Moving to Online Teaching – Concepts, Considerations and Pitfalls

By Suzanne Fergus

Suzanne Fergus is an Associate Professor in Learning and Teaching in the School of Life and Medical Sciences, University of Hertfordshire. She was awarded a National Teaching Fellow in 2017 and the Royal Society of Chemistry Higher Education Teaching Award in 2016.


The current COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention to online delivery and remote teaching in the Higher Education sector. Many Higher Education Institutions have indicated a continuation with online lectures for the academic year 2020-21, either as interactive synchronous live sessions or asynchronous recorded lecture videos. This article reflects on important issues for academics now considering the migration of lectures from a traditional classroom setting to an online platform. A key outcome from student feedback during initial COVID-19 arrangements and pedagogical considerations is that the use of interactivity in online teaching is critical for effective student engagement. The integration of a pre-lecture activity, lecture activity and a post-lecture activity will help to address some of the challenges experienced by students – for example, online distractions, noisy study environments and reduced contact with staff and peers. Recommendations for effective practice using online media in teaching and avoiding common pitfalls are included in this article.


The global impact of COVID-19 has greatly affected how we work and interact on a daily basis. Higher Education Institutions in the UK moved all traditional face-to-face activities to online teaching activities in March 2020. There is a planned continuation using online teaching for the academic year 2020-21; lectures will be experienced either as interactive synchronous live sessions or asynchronous recorded lecture videos. This article reflects on important issues for academics considering the migration of lectures from a traditional classroom setting to online delivery. Students have typically experienced a lecture as a 50-minute classroom-based activity where a PowerPoint presentation is used to support the delivery of important topics aligned to learning outcomes for the programme. Technology is commonly employed within these lectures – for example, supporting interactivity and engagement with polling tools and classroom response devices (Martyn, 2007). Students are familiar with asynchronous online teaching; they have access to many lecture capture recordings on their course. My first- and second-year students frequently report using YouTube videos and other online resources like the Khan academy to support their study and learning. The refocusing to online teaching and assessment during the initial lockdown measures has provided some insights into the student learning experience. The reflections noted here are from informal student feedback on an undergraduate Pharmaceutical Science programme. It is relevant to acknowledge these issues prior to discussing implications for next year’s online teaching.

With the lockdown restrictions in the UK, students were no longer campus-based and studied at home. At the University of Hertfordshire, all classroom-based lectures and tutorials were refocused online. There were two main options given the time constraints and technology available to academics: 1) A synchronous online session where students could participate directly, ask questions and discuss topics or 2) A narrated PowerPoint recording available as a video resource that students could view at any time. The recording of narrated video resources required training for some staff and the format was relatively familiar to students. The timetabled synchronous online sessions were facilitated using a conference tool function via the university’s virtual learning environment (VLE). This functionality was new for academics and students to use.

The adjustment to remote university life was challenging for some students. The lack of direct social interactions caused some to feel isolated. A select group had additional caring responsibilities with reduced availability during the daytime due to childcare, school closures and COVID-related health issues. This impacted their engagement with synchronous live online sessions. The university’s library provides a focused learning environment where students can dedicate specific study time. Students missed dropping in to speak with their lecturers. Some students found studying at home more challenging as a quiet dedicated study space was not guaranteed. Homes were busy environments with high demands on technology use. Internet connectivity caused issues for some and this impacted synchronous live sessions. Within the university, a laptop loan facility was continued, and couriers helped to deliver devices directly to students’ homes. International students returned overseas and were therefore studying in different time zones.

From informal students’ feedback, some students preferred the synchronous live online sessions compared to the asynchronous recorded lecture videos. The live online sessions were reported as being more familiar to a traditional lecture experience and provided a daily structure for students at home. Others preferred the recorded lecture videos which allowed greater flexibility for time management and self-directed study, particularly when other demands prevented attendance of the live online sessions. Some students postponed their engagement with the recorded lecture videos due to focusing on the alternate coursework assessments.

Good quality teaching is centred on the effectiveness in enabling students to learn. This article will explore some relevant pedagogic literature and examine the refocusing of traditional face-to-face (f2f) lectures to online lecture delivery.

Pre-Lecture Activity

Active learning underpins good quality teaching and is recognised to enhance student engagement over passive learning approaches. Active learning is a broad term that includes different models of instruction and places learners as responsible partners in the learning process (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). It is this role of the learner that is the first important phase when academics consider pre-lecture activities. The use of pre-learning has been shown to support student learning. Using exercises and activities for pre-learning are purposefully designed to bring previous ideas and knowledge to the surface and awareness which will help information processing work more efficiently. In science education, using pre-learning activities has been found to improve students’ grades (Sirhan et al., 1999) which presupposes that acquisition of prior knowledge occurred previously.

