Pedagogy best practice

Jump to section:

  1. Designing the learning environment
  2. Initial considerations – managing expectations
  3. Preparing to teach
  4. Preparing online content
  5. Teaching online
  6. Engaging our student body
  7. Teaching on campus
  8. Asynchronous classes
  9. Synchronous Classes
  10. Assessment and Feedback Practices

Designing the learning environment

It is a process, not an end. Curating a consistent online space is developmental. Start simply and focus on core areas and build from this. The foundations are critical in what we create for our students as an online environment.

A blended approach. Our teaching approach for 2020-21 should be a blended approach where there is a mixture of delivery including online and in-person. This will need to be determined module by module.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL). All teaching sessions need to have an online alternative in line with UDL policy. Although some delivery may be in-person, teaching sessions need to be virtualised to accommodate students who are unable to attend, or in the event of a further lockdown

Use a range of synchronous and asynchronous approaches. It is important to remember that a good learning environment will have a mix of synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning activity.  It is wise to have more asynchronous teaching as this reduces risk about student access not working, e.g. Wi-Fi problems, device not working, quality of internet connection, as well as time zone, disability access, learning styles and all things UDL.

  • Asynchronous learning enables students to undertake learning tasks at their own speed.  But remember that students working remotely can take longer to complete study tasks and assessments.
  • Timed and self-paced asynchronous activities on Blackboard should be viewed as contact time.
  • Synchronous teaching sessions help to foster student engagement and can assist with responding to student questions. But also be clear about when you will be ‘online’ to manage student expectations. It is not good for you or for students to provide a sense of you being on standby at all times.
  • Provide clarity on the time requirements to complete a study task, e.g. listening to an audio recording or completing an assessment. This helps to manage student expectations.
  • In all of your teaching approaches provide clear instructions about how the module is going to be taught. Explicit instructions are important.

Weekly synchronous contact.There should be some synchronous teaching normally every week, ideally at module level. No programme should be delivered in an entirely asynchronous format. Students’ will be monitored weekly.

Create an engaging learning space. Just as it is important that you provide a range of resources to students, it is particularly important to consider supporting students that are transitioning into the University and progressing between levels of study. We have to remember the human element of our online learning and to humanise the interactions we have with each other and our students. Our humanity is one of our strengths as an institution, in particular in the classroom.

Collaborate, not isolate. Discuss your approaches to teaching your module and programme with colleagues. Look internally and externally for inspiration, e.g. the UCL ABC model of design.

Large synchronous teaching sessions may require two members of staff (one to deliver content and one to monitor the chat box). Curriculum in an online environment can be rationalised. Less is sometimes more.

Think about the design of the learning journey. Online teaching requires a clearly set out learning journey that can be communicated easily to students with a structured planner that enables students and staff to understand what is being delivered and when.

Focus on the learning design of the module/programme in order to get the students to understand the relevant skill, process and way of working. Online learning does not use space and time in the same way that a timetabled curriculum on campus would.

Initial considerations – managing expectations

As with a face-to-face teaching session, it is important to establish expectations and ground rules in an online environment. For example:

Establish IT essentials. Setting baseline standards for the necessary computer equipment that students require to complete their studies and providing clarity on how students can access IT equipment. Requirements will vary depending on degree programme. This first principle governs the underlying pedagogy of delivery.

What do you want the students to do?  Before each teaching session, consider what it is you want students to do. Do you want learners to watch something, read something or engage with the module content / peers beforehand?  For example, watch a DMU Replay recording, read an article or contribute to a discussion board before the teaching session.  If it is a Blackboard Collaborate Ultra teaching session then you can invite students to engage with resources on how to use Collaborate Ultra. This would enable a flipped classroom approach.

How is the course going to be taught?  Make it clear how you intend to teach the module, such as the role of staff, the level of interaction, the studying and learning required.

Time zones matter. As it is likely that not all our students will be on campus, or in the UK, it is important to be mindful of this when scheduling teaching sessions. Online teaching requires synchronous teaching sessions and support services to reflect students being located in different time zones. This may require content to be delivered at different times across a number of days, e.g. in the morning/afternoon and also in the evening.

