9 Ways to Improve Your Online Instruction

This article is based off of the course Teaching Online and Hybrid created by STARLINK Training Network, an agency of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, and available on Atomic Learning.

Whether you are a novice just starting out or an experienced online instructor looking to enhance your skills, these nine suggestions may help you to improve your online instruction.

Let’s jump right in:

  1. Identify your Teaching Style
    When it comes to teaching, try to figure out what you do best and what you feel most passionate about in a face-to-face environment. You can then try to adapt that into an online course.
  2. Know Your LMS (Learning Management System)
    Whether your campus uses Blackboard, Brightspace, Canvas or others, get comfortable with the learning management system you have access to. Knowing what your LMS is capable of and what you can do with it can help make the most of your time.
  3. Utilize a Mentor
    Find a fellow faculty member that is already familiar with creating courses online. They may be able to give you tips and tricks that they learned along the way, as well as ideas on how to get started or improve your current courses. There is no need to reinvent the wheel every time.
  4. Be Consistent
    Ensure your online course covers all of the same learning objectives that would be covered in a face-to-face course. Meaning, some of your projects or assignments may have to be adjusted. If you would, in a face-to-face setting, typically have students watch a video and encourage open discussion afterword’s, use that same method by posting a video and starting a discussion thread online to better emulate the face-to-face environment.
  5. Create a Welcoming Online Environment
    Consider using message boards, discussion threads, and instructor news areas to help students feel welcome and comfortable in your course. When developing your course, ensure that course materials are easy to find and easy to access to help students navigate the course successfully.
  6. Convey Expectations
    Be sure to clearly define your expectations to your students, beyond a list of “do this, this, and this.” Try outlining them in a way that explains how to be successful in the course. Encouraging time management and critical reading can help limit distractions, which can be common issue for students in the online setting.

8 Ideas for Unlocking Students' Potential

This blog post is based off of the Unlocking Potential: The Impact of Mindset on Success course that was created for Atomic Learning by Dr. Matthew Arau. Dr. Arau is an Assistant Professor of Music at Lawrence University. (More about Dr. Arau

In a recent article titled “Helping Students Reach the Mountaintop” (also available in the course mention above), Dr. Arau explains shares ideas on how students can reach their full potential using a specific focus on how both students and adults can be grouped into two categories: Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset.

“Someone with a fixed mindset believes that intelligence, talent, and ability are fixed or static. If you are talented, things come easily to you; if you have to put effort into an endeavor, you must not be talented.

Those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence, talent, and ability can be developed through process, strategies, time, and effort. Growth-mindset students embrace challenges and are excited by the process of learning, whereas fixed-mindset students shy away from challenge because "failure" could expose them as not being smart or talented.”

Knowing that, here are eight ideas for encouraging a growth mindset in your course and unlocking students’ full potential:

  1. Sharing Stories
    To help teach the idea of a growth mindset to your students, share stories of people shattering goals set by limitations. For example, in the early ‘50s there was a limitation, or fixed mindset, on how fast humans could run the mile. Roger Bannister was determined to break the 4-minute mile goal, and he did so in May of 1954. He broke the barrier of what was considered an unattainable goal because he used a growth mindset. His achievement inspired others to do the same, and just 46 days later an Australian runner beat Bannisters time, and now it is quite common for runners to finish the mile in under 4 minutes. 
  2. Learning How We Learn
    Our brain has the ability to retrain and rewire itself. When we learn something new, we are carving a new pathway that connects neurons in our brain. The more we do that task or challenge, the stronger that connection gets.  Think of the brain as a muscle—the more exercise it gets, the stronger it becomes. With this knowledge, students can physically understand how and why growth mindset is important.
  3. Errors are Growth Opportunities
    To ensure that your course is promoting a growth mindset, students need to know that trust has been established, that they can feel safe taking risks and discovering new things, and that errors are viewed as an opportunity to learn.

7 Learning Styles: Which One Are You?

Whether they recognize it or not, most people have a preferred way of learning. While some learn best by listening (think of all those lecture classes), others may have to see a concept in action to learn the material (this is where lab work comes in), and the list goes on.

