When I graduated with a bachelor’s degree nearly a year ago, I was completely unaware that I would work for an ESL online tutoring company. I had no previous teaching experience, and I had never interacted with children face-to-face let alone a child with limited working English. My teaching experience and knowledge, therefore, is quite limited. However, I am now entering my eighth month of tutoring at ALO7, and along the way, I have learned some invaluable strategies to help improve your online teaching. It is somewhat challenging to determine what methods are effective in improving online teaching. Below is a list of the top five teaching methods I use to help improve my performance in the online classroom.
Keep the lines of communication open between your students and yourself:
Perhaps the most important step to improve your online teaching is clear and direct communication. For those who teach online, you must be mindful of your student’s unique need for interaction. Whereas an on-site student has more access to their teacher, your online students require more opportunities for interaction and feedback. You cannot simply arrange a parent-teacher conference with each student as you may teach an overwhelming number of classes. This reality makes time in the online classroom priceless. To learn how to be an effective teacher, you must learn to manage your time well. You must use your acquired skills and knowledge to provide the most amount of feedback you can to your online learners with limited time and resources to do so. I have developed a system where I leave feedback immediately for students and parents after each session. Sometimes I simply rate the student’s performance, and at other times I include a written comment on the student’s strengths and weakness or whether a technical or behavioral problem occurred during class. According to Lawrence C. Ragan, Ph.D., “a delay in the response rate for the online learner is complicated by the fact that further progress in their academic work may hinge on the instructor’s reply or feedback to an idea or question.”1 Not only does immediate feedback help the student, but it can also help you improve. By providing direct and quick feedback, this will allow your students to keep in contact with you and adapt your suggestions and input into their individual learning styles. When the students improve their performance and learning outcomes, this can only say good things about your teaching methods. Watch how your students respond to your feedback. If you do not see an increase in performance, learning outcomes or behavior, then you may want to ensure that your feedback is direct, and the expectations are clear to the student and parents.
In what way does communication improve your online teaching? Keep in mind that when you provide direct and immediate feedback to your students and their parents, they will return the courtesy. Performance evaluations are essential for those who teach online. Adapting student and parent feedback into your teaching methods and style will help improve your online teaching. It is also helpful to conduct self-assessments of yourself by watching recordings of your previous classes and noting your mistakes or strengths. Make sure you also respond to student and parent criticism and admit your mistakes and work to improve your performance. If your students can count on you to provide gentle yet positive criticism of their classroom performance, you can expect to receive timely and constructive feedback from your students that will help you adapt and improve your teaching methods.
Develop a patient and sensitive attitude:
One can never overstress the importance of patience for those who teach online. When you teach online, you will find that every student is unique in some way. I have shy students, outgoing students, high-performing students, low-performing students and some students who seem disinterested in the class altogether. Some students may have to think for two minutes before answering a question. I have one student that at first, I thought was a low-performer. Sometimes, he would respond to a question two or three minutes late, but I noticed that his answer was perfect. He simply needed time to think out his answer. I make sure to implement teaching methods into my classes that ensure that every student has an opportunity to speak. This will make you more aware of your student’s progress, personality and make you more sensitive to their individual needs. Earning a reputation as a patient and sensitive tutor can help create a safe learning space where students will come to trust you and more easily take risks and make mistakes. Being a patient tutor will also help you develop the skills you need to interact with a wide variety of students with different learning abilities. According to one source, understanding your students goes hand-in-hand with patience, “essentially, patience without understanding isn’t patience at all, but an empty form of waiting.”2 Getting to know your students individually by asking them questions about their likes, dislikes, family, and personality will help personalize your students. Learning to exercise patience and sensitivity will give you the skills you need to know how to be an effective teacher.
