Mayo's Clinics

Aug 17, 2022, 18:15

Second in Two-part Series: Mayo’s Clinic Strategies for Online Teaching

06 January 2016

This month Dr. Mayo examines communication patterns, creating online assignments and email etiquette in online teaching.

By Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT

Since online teaching is increasingly common, we need to learn how to do it well and add online teaching strategies to our repertoire. Last month, we discussed the value of scheduling and deadlines, creativity in assignments, and the importance of providing lots of detailed information. This month we will examine communication patterns, varied activities and email etiquette.

Communicating regularly and consistently with your students helps them stay on track and feel part of a group learning experience. Distance learning in the old format was very lonely; technology has made it easier for students to communicate with their teacher and for you to respond promptly. It also enables you to build a sense of community in the class.

Some of the guidelines for communicating include: make the message short, respond promptly, and add words of encouragement. The reason for making the message short is the lack of attention to long messages among many of our students. Brief messages are typically read immediately, are quicker to write, and keep the communication going. Responding promptly helps students feel that you are there for them and they are not alone in learning the material. Most often, I tell students I will respond to email within 24 hours while over weekends I promise two days. Students learning online need support and good cheer. Even though sometimes the questions are foolish – and I have taken to copying and pasting words from the syllabus when answering a simplistic question – I end each email with positive words to remind them that they can learn the material and do well.

Provide Variety in Activities
One of the ways to keep online teaching and learning vibrant and exciting involves creating a range of new assignments different from the ones you use in an onsite course. Although there may be common ways to measure learning, lots of short essays or research papers don’t make for interesting assignments in an online setting. And they rarely excite students! Try devising new assignments such as active projects, blog entries, and short reflective assignments.

One way to provide variety is to re-conceptualize activities you use in the classroom. For example, in teaching observation as a research method in a classroom setting, I ask students to observe my behavior and dress for a limited time and record what they see. In the discussion, they learn both how hard it is to notice changes of behavior and dress different than what they expected to see and how difficult it is to take notes without a coding scheme, time frame, and goal.

In order to make this experience work in an online course, I created a team assignment where the students have to pick behavior to observe, create a coding scheme, conduct a trial run, and then observe the behavior for a specific time period. The students make all the decisions. They learn the value of a goal, a system, and the degree of agreement among group members in part because they are working together and in part because it is all new to them. It is a very different assignment but one that accomplishes similar learning goals. Typically, it has been rated as one of the most intriguing and highly effective learning activities in the course.

I do something similar with interviewing. Instead of practicing research interviews in a classroom – which I cannot do in an online course – I challenge students to identify an industry professional (at any level) to interview, create an interview protocol, conduct the interview and write up what they learned about the topic of the interview and the process of interviewing. While some students think this assignment is impossible, they all enjoy it once they do it and become excited with what they have learned. It builds self-confidence, gives them a real life experience, and teaches the challenges of conducting research interviews.

Another area for variety includes the type of questions you post in a discussion forum. It is easy to ask questions that check their understanding of the material; however, you will have more impact if you ask questions that ask them to apply the ideas they are acquiring to real life situations or ask them to solve a problem. It captures both their creativity and their critical thinking. It can be amazing to see how thoughtful and innovative some of the suggestions can be. Use your industry experience to post problem solving dilemmas and see what happens. 

Keep Good Records
Although it may seem strange to consider teaching etiquette as part of online teaching and learning, it is helpful to remind students to consider how they introduce themselves, what they are saying, and how they are saying it. If you have ever had a message from RST 787 who asked “Professor, can you explain the last concept in the lecture?” you will remember the frustration of trying to figure out who is the student, what is the course, and what was in the lecture before you can answer the question. I encourage students to use their name in the email address – even to create their alias, possible in most university email systems, early in their program – and to refer to the course in the early part of an email. It helps them realize that you have many students and lots and lots of email; their provision of this information will increase the rapidity and quality of your response.

I also remind them to use full words and sentences since it is email and not texting or Twitter. It is also helpful to teach them to sign their name at the end of the email so that you can use it to respond to them. It is simple email etiquette; unfortunately, not all our students have learned how to write professional emails. Teaching them this skill as part of the online course is a contribution to their professional development. It helps them prepare for the world of email communication among professionals.

Try these suggestions and have fun. Next month, we will discuss using comments on papers submitted electronically and other strategies to make online teaching more effective for both you and your students. If you have suggestions for other topics or teaching practices you want to share, send them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I will include them in future Mayo Clinics. 

Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, is retired as a clinical professor of hotel and tourism management at New York University. As principal of Mayo Consulting Services, he continues to teach around the globe and is a regular presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide. 

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