The Guide to Online Teaching


Objectives and Outcomes

The course learning objectives or learning outcomes make clear what students will be able to do by the end of the course. Because these outcomes consist of what instructors expect students to be able to do, they should be directly aligned with the coursework students complete and the course assessments that students take. In English Composition, there is often a two-course sequence with separate but related course outcomes. Whether these outcomes are developed locally or statewide, instructors aim their teaching at helping students meet them. As an illustrative example of learning outcomes for first-year writing courses that have been thoroughly vetted by experts in the field, we recommend reviewing the Council of Writing Program Administrators Learning Outcomes for First-Year Composition. These outcomes are briefly paraphrased here:

  • Rhetorical Knowledge
    • which includes analyzing writing contexts and audiences and adapting writing to them
  • Critical Thinking, Reading, and Composing
    • which includes analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, and interpreting texts, situations, claims, evidence, ideas, and other resources used in writing
  • Processes
    • which includes using a variety of strategies and composing processes to complete writing projects
  • Knowledge of Conventions
    • which include the formal rules and informal guidelines that define various genres of writing and shape readers’ perceptions of correctness and appropriateness

Most courses in first-year composition will deal with these aspects of writing in some way, and of course, you can add others. While it may seem obvious, courses that align assignments and assessments to a set of stated learning outcomes like these help students understand the relevance of the homework, papers, quizzes, tests, peer review, reading responses, and other activities that they must complete as part of the course. In essence, they drive what the course is about, and thus should be made clear to students.


Writing Assignments

All writing courses assign writing projects, papers, or compositions of some kind, and all the pedagogical considerations that come with creating these assignments and preparing students to write them still apply. However, when teaching writing online, some aspects of instruction become especially important because online course delivery is heavily text-based. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) via the Executive Committee for the Conference on College Composition and Communication produced “A Position Statement of Principles and Example Practices for Online Writing Instruction” in 2013. This statement recommends that instructors pay special attention to how instructional language is used and delivered throughout the course. For example, they recommend the following:

  • Instructions for all assignments, activities, assessments, and policies should be straightforward, direct, plain, and avoid figures of speech, idioms, and linguistic ambiguity. (Effective Practice 3.1)
  • When possible, text-based instructions and feedback should be supplemented by video or audio instructions and feedback. (Effective Practice 3.2)

Since students taking an online course are less likely to visit your office for a face-to-face meeting, the vast majority of your instruction takes place through written language within the course itself or through other communications like email, discussion boards, or chat rooms. The chance to hear the instructor’s voice, and thereby infer, say, a supportive and encouraging tone, is limited in online writing courses. Nevertheless, various software applications exist that can help instructors convey brief lectures or even feedback on student drafts as audio or video files, which can offset the interpersonal distance often experienced in online learning environments.



There are also considerations to be made about how you will collect drafts of the writing assignments, and how you will structure feedback on them. To find out more about these considerations, watch the video below.



Writing Activities and Exercises

Sequencing assignments, activities, and exercises so that students can apply or adapt what they learn in one assignment to the next one is key to the pedagogy of any course, but it is especially crucial for online courses. One way to do this online is to break up a writing assignment or unit into shorter activities and exercises that lead students through the content and writing processes needed to complete the larger assignment (Effective Practice 4.1). For example, if students are writing a Classical argument, then an instructor might develop a series of short, related activities for students to complete before a draft is collected that help break up formal instruction in the features of the genre, critical readings of example Classical arguments, pre-writing activities focused on idea generation for the assignment, and an analysis of the possible audiences of their own argument.




Peer Review/Workshop

Providing opportunities for students to give each other feedback on their writing is an established best practice, and setting up ways for students to do this online is easier than one might think. Most learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard, D2L, Moodle, Canvas, etc.) provide ways for students to communicate with each other through discussion boards, which can also help build a sense of community in the course. At the same time, issues of civility between students can arise online just as easily as in the face-to-face classroom, so instructors are wise to lay out clear guidelines for how students should respond to each other’s work. See NCTE’s Effective Practice 3.10 for more advice on this subject. Additional thoughts on the use of discussion boards for peer review and class community building are covered in the “Putting the Pieces Together” video that appears at the end of this section.

Reading Assignments

 In face-to-face classes, students can pretend to have read an assignment while the rest of the class discusses it. In an online class, instructors can create reading questions that students must answer as part of a learning activity, which have the advantage of requiring every student in the class to provide a piece of writing, however short, that demonstrates that they have actually read the material. But, again, it is important that instructors acknowledge students’ responses to assigned readings even if they are ungraded or else students may begin to question the relevance of the readings.

It is also important to note that the notion of a “reading” can be expanded to include watching a presentation, like a TEDTalk, a news clip, an educational video, or musical performance. Readings can be supplied through links to online library resources or other articles that are available for free on the internet. And, of course, uploading a PDF of a particular reading you want students to complete is also a possibility. Whatever you decide to do, the same guidelines apply here as apply in the classrooms. Students should be asked to do something with the reading, whether it is incorporated as a source in one of the paper assignments or whether it provides content they need to understand how to complete an assignment. In each of these cases, it is important to keep in mind NCTE’s OWI Principle 1: Online writing instruction should be universally inclusive and accessible.


Recent research on writing instruction has increasingly focused on the role of reflection in the process of student learning and knowledge transfer. And yet, it is easy to forget to build reflective moments into an online writing course. Having students reflect on the individual activities, the larger writing projects, their completed drafts, and the assigned readings may be our best chance for helping students retain what they have learned so that they can apply it to new writing scenarios and situations in their other classes, in their careers, and in their lives generally. These reflections can take the form of a blog, a set of more traditional journal entries, or as prefaces or addenda to their submitted assignments. However instructors do this, it is important to carve out space for students to think about what they have done, why they did it, and how they might do it differently if presented with an opportunity to do so in the future. 

Listen to one instructor reflect on how and why he builds his online course the way he does:




LMS Considerations

While there are differences among Learning Management Systems (LMS), the techniques and strategies described here are adaptable to the vast majority of them. Discussion boards, dropboxes, hyperlinks, and the ability to upload a variety of media are standard features of virtually any LMS. However, consulting the technical guide for the LMS your institution uses is a good idea because you may find that there are limits to how a specific feature, like a discussion board, can be set up.