Moreover, patience may dictate that you adjust your teaching methods to better suit your student’s learning styles. One source suggests that you prepare your classes ahead of time with each student in mind, “this preparation allows you to anticipate each student’s needs and avoid running into unnecessary frustration, an antonym of patience.”3 A tutor’s handling of behavioral problems factors in considerably in performance evaluations by students and parents. Students and parents are likely to provide better and more positive feedback if a tutor handles behavioral issues with patience and tactfulness. A poorly behaved or rude student should not be treated as “the problem student” but rather as a student who needs special attention and engagement from their teacher. It is important not to lose your patience with a disruptive or moody student. If you know the student has behavioral problems, make sure to include questions, props, and activities that appeal to that individual’s interests or hobbies. I had one very disruptive student, and I knew that he liked football. I created a series of stories and games about football, and I have noticed a dramatic improvement in the student’s behavior. As you teach online, ensure that you are doing all you can to exercise patience and sensitivity with your students, especially students with specific problems. This will give you the skills necessary to provide positive feedback, adapt your learning style and earn your student’s trust.
Improve your online teaching by incorporating your talents and interests:
This is not necessarily a requirement for how to be an effective teacher. However, it will make learning more fun and engaging for your students and teaching easier and less stressful for you. Try to include your talents and interests in your teaching methods. For example, you might try to incorporate singing and dancing during vocabulary or phonics exercises to help your students remember sounds and words. I like to draw and write, so I create stories with pictures for my students that include vocabulary and grammar from the lessons. If you like games and riddles, then you should create unique games that are specifically adapted to your student’s learning styles. Each class should be a unique experience for your students. ManyCam is an excellent tool for incorporating your talents and interests into the lessons. You can use ManyCam to create videos, games or rewards and props to engage your students. If you are interested in costumes, then you can use digital props from ManyCam to turn yourself into a cat or grow a mustache. ManyCam’s blog discusses its use as a teaching tool and says, “each class is an opportunity to wow your students and help them learn the most. The more interested they are, the more they will learn from you.”4
You may wonder how incorporating your creative abilities in the classroom can improve your teaching skills. Your artistic side is invaluable for improving your online teaching skills. According to Mariah Rankine-Landers, an integrated learning specialist, “…the arts drive creative inquiry, and creative inquiry is the driver of all disciplines. It is through creative inquiry that we unlock questions, solve problems, and discover new possibilities.”5 Building your talents, interests and artistic abilities into the course materials and activities can inspire your students and help them better engage with you as a person. If you are good at drawing, you might try to play Pictionary with your students using new vocabulary. If you like to sing you might make your own music video that incorporates grammar and phonics. If you do imitations, you might use masks and props on ManyCam to act out character roles or create stories utilizing vocabulary and language structures. Unleashing your creative side can inspire you to use blended learning techniques as well as step out of your comfort zone to better engage with your students and create an environment that promotes laughter and imagination. Do not be afraid about experimenting with outside resources. Peggy Semingson, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, University of Texas at Arlington recalls, “when I first started teaching online, I was afraid to create new content or change the course in any way once the course launched.”6 However, often the material in the course is far too brief, and you will have to create supplemental assignments and activities to complement and expand on the content. This can include stories, reading exercises, grammar activities, phonics songs, and memory games. Letting your students see your creative side will inspire them to learn and help them understand you with greater depth and appreciation.
Learn from others who teach online:
Never disregard another person’s teaching methods even if they seem silly or out of character for you. There are a plethora of resources that offer instructional tips and supplementary materials to help those who teach online learn how to be an effective teacher. Watch other tutors and take notes on what kinds of props they use, how they incorporate their creative side and how they inspire and engage their students to learn as well as the classroom culture. Observing the learning methods of more experienced tutors can inspire you to improve your performance (and quality score, if you teach for ALO7). According to one eLearning expert, “the best online teachers use a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous activities, creating a blend of traditional online learning styles with newer, more collaborative audio and visual tools.”7 Find out what tools, software, and materials more experienced tutors are using and how to implement those tools to improve the performance of your students and help you better interact in the classroom.
