4 Principles of Creating Online Courses

Teaching Online

Carefully constructed courses save you time while helping your students to learn better. Here are 4 main principles of creating online courses. 

Teaching online is, in many ways, the same as teaching a traditional course. You have to know your material, your learners and how to deliver learning. That said, if you integrate the following principles into the very structure of your online courses, you will more effectively reach students while lightening your work load. When creating online courses, be sure to keep your:

  • Graphics simple
  • Lessons short
  • Relationships supportive
  • Feedback immediate
1. Simple Graphics

It’s a common practice to include words and pictures to PowerPoint slides and talk your way through the presentation, often repeating the words on slides. Wrong wrong wrong. It actually inhibits student learning when we offer pictures, written words and spoken words. When people are processing new information, their bandwidth is limited. They can only process a few bits at one go. When you present them with redundant information, part of their brain has to sift through the information, and they do not learn as effectively.

Hop to it:

Your graphics do not need so many words. Write a script or trust yourself to convey the essential information. Visuals are a more effective way.

2. Short Lessons

The attention span of learners is not very long. Abreena Tompkins, an instructional specialist, suggests, “Physiologically, your neurons are keen and alert for no more than 20 consecutive minutes. At the end of those 20 minutes, your neurons have gone from full-fledged alert to total collapse, and it takes two to three minutes for those neurons to be completely recovered and back to the total alert state.”

A problem with a solution!

Hop to these:

  1. Plan frequent moments of interaction into every one of your classes.
  2. Never talk more than 5 minutes without getting some feedback from your students. Some quick ways to get feedback:
  • Ask learners to give a “thumbs’ up” if they understand,
  • Paraphrase the main idea in the chatbox of your online course,
  • Answer a poll question,
  • Discuss a question,
  • Do a Quizlet that you have prepared for the lesson,
  • Create a picture that illustrates a concept

You can ask them to do just about anything that helps them assimilate the material.

Hop to it: 

Include any of these icons


on your slide to cue your students to engage.

3. Supportive Relationships

In the online classroom, it is easy for teachers and learners to forget that there are actual human beings on the other side of the computer screens. As a teacher, it is your job to foster healthy and supportive relationships with learners.

A low-conflict, supportive relationship is vital to promote:

  • academic performance and,
  • learners’ resiliency in academic performance

For example, in this study¹, fifth graders were willing to work harder to understand the math lesson when they felt supported by the teacher. Furthermore, they were eager to help their peers learn. Students who attended math classrooms with higher emotional support reported increased engagement in mathematics learning.

To create a supportive learning environment, let learners know that you care and extend help to them when needed. As you are designing your presentations, think about how you can convey your enthusiasm for your students and their success.

Hop to these:

  1. Tell your students that you care, in whatever way feels authentic to you.
  2. Be sure to schedule time every day to respond to students’ questions and emails.
  3. Have online office hours, where you can interact with your students.
  4. Give learners opportunities to interact with each other. More tips here. 
4. Immediate Feedback

Various research studies show that “Less Teaching + More Feedback = Effective Learning.

In fact, one of the studies² found that “academic feedback is more strongly and consistently related to achievement than any other teaching behavior. This relationship is consistent regardless of grade, socio-economic status, race, or school setting.” Yet, teachers know that students often don’t even read their comments!

In an online learning environment, you can, quite literally, look at your students work while they are working, and thereby provide immediate feedback.

Hop to it:

This resource will show you how to get set up with Google Drive and how to use your voice to record comments on Google Drive.

Design courses that work for you

Well designed courses will make teaching and learning easy, creating a win-win situation for both the teacher and the students. If you want happy students and more time, design your courses carefully. Don’t forget to use these 4 principles of creating online courses.

Do you have any other suggestions for online educators? Take to the comments section to share your ideas.



1. Rimm-Kaufman, Baroody, Larsen, Curby, & Abry, 2014
2. Bellon, J.J., Bellon, E.C. & Blank, M.A. (1991) Teaching from a Research Knowledge Base: a Development and Renewal Process. Facsimile edition. Prentice Hall, New Jersey, USA

I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at www.onlineclassesforgroovykids.org.


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