Ensure you have good audio. The recording of asynchronous classes and the running of synchronous teaching sessions benefit from good audio facilities.

Preparing to teach

Write a quick start guide for your module. Condense the key points from about your module in a short 2 or 3 page document that students can easily access before and throughout their module. Your quick start guide should be the equivalent of the condensed instructions for a car, a washing machine or a tv.  Think about what is important and focus on the core points that enable a student to get started with their studies.

Focus on how best to teach your subject. It is important to think about how your classroom teaching can best shift to an online environment. Social distancing rules may enable some classroom teaching on campus.  Prioritise those parts of your teaching that require an on campus teaching experience.  Some techniques work better than others. There might be a need to adopt some new approaches. For example:

  • Asynchronous lectures should be broken-up into a series of shorter lectures of say no more than 20-30 minutes in length that can be recorded using DMU Replay.
  • Build time in synchronous teaching sessions to enable students to ask questions and to check students’ understanding. Take regular opportunities to review learning points and clarify information.
  • Polls in Blackboard collaborate can be a quick way of getting an understanding of where students are at in terms of their learning.
  • The chat function in Blackboard collaborate and MS Teams can work well in getting students to provide feedback.
  • Discussion Forums in Blackboard are an important means of enabling students to engage in a text based discussion and can provide a space for them to reflect on their learning. They can be used to break down modules into manageable cohort sizes. Discussion Forums can be a great way to develop a sense of community. They can have a social as well as an academic content focus. Information on how to set-up a Discussion Forum can be found on the CELT website.

Focus on the manageability of the learning environment. Large modules and modules with practical elements such as labs and performance may need to be broken down to a manageable size.

This is because teaching content may be delivered at a different pace in some modules depending on ability to access resources, e.g. IT Labs. For large modules of say 150+ it might not be possible to manage the student experience efficiently when using the likes of Discussion Forums. Students may also struggle with establishing an online presence through engagement if they feel that their learning space is too large a community.

This may require breaking down some modules into sections so that the online learning environment can be manageable for all students. This in turn will impact on the delivery of the content teaching sessions which should be tailored towards the cluster as opposed to the module as a whole. For example:

  • Blackboard module site for all students on module with core information
  • Students grouped into 3 or 4 cluster groups where they have access to the same asynchronous module information but have different synchronous online teaching sessions and different Discussion Forums.
  • This will require teaching teams on large modules to be broken down into clusters.

Consider the potential for students to work in groups in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Use group working in a breakout room. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Divide learners between Collaborate Ultra breakout rooms, one room per topic, and nominate a student to record results of group activity on a PowerPoint slide which is shared with the whole group in the main room. 
    Note: For large groups this type of approach can be problematic to manage where there are many groups or a smaller number but with more learners present.  It may prove to be more effective to undertake the group work in advance of the teaching session and use the session for each to feedback – see Suggestion 2, below.

  2. In advance of the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra teaching session divide your students into sub-groups, with each sub-group allocated a part of a larger topic to research.  In the Collaborate Ultra teaching session, divide learners into breakout rooms, with each room containing an ‘expert’ on a different part of the topic.  Each ‘expert’ then shares their knowledge with the other learners in the room.

  3. Set up a circus style session where students move themselves between breakout rooms to consider a number of questions or ideas (set a time limit for each room).  The group may then come together in the main room to discuss outcomes.

  4. Use the Groups function in Blackboard to set up learner groups: these groups can then connect to Collaborate Ultra, giving them their own Collaborate Ultra rooms to work together.

  5. Team teaching: Split your student group into breakout spaces (during or as they arrive in the teaching session) each facilitated by an academic. They may then consider ideas and questions as groups or as a whole after a facilitated group teaching session.

There is information about setting up Breakout spaces in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra at this link.


Focus on keeping students on track over the term/semester. It might not be possible to keep all students at the same pace on a week-by-week basis because of implications of access to the likes of labs.

