Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes,” published just last year. Below, we share several of their strategies for starting your online summer courses right and remind you how to reach out for assistance.

Last-minute Canvas Refinements 

First, if you haven’t done so already, consider sending a pre-term email to welcome students, establish an inviting learning environment, introduce the class syllabus and schedule, and provide details on required course materials. Next, we recommend directing your attention to your Canvas course(s), particularly the orientation or introduction module. In any modality, the beginning of the term sets the tone for the course, so we encourage you to use the Orientation Module Checklist, aligned with the first section of our Valencia Rubric for Online Competencies (ROC), as you get ready for Monday. Given the current climate of uncertainty and the fact that many students may still be new to online learning, it’s especially important that you include a link to resources like our “Keep Learning” webpage.

Small Teaching Ideas for Summer 

Beyond these fundamentals, consider incorporating one of Darby and Lang’s small-teaching refinements in either your orientation or an early content module:

– Explicitly describe how you’ve designed the course, how the key tasks and major assessments are intended to support students’ attainment of the learning outcomes. This enhances students’ sense of the relevance of the course activities and assignments, which is correlated with motivation. Andrea Deacon, in “Creating a Context of Care in the Online Classroom” (2012), adds that “routine communication with online students about course structure, organization and expectations” alleviates their anxiety and empowers them.

– Assign a learning outcomes review. Since reflection is key to making learning durable, Darby and Lang recommend asking students to review and respond to the course learning outcomes, which also ensures your students know what the outcomes say and mean, or can alert you to the need to clarify them.

– Communicate care. Online teaching can feel cold and impersonal, recognize Darby and Lang, who indicate that one of their favorite small-teaching ways to demonstrate they care about students is the “oops token.” Here, “students turn in a token for a no-questions-asked deadline extension, the opportunity to revise and resubmit an assignment or otherwise make up for an unexpected challenge or honest mistake.” Including a limited number of these tokens tells students you know they have real lives and may need a bit of flexibility. Deacon’s (2012) timely advice for communicating care: “anticipate student anxiety and head it off whenever possible,” and build a sense of community.

– Introduce students to the final assessment in Week 1. Given that “major assignments can get buried in endlessly nested content folders or learning modules,” Darby and Lang recommend creating “an online activity in the first week that requires students to familiarize themselves with the final assessment.” Whether it’s a low-stakes quiz, a discussion board question, or an assignment that asks students to describe the assignment purpose and tasks in their own words, this strategy increases students’ awareness of the major assessments and can help them plan and study accordingly.

Nilson and Goodson, authors of “Online Teaching at Its Best,” offer one last suggestion for the start of the term. Stressing the importance of student-instructor interaction at this critical juncture and the centrality of students’ sense of social belonging, they urge us to personalize our courses, which can entail asking students about their interests and goals, and sharing a bit of information about ourselves.

Looking ahead, the next edition in this series will be distributed in the May Faculty Insight, so we want to stress that it can be easy for students to get or appear “lost” in online courses, particularly during a shortened term like Summer A. Therefore, in addition to ensuring student engagement in an academically related activity, as part of attendance/no-show reporting, we encourage you to proactively identify and reach out directly to students who seem distant, absent or lost. Whether they’re new to online learning, a transfer/transient student with us for summer, or having trouble navigating the course, take the time to notice them, seek to understand their challenges and guide them through this new terrain.

In case it’s helpful, here are links to previous communications featuring the following topics:

Thank you for everything you do!


  • Darby, F. and Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Sciences in Online Classes. Jossey-Bass.
  • Deacon, A. (2012). Creating a context of care in the online classroom. Journal of Faculty Development, 26(1), 5-12.
  • Nilson, L. and Goodson, Ludwika. (2018): Online Teaching at Its Best: Merging Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning Research. Jossey-Bass.


  • Karen Murray said:

    ROC link goes to Orientation Module Checklist

    PMThu, 30 Apr 2020 17:37:21 +0000Thu, 30 Apr 2020 17:37:21 +0000pm20,5:37 pm

    • Wendy Jo Moyer said:

      Thank you for reading and alerting us. We have updated the link.

      AMFri, 01 May 2020 08:46:56 +0000Fri, 01 May 2020 08:46:56 +0000am20,8:46 am

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