Cognitive load theory suggests that learning occurs best with conditions that are aligned with the workings of the human brain. It was first researched in the late 1980s (Sweller and Chandler, 1991, Sweller, 1988) and many books and publications applying this theory in teaching have emerged in recent years (Sweller et al., 2019, Weinstein et al., 2018, Paas and Ayres, 2014, Kalyuga, 2009). The theory provides empirical support for models of instruction in which instructors design their teaching to optimise the load on students’ working memories (Reid, 2008). Information is received through the senses and the first important step in learning is attention (Figure 1). Learners must first attend to information where it is processed and stored in working memory. Without attention, information available to this store will decay. The use of pre-lecture activities can help emphasise the importance of information that learners must attend to.

Figure 1. A model of information processing

Working memory is activated by attention; there is, however, a limited capacity of the working memory. The number of elements or “chunks of information” that can be held simultaneously in the working memory is limited (Miller, 1956). When the capacity of the working memory is full, displacement of information occurs. The contents of long-term memory are more sophisticated with connected structures of multiple elements known as schemas. Scaffolding of information in pre-lecture activities allows learners to engage with smaller chunks of information and helps to avoid overwhelming their working memory (Paas et al., 2003). This will help to avoid unnecessary displacement of information.  Examples of simple pre-lecture activities are recapping questions from a previous lecture or using quiz questions to surface prior knowledge related to the lecture.

Online Lecture Activity

Learning requires a change in the schematic structures of long-term memory and this advancement is experienced as a progression from error-prone, slow and difficult to error-free, smooth and effortless. A novice learner compared to an expert will not have acquired the same expert level of schemas. As the novice learner becomes more familiar with the content, changes to the associated cognitive characteristics occur and the working memory can more effectively manage the material. The goal with good teaching and instructional design is a consideration of “the load” and the interactivity of relevant elements on learners. The use of video to present information using dynamic visuals and auditory content is the most common tool available for online lecture delivery. The manner in which information is presented and the activities that learners are required to do also create a cognitive load.

In cognitive load theory there are three different types of loads: intrinsic, extraneous and germane (Sweller, 2010). Intrinsic cognitive load is demanding on working memory due to element interactivity or the level of complexity of the material being learned. It is not always possible to simply reduce essential and critical interacting elements particularly in relation to more complex content where the sophisticated interactivity is central to understand and learning. Staggering the introduction of essential elements may be possible and ultimately allow all elements to be processed together by the end.

Extraneous cognitive load is unnecessary and interferes with schema acquisition. This can result from using cognitive capacity to search for information or details in an explanation instead of solving the problem. If the intrinsic load is high, then the importance of extraneous load increases as it will distract from learning. With video as an instructional device, it’s important to direct learner’s attention to relevant information. Additional irrelevant details use more of the processing resources available to the learner. This was shown in a science topic on how a cold virus infects the human body (Mayer et al., 2008). High-interest details included the role of viruses in sex or death whereas the low-interest details consisted of facts and health tips about viruses. As the level of interesting details increased, student understanding decreased as measured by problem-solving transfer (the ability to use or apply what has been learned in new situations and contexts). I have found that contextualising content helped engage students and increase their motivation (Fergus et al., 2015).It’s the use and timing of high-interest details that is critical.

One of the challenges with video lectures for learners is mind wandering where there is a shift of thoughts from the task activity to unrelated thoughts. The extent and rate of mind wandering for university students has been found to be 40-45% (Kane et al., 2017, Szpunar et al., 2013). Interactivity is the key to help with mind wandering and is a strategy that also supports better learning performance. Breaking up content with a question would be a simple level of interactivity. There is evidence that using an interactive e-classroom achieved significantly better learning performance and a higher level of satisfaction than using a non-interactive video or no video (Zhang et al., 2006).

It’s difficult for learners to passively watch long online videos and keeping learners engaged is critical. Based on an analysis of 6.9 million MOOC video viewing episodes, the median engagement time was six minutes, so academics should consider shorter video segments with online delivery (Lagerstrom et al., 2015). Shorter videos are not always suitable with more complex content, so to increase the length of online media, including layers of interactivity, is essential. During synchronous live lectures, interactivity can be facilitated using small group discussions, quizzes, self-assessment and peer assessment. Monitoring the chat facility during a synchronous live session can provide an additional level of challenge. It is important to record live sessions and ensure no students are disadvantaged if prevented from attending due to other responsibilities.