The trick is figuring out your individual learning style and then utilizing your strengths while being aware of your weaker areas.  To help, we’ve worked with Dan Kuemmel, a specialist in Learning Technology, Data Visualization, and Pedagogy, on an in-depth course on Learning Styles. As a preview, we’ve provided a quick peek at each of the seven types of learners below:

  1. Visual Learners
    These learners turn words into pictures to retain information, and tend to excel with writing assignments and textbook readings. However, they can struggle with information that is only audio-based, such as a lectures or audio-recordings.
  2. Logical Learners
    Logical learners thrive on processes, statistics, and making connections between ideas. Puzzles, riddles, and word games engage them, as well as charts and diagrams.
  3. Aural/Auditory Learners
    These learners have great recall when hearing information be it a lecture, podcast, spoken directions, or even music.
  4. Verbal Learners
    Verbal learners are most easily identified as those that need to ‘talk through’ a problem, either through verbal or written communication. They excel at writing essays and class discussions or debates, but can struggle with math and science concepts.

6 Tips First Year Students Need to Know

Tip #1: Balancing it All
Not only are students trying to balance classes, study time, group work, and tests, but there is also the social aspect of college life. On- and off-campus activities, including everything from hanging out with friends to intermural sports, make up a big part of the college experience. While all these aspects make managing time tricky, it doesn’t need to be overwhelming.

Students can try using an agenda or planner. There are plenty of apps out there, or you can utilize the calendar on your smart phone. (There is nothing wrong with using good ol’ fashion pen and paper planners either.) Utilizing such tools can help students better manage their time and keep it all straight.

Additional Resources:

Tip #2: Where and How Long to Study
Students know themselves best. Whether they study better in their dorm room with headphones and their favorite music or in a quite space in the library, they need to find something that works for them. Once students find their sweet spot, encourage them to break up studying into timeblocks—study for 30-50 minutes at a time, then taking a quick break before starting again. This approach can help students stay energized and focused.

Additional resources:

5 Education Technologies to Watch

It’s no secret that technologies come and go. In fact, the ever-changing technological landscape makes it incredibly difficult to keep up with the latest and greatest tech trends, let alone plan how new tools can be used to enhance course instruction and student engagement.

The recent 2016 Teaching with Technology Survey, asked participants at educational institutions across the country to predict which new technologies they saw having the greatest impact on education in the next decade. (as well as

Interested in which tools made the cut? Here’s a few of their top choices.

  1. Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality
    Topping the list were augmented and virtual reality, one of the fastest growing trends in educational technology today. Beyond the cool factor, much of the appeal for education is the ability to go farther and dive deeper into a topic by not just telling students about it, but letting them experience it.

    One of the questions that comes up for those new to virtual reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) is the difference between the two. The short answer is that VR allows you to completely immerse yourself as if you were magically teleported to an alternate location. AR, on the other hand, adds a layer on top of real life—for example viewing a 3D beating heart layered over an Anatomy textbook.

Related Resources:
Go Anywhere with Virtual Reality
Getting Started with Augmented Reality

4 Tips to Encourage Your Students to be Critical Thinkers

This blog post is based off of an online course called “Critical Thinking” that was created for Atomic Learning by Valeria Becker. She is a Learning Specialist/Tutor Coordinator at the University of North Dakota. Learn more about her. 

Critical thinking is a valuable skill for college, career, and beyond. Whether you are a faculty member or student, being able to showcase your abilities as a critical thinker is important.

If you are wondering, "What exactly does 'critical thinking' mean?" Don’t worry. Commonly referred to as 'problem-solving', critical thinking involves not being content with the first solution to a problem, but instead thinking more deeply to determine if it is the best solution to the problem. Knowing, understanding, analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and evaluating an idea or problem are all activities that occur during critical thinking.

