How Do I Show Teaching Presence in Online Courses?

Presence has been described as “the binding element in cultivating a learning community” in online environments (Persico, Pozzi & Sarti, 2010). A high level of teaching presence increases students’ motivation, which improves learning (Whiteside, Dikkers, & Lewis, 2014). As instructors, we can take some simple, practical steps to cultivate teaching presence in our classes, regardless of its format.

Below are some ways of cultivating teaching presence that will help you connect with your students and humanize the online learning environment.


STRATEGIES & EXAMPLES

Establish Presence Early

Welcome your students. Welcoming students to the class lays a foundation for students’ developing sense of belonging. Sending out a welcome email prior to the first class can enhance students’ motivation and positive attitudes toward the instructor and the course (Legg & Wilson, 2009). Write your welcome email in a way that conveys to your students that you care about their learning and development. Think about answering these questions: What makes you feel excited about the course? What type of a learning environment do you envision? What student concerns do you anticipate? How will you support your students and demonstrate flexibility?

Consider delivering this introductory email in conjunction with a welcome and/or orientation video to the course. A welcome video (ideas for welcome videos) is a wonderful visual opportunity for you to highlight how you intend to cultivate an inclusive learning community, how the course might be relevant to students, and how you are invested in your students’ growth. A course orientation video (example of course orientation video) allows you to provide your students with a pathway of learning through the course so that students can easily navigate the Moodle or Blackboard site. Such a video will make students’ life easier and also save yourself the time of answering student questions later.

Introduce yourself by telling some part of your story. Consider including an ‘About Myself’ section in your syllabus and adding it to your course site (example from an International Studies instructor). You could also model what you want your students to do as an introductory activity by sharing, for example, three things about yourself that others can’t tell by simply looking at you. Let your teaching style and personality shine through!

Create an opening section for the course in your learning management system. Include links to the syllabus, a personal introduction, your philosophy of learning, and an activity to ensure students read the material (Stein & Wanstreet, 2017).

Survey your students. Before or at the start of the course, ask students to complete an online survey to get to know them so that you can better meet their interests and needs (example survey). Ask them course-related questions, such as:

  • their interest and prior knowledge in the course topic;
  • their current level of necessary course skills;
  • their interest in pursuing particular majors/minors and future careers;
  • their goals for taking the course;
  • a few questions that address issues of belongingness, such as: What concerns do you have about the course? What do you need to be able to fully participate? or simply What else do you want me to know about you?
  • You can also add a couple of questions from this List of 365 Table Topic Questions to get to know your students on a more personal level. Throughout the course strategically make connections to what you learned about your students. 

Offer brief virtual greeting chats at the beginning of the semester. You can use what you learned from surveying your students as a springboard for your conversation.

See our collaborative learning and group work page for information on how you can build trust to further enhance your teaching presence.

Humanize Your Online Class

Add your personal touch to the course. Students appreciate it when we are real with them and when they can get to know us as full human beings: What can students learn from you that they can't learn from the course materials? What do you bring to the table in terms of personal and professional experiences? Why should students talk with you? Infuse your personal touch into your course announcements or videos. Share a brief story or anecdote leading into a new topic – whether during a live class session or in an asynchronous way. Share some of your own struggles and failures and how you overcame them. Show students your passions and let them know why you love teaching this course. See how Michael Wesch (Kansas State University) does this in his 10 Online Teaching Tips beyond Zoom: Teaching Without Walls.

Hold weekly scheduled virtual office (student-instructor conversation) hours. Use an online appointment system for scheduling individual meetings with students. Explain to your students what they gain from connecting with you. Let them know that these meetings are for helping them with specific course content questions, assignments, other course-related problems, or to talk about other school and life matters, including future plans.

Regularly reach out to your students. Offer informal chat opportunities. Using the messaging functions in Moodle or Blackboard, “talk” with your students through a shared online document or whiteboard. Send an occasional "personal" check-in email to the whole class, and especially to those students who haven’t been active in the course. To maximize personalization without absorbing too much of your time, you can also perform a mail merge from the downloaded SPIRE or Moodle/Blackboard roster and send out a “customized” email (“Dear [student name],”) to each student. This is especially powerful after exams for reaching out to the ‘tails’ with words of encouragement and offering your help and support, to those in the middle pointing out what they did well and how they can improve, and to the top achievers congratulating them on their success. Check out Karen Costa’s brief video on How to Outreach Online Students.