During a lecture, particularly larger groups and cohorts, it can be difficult to ascertain whether students have fully understood a teaching point. Asking a question often results in silence or perhaps a small number of responses but usually students are not confident in contributing an answer and some learners, referred to as “the quiet learner”, will prefer to reflect and answer questions internally (Akinbode, 2015). Think-Pair-Share is a collaborative discussion strategy that provides additional time for students to consider, reflect and think in order to improve the quality of their responses. Think-Pair-Share provides the opportunity for students to work together within a group where they can discuss their understanding and ideas in a safe environment. Due to the structure of the task, students are encouraged to have something to share, keeping them engaged, and it reduces pressure on any student who is reluctant (quiet, unsure). Research shows that the quality of student responses increases with the additional discussions (Smith et al., 2009, Wood et al., 2014) and think-pair-share has been used to effectively foster critical thinking skills within nursing students (Kaddoura, 2013). Using breakout rooms during a synchronous live lecture provides a useful format to enable small group discussions. A structured instructional strategy using Team-based learning (TBL) enhanced active learning and critical thinking in medical and science courses (Parmelee and Michaelsen, 2010, Parmelee et al., 2009). The emphasis in TBL is shifting from knowledge transmission to knowledge application. Individual quizzes and team quizzes can be designed into the TBL approach to capture and provide feedback on learning performance.

Post-Lecture Activity

With recorded lecture videos, if students postpone their engagement and don’t schedule time in their weekly schedules this will pose a problem. This stacking of recorded lecture videos to catch up can be argued as akin to binge watching a boxset. In relation to learning and memory, there is much robust evidence that distributed practice demonstrates improved long-term performance compared to block practice (Cepeda et al., 2006). As viewing recorded lecture videos aims to support learning, a similar spacing out of such activities would be more desirable. Activities that support the consolidation of learning and provide feedback are recommended post-lecture. Setting a quiz or collaborative discussions on problems would set expectations for timely engagement and highlight any misconceptions. Table 1. summarises some suggestions to enhance online lecture teaching.

Table 1 summarises suggestions to make online teaching work better for learners.




Instructor style to support engagement

Pre-Lecture Activity

Activate prior knowledge (supports working memory in Figure 1)

Lecture Activity

Manage cognitive load

Support Learner Information   Processing

Active Learning and Student Engagement

Post-Lecture Activity

Consolidate learning

Self-Assessment and Feedback

Use engaging tone

Speak to the learners personally, use “you, your”

Check sound clarity, WIFI issues

Avoid reading off slides

Use recapping questions e.g. go back over important concepts from previous lecture or recap on foundation knowledge.

Create pre-learning activities or exercises (Sirhan, 2000).

Use signalling to highlight key information

Use an introduction (lecture outcomes or roadmap) and summary with signposting during main concepts (Paas et al., 2003).

Chunk larger content into smaller online units and use interactivity to go beyond ‘six-minute rule’ (Lagerstrom et al., 2015).

Break up activity (approx. every 10 minutes) with a question or activity.

Monitor pace and allow time and pauses for learners to reflect, think and make notes.

Use guiding questions to scaffold lecture content. Use interactive questions during online activity (Zhang et al., 2006).

Weed out unnecessary entertaining elements (Ibrahim et al., 2012).

Use discussion boards/break out groups to think and share (Wood et al., 2014).

Encourage peer discussions with a focused task to consolidate and promote deeper understanding (Smith et al., 2009).

Present complex information both visually and orally Example: visual diagram with written instructions delivered orally (Mayer et al., 2005).

Use questions and quizzes to consolidate learning. Learners taking a practice test improves long-term retention (Karpicke and Blunt, 2011).

Use generative strategies e.g. summarising, self-testing, self-explaining and teaching (Fiorella and Mayer, 2016).



The migration of traditional classroom-based lectures to online delivery platforms requires thoughtful consideration of learner engagement and processing of information. This article does not discuss the wide range of activities where student agency is promoted, for example, students contributing relevant resources, group inquiries to identify challenging questions and student-led generation of learning resources. For online teaching the integration of a pre-lecture activity, lecture activity and a post-lecture activity will help to address some of the challenges (online distractions, study environment and social community) learners experienced during COVID-19 alternate teaching arrangements. Interactivity in online teaching is critical for effective student engagement and supports effective learning. The level of interactivity can be distributed across the pre-lecture activity, lecture activity and a post-lecture activity in a variety of ways.


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