However, teaching should be designed so that all students complete the same learning at the end of a term or semester. This will enable students to retain cohort identity and ease the transition back to a more campus-based mode of delivery as and when lockdown is eased.

Preparing online content

Think about the structure and sequence. Online teaching requires the pace of delivery to reflect the subject and student context, e.g. practicals/labs/dance, lack of teaching since Easter for incoming students at level 4. Consider what the student will have to do in order to learn and the sequence that is required.

The structure of your teaching is integral to enabling students to engage and have a voice. This is the structure of the blackboard shell/ecosystem, alongside the structure of learning objects/activities, and the structure of synchronous/asynchronous engagement. 

Remember to navigate. While breaking down material into chunks is crucial, this information needs to be connected to concrete learning objects/learning activities that are themselves discrete.

These activities/objects need to be curated inside an intelligible/clear architecture on your Blackboard site and which links to appropriate other technologies such as DMU Replay, Turnitin, and social media.

Provide how to guides.  A lot of the teaching in the University takes place in what can be called ‘over the shoulder teaching sessions’, such as conducting an experiment, writing a laboratory report or giving a presentation. Consider how this information can be translated into an online environment, whether that be through the likes of guidance on writing a lab report or an essay or giving a performance. This information might be best developed at a programme or Faculty level.

Teaching online 

Establish classroom norms. Include key information at the start of a synchronous teaching session about the functionality of the online environment, such as the muting of microphones, how questions can be asked through the raising of hands or how the chat function will work. 

You might want to send an email to students before a synchronous teaching session that includes the following:

Our class will meet through Blackboard Collaborate. The class will follow the same principles as that of a physical classroom, such as enabling you to take notes and to participate by asking questions. Please join the session 5 minutes before the start time to ensure that the class can start promptly. Please mute your microphone.

Clarify the delivery timings.  Make it clear how long a synchronous teaching session will last, what is required of the students and provide guidance on breaks after a particular length of time (e.g. 30 minutes). 

Provide breaks.  Synchronous teaching sessions can be more draining for the presenter and the listener, so creating so-called stretch points or time to get a drink is important. If your teaching session is going to be 50 minutes then provide a break of 10 minutes. 

Remember learning outcomes. At the start of your teaching session take some time on a simple PowerPoint slide to review the learning outcomes for the teaching session (this slide can also be added toward the end of the teaching session to reinforce the learning - plenary).

Engaging our student body

Many disabilities are hidden. A significant number of our students have learning support needs which might not be immediately evident.  If you have any concerns at all about your students, you should signpost them to the appropriate services within DMU as you would if we were still on campus. These services continue to be available, albeit on-line/via phone/Chat via the Student Gateway. 

The importance of text.  Just as it is important to provide students with a range of visual images and to use online synchronous teaching sessions, it is also important to remember to provide text to support this learning as assistive technologies such as screen readers are able to work with text. If closed captions are deemed to be an appropriate reasonable adjustment for students on your modules, these will be activated on official module folders in DMU Replay. MS Teams has the capacity to detect what is being said and to provide live captions.

The importance of time. Just as it can take time for staff to get used to working in an online environment, it can equally take time for students.  Don’t expect your students to understand points straight away.

Synchronous teaching sessions might have a number of different delivery options around the same content area. Provide supporting materials for students to read in forums. When you provide videos, make sure that students can access the links afterwards. 


Space the delivery of teaching sessions.  Online teaching is not a mirror of classroom teaching. It is more fluid and responsive as well as more time consuming. Don’t try to replicate everything in a synchronous or asynchronous teaching session. Remember that students and staff need to take breaks.

Knowledge checks  Multiple Choice Quizzes (MCQs) can be used in a number of ways from the simple true / false to more complex questions and associated multiple distractors.  Blackboard collaborate can be used with up to 5 possible answers.

A useful approach to MCQs is to ask the question and give students time to think of an answer.  Provide an answer for them to vote (show the answer statistics) if a number are wrong, consider the theory again and move to a slide with the answer options repeated vote again.  For some questions, there may not be a correct answer!