Balance a/synchronous class sessions. Online education isn’t in-person, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t teach face-to-face. Synchronous class sessions promote presence, give instructors and learners a “real” classroom experience, and support building connections (Weissman, 2017). We recommend you offer regularly-scheduled real-time class sessions without overwhelming your students. For example, if you teach multiple class sessions a week, use one of these for a synchronous online session. If you teach one long class session, consider reducing the meeting time to 1 or 1 ½ hours.

The important thing is to use your synchronous sessions only for learning that can’t be achieved any other way (such as through videos, books, interactive asynchronous assignments). For example, offer synchronous class session to increase engagement, for peer-to-peer interaction (i.e. class discussion, collaboration on tasks), review sessions, just-in-time teaching, and to connect the dots for students. Encourage student participation through polling (iClicker Reef and Zoom polling) during synchronous sessions and survey or forms for asynchronous engagement.

Don’t be camera-shy. The use of pre-corded videos is one of the most effective ways to decrease a sense of isolation and disconnection. Research shows that even a few brief authentic pre-recorded videos, strategically placed throughout the course, enhance students’ sense of connection, motivation, and academic success in an online course (Graves, 2019). Nothing personalizes a class like a video of an instructor being their authentic selves (Costa, 2020). So, Show Your Humanity.

Check out our Keep Teaching page, How do I Make Videos that Students Want to Watch?, for more detailed information about using videos in your online course.

Facilitate Engagement with the Course Content

It’s not enough to simply post presentation slides, lecture notes, and course texts. Demonstrate to your students that you are actively engaged in the course.

  • Use a weekly course announcement – in written form or as a brief video – to provide your students with an overview of the week and a to-do list that lists activities, due dates, and opportunities for further learning at the beginning of each week.
  • Send out reminders a few days before important due dates, upcoming quizzes and exams, or events.
  • Use quick quizzes, polls, and brief reflection activities to engage your students with asynchronous content. This will also provide you with valuable feedback on your students’ learning.
  • Use instructor-created videos to facilitate student engagement with the course content. Our Keep Teaching page on making engaging videos provides many ideas on how to do this.
  • Actively draw students into online discussions by encouraging, acknowledging, or reinforcing student contributions; identifying areas of agreement/disagreement; asking clarifying or expanding questions, or summarizing the discussion.
  • Provide direct instruction in the form of just-in-time brief recorded mini-lectures that address gaps in understanding, confusion, or misconceptions. For example, if students are required to post responses on Moodle to an essay reading by Wednesday, on Thursday morning you or a TA can review their responses and create a brief summary of their efforts that you can share at the beginning of your next class.
  • Offer virtual group meetings to support students as they work on projects, presentations, or other assignments.
  • Provide early and continuous feedback. There is power in feedback (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). It demonstrates to students that you are paying attention to them and that you are committed to helping them develop the skills and knowledge identified as learning outcomes. Consider using spoken audio feedback, either directly to each student on Moodle/Blackboard or as a brief video to the whole class when addressing broad areas for improvement.

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at ctl@umass.edu.

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References

Costa, K., & Pacansky-Brock, M. (2020). 99 tips for creating simple and sustainable educational videos : A guide for online teachers and flipped classes (First Edition). Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Graves, H. (2019). 4 ways to make sure students are watching your videos [video]. Retrieved from https://onlinenetworkofeducators.org/2019/06/06/4-ways-to-make-sure-students-are-watching-your-videos/

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112 DOI: 10.3102/003465430298487

Legg, A. M., & Wilson, J. H. (2009). E-Mail from professor enhances student motivation and attitudes. Teaching of Psychology, 36(3), 205-211. https://doi.org/10.1080/00986280902960034

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2017). How to humanize your online class [blog post]. Retrieved from: https://brocansky.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Humanize-Infog-Letter-Size-for-Printing.pdf

Persico, D., Pozzi, F., & Sarti, L. (2010).  Monitoring collaborative activities in computer supported collaborative learning.  Distance Education, 31(1), 5-22.

Stein, D. & Wanstreet, C. (2017) Jump-start your online classroom. Stylus Publishing.

Weissman, N. (2017). Evaluating the effectiveness of a synchronous online environment in establishing social, cognitive, and teaching Presence. Dissertation.

Whiteside, A. L., Garrett Dikkers, A., & Lewis, S. (2014). The power of social presence for learning. EDUCAUSE Review Online. Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2014/5/the-power-of-social-presence-for-