To encourage these activities and get your students thinking critically, here are four characteristics of a critical thinking to consider:

  1. See Problems as Challenges
    If you think about it, everything around us started out as a problem. One person (or a group) decided to look at something considered status quo as a challenge, and then invented or discovered something new to change things. Inventions such as phones, light fixtures, computers, and machines of all kinds were created to solve a problem most people didn't realize they had. Inventors of the past did this all the time with physical issues. Even non-physical problems, like the desire to connect with others and needing to be more active, can be viewed as a challenge and solved. Social media has taken off like crazy to help people connect with others, and technologies like Fitbits are being created to keep people motivated and healthy.
  2. Use Evidence to Make Judgements
    When listening to other people’s ideas, keeping an open mind and open ear will help you gain a wealth of knowledge to make future decisions. With that in mind, never stop asking questions. Even if you don't ask them outloud, be sure to write them down so you can find the answers to your questions later. Learning starts with questions.
  3. Observing, Thinking, and Asking Questions
    The next time you are approached to sign a petition or join a cause of some sort, take a minute before jumping into action. Ask yourself (or them) questions before signing, joining, or doing anything. For example: What if someone came up to you and asked you to join them in banning Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO)? It sounds like a terrible chemical, right? Based on an assumptiong, you may agree with them at first glance. However, when you stop, observe, and think about the name DHMO for a minute, and ask the right questions, you'd likely have a different reation. Dihydrogen monoxide is also known as H2O... meaning water.
  4. Make Educated Decisions
    Asking the right questions can help you to making educated decisions. These are the decisions that we make that are based on facts, but even facts need to viewed with a skeptical eye. Always try to get a good understanding of the facts at hand, at look at various perspectives of the issue at hand. Educated decisions come about from having knowledge in a variety of areas and making use of available resources.

3 Strategies for Decreasing Drop/Fail/Withdraw Rates

A DFW rate is the rate at which college students receive D-grades, F-grades, or Withdraws from courses. Some colleges and universities are now using this data in regards to budget and performance reviews. Now, more than ever before, these rates are being looked at, and unfortunately, these rates are also on the rise.

Although there are many reasons why students withdraw from courses, faculty members can really only control their side of the story. For those looking to make a positive shift, here are three strategies for decreasing DFW rates and increasing student retention:

  1. Assessing
    Try assessing students’ knowledge of the required information at the beginning of the semester or start of a course. This allows aculty members to get a feel for which students may need more dedicated attention, and which students will probably be fine on their own. This pre-test can also help gauge which portions of the curriculum instructors might need to spend more time on.

    While there is no perfect solution, taking the time to measure and understand students' level of knowledge can make learning easier for everyone.

    Assessing students doesn’t need to be time consuming. With Atomic Learning’s skills assessments, faculty members can easily assign an assessment to a particular groups of individuals.

  2. Preparing
    Make it as easy as possible for students to know the basics. Not all students come into a course with the same knowledge or skill set, and changing your curriculum to go over basics for a smaller segment of students isn’t always an option. Not only would that slow down the course, but also hinder those students who would otherwise excel. By providing students that are struggling with tailored coursework, those students can more easily advance to the same level as their peers.

    Give students access to the specific resources they need, including items like MLA Research Paper Basics, Avoiding Plagiarism, Effective Note Taking, and more. Such resources can also help keep class time focused on the core content you are trying to teach. 

2 Insights for Leaders on Connecting with the Campus Community

This blog post is based off on an upcoming online course called “Connecting Through Vulnerability” by Dr. Matthew Arau, that will soon be available on Atomic Learning. Dr. Arau is an Assistant Professor at Lawrence University and has a background in student leadership. (More about Dr. Arau)

Have you had an instructor in the past that was a wealth of knowledge, but seemed unable to connect to his or her students? Because of that lack of connection, the students in that course were most likely disengaged or mentally checked out. On the flip side, there are those instructors that are able to effectively communicate what they know with their students and engage them in the learning process.

We all have had those teachers or instructors from the past that fit both scenarios. But, what’s the difference between those instructors? That is what Dr. Matthew Arau calls “the missing link”, and he believes that this link is often connection and, with that, vulnerability.