Foster engagement. 

  • Ask questions – invite students to respond in the chat window.  If you ask knowledge check questions try to have these prepared on slides as a part of the session presentation.  If you are inviting students to respond in the chat window set a word limit.  Prepare a second slide that gives your answer (within the word limit).  This can help students who are watching a recording of the session and helps students to develop their ability to write concisely.


  • Looking at the responses – can they be grouped or sorted as a part of the session.  Ensure that you include sufficient time in your session plan for the learners to give answers and for you to consider the responses. Tools such as Mentimeter and Padlet can be helpful.

    *Note: If you have large numbers of students in the Collaborate space and all start to type in the chat at the same time those with poor or limited internet connections may lose functionality (including audio) or be kicked out of the room.  It is often better to use the polling function, which is more accessible to all learners using a computer.

    It can be difficult to manage and read a large number of chat messages / questions or answers and so if you have a large group it is always worth including regular stops to give yourself a chance to address any important issues.


  • Ask questions (and include on a slide) – invite students to think about their response but to keep these to themselves.  This can work very well for questions that may, for instance, require reflective thinking on personal and ethical matters, calculations or the application of scientific theories. Subsequent slides can consider answers or theories linked to the question.


  • Invite questions using chat / audio.  Provide a word count limit for responses in the chat window.  If using audio – invite students to raise their hands to be invited to speak - be aware that you may need to switch off students’ microphones after they have spoken to limit background noise.


  • If the session is to be recorded prepare a slide that includes the correct answers or comments about ideas that have been discussed.  There is information about ordering, raising and lowering hands in Blackboard Collaborate Ultra at this link.

    Note: In the online classroom you cannot take visual clues as to the level of understanding and so it is important to check this regularly using other means.


  • Incorporate academic and extracurricular activities Just as it is important to design the academic content, it is also important to develop space for more social and extracurricular activities. These types of activities can assist to boost student confidence. Extracurricular activities might include the likes of online Q&A sessions with guest speakers.


Teaching on campus

Social distancing. Plans have been drawn up by Estates to determine how many people can safely be accommodated into rooms on campus with 2m social distancing. With this in mind, workshops and labs etc that can be delivered within social distancing guidelines can be timetabled and delivered in person. These will potentially require numerous repeats (especially for large programmes) with social distancing set at 2m and this is the scenario we need to plan for.  The Government is considering reducing social distancing requirements and if this happens, we would add more students to classes and delete classes that were no longer needed.  


Asynchronous classes

For 2020-21, DMU’s position is that all teaching sessions named ‘lectures’ will be online and delivered asynchronously through the use of the online teaching platforms Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and MS Teams

The content of these ‘lectures’ has to be adapted for online delivery and should not simply be a Replay version of previous delivery. 

The University’s default position is that ‘lectures’ need to be asynchronous to reduce risk around student access such as Wi-Fi problems, time zone differences, disability access, learning styles and all things UDL.

Where social distancing is not possible on campus, or a suitable teaching space cannot be provided, these sessions should be delivered online. They can be delivered synchronously or asynchronously, but they will most likely need to be synchronous because it will be necessary to have some regular, live teaching.

Suggestions for asynchronous delivery include:

  • Breaking down a 50 minute lecture in shorter sections of no more than 20-30 minutes each.

  • You might want to follow a short lecture with a breakout activity or an online quiz.

  • You might only want to pre-record particular sections of a lecture, such as key material before a seminar or tutorial.

  • Maintain a consistent approach with core information set out at the start, such as the aims and objectives of the session.

  • Don’t overload or overcomplicate the material. Remember that students in online sessions are likely to focus more on the slide and less on your voice.

  • Provide reflections on the points that you make and provide tips that students might want to consider, such as other materials to consult.

  • Remember to keep an appropriate pace of delivery, i.e. neither speed up or slow down.


Synchronous Classes

Live synchronous classes should be designed to support the learning journey.  They should not simply be a like-for-like replacement of lectures or seminars.