The ALO7 teacher portal contains useful videos put together by experienced tutors such as teaching skills, quality control, and an introduction to Chinese in addition to numerous resources and supplemental materials. ALO7 also has it’s own YouTube channel with instructional videos, which all online ESL tutors can access and benefit from watching. One excellent video on ALO7’s YouTube channel, “ESL Warm-up Game for Teaching Online-What Does the Teacher Have?” offers a creative way to do warm-ups. There are plenty of similar videos put together by experienced tutors that can help you improve your teaching skills. Engaging with an experienced tutor can help you realize where your strengths and weakness lie. Allowing yourself to learn from other tutors who teach online with more experience will broaden your horizons in the classroom and see what methods and sources are reliable and have a history of success in the online classroom.
Manage Learning Outcomes:
With such an emphasis on creativity and quality control, it can be challenging to focus on learning outcomes and meeting those goals in the online classroom. To learn how to be an effective teacher one must learn to create and manage learning outcomes. Not only will this create a more organized learning environment, but it will also ensure that you are staying on-topic and focused. One way to ensure that learning outcomes are met is through quality assurance. According to Lawrence C. Ragan, Ph.D., “one method of addressing course quality and integrity would be to consider strategies for each of the three component parts of the online learning event, content accuracy, instructional design, and overall systems performance.”8 You can learn how to be an effective teacher by learning to maintain the accuracy of the course material and ensuring that students are engaging properly with the course material and meeting learning outcomes. At this point, I might remind you that this is where your evaluations can come into play. Your evaluations and those of your students will show you what learning outcomes are being met and what needs improvement. For ALO7 tutors, partner schools’ reviews are equally helpful for identifying what goals you have mastered and where you need special attention. If you are struggling with meeting certain learning outcomes you might consider engaging with additional resources and videos to help you adapt your teaching methods to suit your student’s learning needs better.
Final thoughts on how to improve your online teaching
New tutors, and sometimes even seasoned tutors, often struggle to find which teaching methods best suit their skills and style while effectively appealing to online students and successfully meeting learning outcomes. The best piece of information I can give a tutor is to learn from more experienced tutors and to step outside of your comfort zone and try different methods until you find the one that works best for you. If you’re an ALO7 tutor, there are a vast range of resources available to you in the tutor portal and on the ALO7 YouTube channel. You can also glean wisdom from your fellow tutors by posting your questions to our private Facebook group, Pili’s Playhouse. If you prefer face-to-face interaction over the internet, join various members of the ALO7 academic team in a casual weekly meeting called the Virtual Office. During these virtual meetings, tutors casually ask and answer questions about teaching strategies and problems they may be facing in the online classroom under the direction of the meeting host. ALO7’s Shanghai staff also hosts monthly broadcast meetings, which cover a wide range of topics to help you become the best tutor you can be.
There are many resources on the internet on how to be an effective teacher. The most important thing to remember is to continue learning methods to develop your online teaching skills in order to best meet the needs of your students. These five methods have helped me to improve in a short amount of time, and I hope they will be a valuable tool for you as well.
Laura Johnson, a Kentucky native, is a graduate of Asbury University in Wilmore, KY, and holds a bachelor’s degree in History with a strong background in French and Latin. She is currently working on her master’s degree in Medieval Studies at the University of Wales Trinity St. David with a focus on Medieval history and literature. She is a member of the Phi Alpha Theta National History Honor Society and the Medieval Society and Classics Society at Lampeter, Wales. She holds a TESOL certificate and has experience teaching with ALO7.
Laura believes in the timeless value of literature as a voice for the past, present, and future. In her spare time, she enjoys reading folktales from around the world and dabbling in Russian and Eastern Studies. Her hobbies include creative writing (fiction and poetry), drawing, illustration, photography and learning new languages. She is an advocate for higher education and believes in the cultural preservation of folklore and history. Her pets include a rambunctious Carolina dog named Niki and a positively perfect cat name Sylvester.