Why Connecting?

In his online course, Dr. Arau tells a story from when he teaching high school several years ago. Specifically, how he was able to easily develop friendships with his students, and had no problems having great conversations with them. However, the moment he took the podium, that connection seems to dissipate.

It wasn’t until a colleague mentioned how differently he carried himself when he was up in front of the class that he realized he was trying to be someone he wasn’t, and it was negatively effecting his connection with the students.

The solution: He simply needed to be himself and be authentic.

That realization helped him understand the importance of connection.  When we connect, we can both increase learning and enjoyment of that learning.

Dr. Arau’s story could also be true of campus leaders, administrators, and staff members. By being authentic and yourself, you can help create connections that will build and strengthen a campus community.

Why Vulnerability?

Have you ever noticed that when you share a personal story–maybe even something slightly embarrassing– it opens a connection with the person you were speaking with? By sharing, you open the door for others to feel welcome to share about themselves.

The more vulnerable you are, the more connected you can feel with your audience. Sharing personal stories of struggles and real life can have a profound effect. When we as humans see somebody being vulnerable and speaking about their fears, hopes, or frustrations, we see them as being courageous.  

The more vulnerable you are with your intended audience, the greater the connection.

Some Strategies to Try:

While these things may sound overly simple, or perhaps even silly, they can have a big impact on first impressions and connections. Whether you are connecting with faculty members, students, parents, or stakeholders, be aware of the following:

  • When someone walks into your office or room, greet them at the door and learn their name as fast as possible. Everyone wants to be acknowledged by name.

1 Staggering Statistic: 33% of College Freshmen Drop Out

While working with colleges and universities across the country on a daily basis, we often hear many of the same challenges over and over—specifically concerns centered around student success and retention. 

Even though the populations, initiatives, and programs can vary drastically, on a national level there are some staggering statistics. In fact, a U.S. News article stated that “As many as 1 in 3 first-year students won't make it back for sophomore year.”

This is a statistic that colleges simply can’t ignore, and leaves many wondering what causes so many students to cut their college experience short. Colleges need to take a hard look at what can be done to turn the statistic around, and to do that, it’s necessary to look at WHY students are dropping out. While there can be a variety of factors involved, here’s a few that seem to come up regularly:

Emotional Readiness
A recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education provides several insights on the challenges that many students face during their freshman year of college. Although each student’s experience can be very different, there are emotional readiness factors that seem to overlap.

"Several factors can contribute to "emotional readiness," including students’ ability to adapt to new environments, handle negative emotions in constructive ways, and forge healthy relationships. The survey found that the more prepared a student is for the emotional challenges of college — and for the anxieties that might come with it, such as covering expenses, making friends, and dealing with increased independence — the better and more successful that student’s college experience is."

According to the article, these factors can be the difference between a student feeling confident and excelling in their classes or a student falling behind and dropping out entirely.

Related resources:
Transitioning from High School to College
How Do I Keep Myself Socially and Emotionally Healthy?

Key Takeaways from OLC Accelerate 2016

Guest blog post from Deb Meester, Senior Director of Sales and Service at Atomic Learning.

I’ve been attending higher education conferences for almost 9 years now. In that time, I’ve attended close to 100 conferences. While we all know conferences are a great place to learn and collaborate with others, at every conference I’ve attended, including OLC Accelerate this year, I heard a number of people say that one of the main reasons they come is to visit the exhibit hall.  They want to connect with their existing vendor partners, but they also want to learn about other resources that can help.  On my flight home from Orlando to Minnesota, rather than concentrating on the 6 plus inches of freshly fallen snow that I was going to be flying into, I thought about the conference and what we heard in the exhibit hall.   

One thing I’ve noticed in my years in the exhibit hall is that attendees at the booth will “tell you how it is”. It’s not uncommon for us to hear “yeah, our university doesn’t do that, but we should” or “we aren’t that efficient” or “our faculty don’t do that” and more.  And this year at OLC was no exception. There were some consistent themes or concerns I heard throughout many of our conversations: