Moving to Online Teaching – some considerations and potential pitfalls

With the global impact of COVID-19, online teaching activities will continue for the next academic year. The two options available for teaching delivery are interactive synchronous live sessions or asynchronous recorded lecture videos. I thought I would share what I am planning to do with moving to online teaching. I am considering three phases of interaction: Pre-Activity, Teaching Activity and Post-Activity and these are discussed further below. Figure 1 shows an overview of the plan that involves three phases of interaction between the lecturer and the learners. It may be useful to others who are facing the same situation.

Students typically experience 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. The recording of a 50-minute lecture video is not something I plan to incorporate with online teaching. TED style talks with the sharing of one key idea (or learning objective), chunking down the 50 minutes into smaller units is preferred and this is a decision based on learner processing of information and a consideration of the additional distractions that online delivery presents. Some further discussions on these issues in the Teaching Activity section.

The pre-recording of asynchronous lecture videos will allow me to manage workload for lectures, but also mitigate any technological issues with live sessions. If internet connectivity fails, then it won’t be a great experience for my students nor for me. The asynchronous recorded lecture videos will provide flexibility to students where they can manage their time and external responsibilities (e.g. childcare, school closures, health issues). 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.

The lack of direct social interactions during COVID-19 caused some students to feel isolated. 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. Synchronous live sessions can provide structure and an opportunity to connect within a session. I will be using live sessions for tutorials and Q&As.

Online Teaching Graphic S Fergus

Figure 1. An online teaching plan that involves three phases of interaction between the lecturer and learners.


The use of pre-learning has been shown to support student learning. 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 have 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. There are many books and publications applying this theory in teaching since it was first researched in the late 1980s (Sweller and Chandler, 1991, Sweller, 1988, Paas and Ayres, 2014, Kalyuga, 2007, Sweller et al., 2019). The theory provides empirical support for models of instruction in which instructors design their teaching to optimise the load on students’ working memories. Information is received through the senses and the first important step is attention (Figure 2). Learners must first attend to information where it is processed and stored in working memory. The use of pre-activities can help emphasise the importance of information that learners must attend to.Information ProcessingFigure 2. A model of information processing

There is a limited capacity of the working memory that causes displacement of information. The number of elements or “chunks of information” that can be held simultaneously in the working memory is limited (Miller, 1956). Scaffolding of information in pre- activities allows learners to engage with smaller chunks of new information and helps to avoid overwhelming their working memory (Paas et al., 2003). Examples of simple pre-lecture activities are recapping questions or quiz questions to surface prior knowledge related to the teaching activity. The pre-activity is an opportunity to establish expectations for students and prepare them for the teaching activity.

Teaching 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). Interactivity is important in teaching and particularly for online teaching activities.

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 essential to help with ‘mind wandering’. Breaking up content with a question would be a simple level of interactivity. Evidence of 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. Based on an analysis of 6.9 million MOOC video viewing episodes, the median engagement time was six minutes so shorter video segments with online delivery is recommended (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.

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 level of complexity of the content. The use of video to present information using dynamic visuals and auditory content also create a cognitive load. Using an introduction at the beginning with signposting can help learners to navigate the teaching content.

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

Scaffolding of learning can be structured in two ways: ‘part-whole approach’ and ‘whole-part approach’. The ‘part-whole approach’ is breaking down the complex task into a series of smaller sub-tasks that build up the necessary skills in sequence. The ‘whole-part approach’ is introducing the whole task initially with attention directed and focused to each sub-task. This approach can support understanding the interactions and connections between each sub-task

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. 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. 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. This is not predicted initially, particularly as 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.

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.



With recorded lecture videos, if students postpone their engagement and don’t schedule time in their weekly schedules this will be problematic. Binge watching a boxset is a familiar experience today but 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 preferred. Activities that support the consolidation of learning and provide feedback are recommended post-activity. Setting a quiz or collaborative discussions on problems would set expectations for timely engagement and highlight any misconceptions. I used to run office hours close to assessment submissions and schedule times when my students were also available and on campus. This was effective and weekly online office hours will be something I will trial so that students have an opportunity to participate live and ask questions. My experience with discussion boards is that students don’t engage much as their names are visible. Although I reinforce “there is no such thing as a silly question, it’s silly not to ask”, students are reluctant to participate.  Mentimeter has been more successful for engagement because the participants have anonymity. So, another option is to poll questions (using Mentimeter or Padlet) and answer them in a recorded session. This would be inclusive for students who cannot participate in any live Q&As and provide flexibility in delivery.



The migration of traditional classroom-based lectures to online delivery platforms requires thoughtful consideration of learner engagement and processing of information. For online teaching the integration of a pre-activity, teaching activity and a post-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 enagement and supports effective learning. The level of interactivity can be distributed across the pre-activity, teaching activity and a post-activity in a variety of ways.


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Apple Logo, Amide bond…

One of my first steps and explorations into chemistry education research involved creating a diagnostic test to use with 1st year students in the chemistry module on both the Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science programmes. This approach was previously published in New Directions (see here) and consisted of 40 questions on fundamental chemistry principles pertaining to organic chemistry and basic chemistry knowledge that 1st year students on our programmes should have acquired based on the entry requirements for both programmes. One of the questions yielded unexpected outcomes with both 1st year and 3rd year students when the diagnostic test was piloted and this outcome has been consistently replicated annually with 1st year students!

The question I am referring to is

“Draw the chemical structure of an amide bond”

In the published pilot of the diagnostic test, this question was poorly answered with 80% of the answers incorrect. What has been observed each year the diagnostic test is administered is a similar result, students do attempt to answer the question, recognise there is a nitrogen but are unable to recall correctly the chemical structure of an amide bond. Many draw an amine bond. Other functional groups feature in the diagnostic test with questions that focus on the recognition of functional groups not on drawing them. These questions have higher percentages of correct answers. This year I included a question that required recognition of an amide bond from a selection of four chemical structures. Not surprisingly, a higher number of answers were correct for the question – 58%.

amide question

Figure 1. A question on the recognition of the amide functional group

There is something about correctly drawing the structure from visual memory that is causing difficulties. My hunch is that the problem lies in the input approach used by students for this type of information and the manner in which it is studied. Visual memories in humans is exceptionally good however exposure does not lead to enhanced memory which has been demonstrated by the classic penny experiment, locating the nearest fire extinguisher and more recently (which is my favourite) the Apple logo (see article here). This explicit memory or intentional retrieval of encountered events is poor for daily interactions with objects. Constant exposure and interaction however does not lead to accurate spatial recall.

The Apple logo experiment is a repeat of the classic penny experiment where participants were asked to recall the logo from memory and recognise the logo from a set of alternatives. They also measured metamemory judgements to assess confidence either before or after drawing the logo from memory with users rating on a 10-point scale their level of confidence.

apple logo

Figure 2. An example of some stimuli used in the recognition task (the correct logo is not shown here!)

In general, the participants (85 undergraduate students) were not able to draw the logo from memory. One participant drew it perfectly and seven participants had 3 or fewer errors. In terms of recognition, less than half (47%) correctly recognised the correct logo. There was an advantage with apple users over non-apple users but the difference was not significant. Not surprisingly, the confidence of participants (26 students) was higher prior to recalling the Apple logo (M 8.58) and dropped (to M 5.54) after the retrieval process.

Ok so recalling the amide bond requires conscious thought and for many students it has associations with a nitrogen but they cannot correctly recall the chemical structure. I do emphasise in my diagnostic test feedback, notice the word amide contains a D for double bond as a cue to help them trigger this recall. How many students test themselves when studying or are they rereading their lecture notes with an increased familiarity and hence confidence with such repetition!