There should be some synchronous teaching every week, normally at module level. No programme should be delivered in an entirely asynchronous format.

Suggestions for synchronous delivery include:

  • Initial synchronous sessions should include introductions to using the learning platforms, e.g. Blackboard Collaborate and MS Teams.  Central guidance and support will be developed to assist you with this.  Try to virtually walk students through your module. These sessions should be delivered on a repeated basis over the first two weeks of the module. This information should also be made available asynchronously to enable students to go back and check for points of clarification.
  • At levels 4 and PGT there may be a need to schedule additional content and skills sessions at the start of the term/semester to ensure that students can transition to studies appropriately and make good any gaps in learning.
  • Other synchronous sessions will include the likes of introductions to the module as well as introductions to particular areas of content and covering core content.
  • Remember to schedule synchronous sessions that focus on assessments, such as preparing for an essay or a performance. These will be particularly important given the nature of the learning environment.

  • It is also good to schedule drop-in synchronous sessions throughout the year. These sessions might involve a general overview of where the module is at and key challenges, but should in general be light touch and enable students to ask questions and seek clarifications.
  • Just as in your normal classroom environment, think about the added extras that you bring into your synchronous classes. Not all classes need or should have academic content. Remember to focus on skills and the overall student journey. This might be presentations from the careers team or referencing in the library.

  • As with a live session, it is good to be there first. Use a holding slide that clarifies the start and end time as well as key information, e.g. muting microphones.

  • Once the session has started provide a simple PowerPoint slide that contains the learning outcomes for that session (this slide can also be added toward the end of the session to reinforce the learning - plenary).

  • Ask students to enter the room 5 minutes before the session to ensure that their audio setup is working. Remind your students that once the session is running you will not be able to answer questions about technical issues.  On the first slide ensure that the module and session are clearly identified and include instructions for students to check and test their audio connections.

  • At the start of a synchronous session it is good to check in with the group.  You want to ensure that learners are comfortable and gaining confidence in an online environment.  This type of activity can also be particularly useful to help students to identify if the device that they are using, such as a mobile phone, has any access limitations. Use emojis to check in with how learners are feeling / ask learners to respond to a low stakes / humorous question.  You can include emoji images on the slide as a multiple choice question and ask which best describes how the students are feeling about the virtual space. Use multiple choice questions to identify academic interests or concerns.  Invite learners to identify aspects of the session that they are most / least looking forward to or where they have the most or least understanding (this can be particularly useful if there has been some recommended reading or viewing in advance of the session).

  • Set the ground rules at the start, such as how the session is going to be run.

  • Make it clear who is going to be undertaking what role, e.g. delivering the chat function or delivering the session.

  • If the session is for over an hour, remember to have a 10 minute break. Make these expectations clear at the start and avoid a rush to finish early by continuing through.  You might not need a break, but your students will.

  • Provide space for students to ask questions and engage, e.g. using the chat function or providing questions that they can respond to (does not have to be right/wrong answers).

  • Encourage students to reflect, such as through taking a short pause.

  • Encourage students to seek clarification points, e.g. previous session covered X topic.

  • At the end of the session focus on reinforcing the learning that has been covered.  You should highlight key points.  These can be linked to the learning outcomes slide given at the beginning of the session (it is often useful to use the same slide again as a prompt).

  • At the end of the session you might want to signpost further resources and support. This could include details of additional sessions, e.g. repeat classes as well as drop-in sessions.  Provide clarification on how students are best able to contact you, or another member of the team for follow-up information.

  • At the end of the session it can be helpful to point students to further resources and/or follow-up material, such as via a forum thread for asynchronous discussions.

Assessment and Feedback Practices

Assessment for learning, not assessment of learning. In an online/blended environment it is important to consider breaking down existing assessments into small components rather than approaches which put assessments at the end of a term of work. 

Get students to reflect on their feedback. It is helpful to consider ways in which feedback can be used to support the development of students’ work. This might include the use of sub-components of an assessment, e.g.:

  • ‘Summarise the feedback that you have received on your previous assignment as action points to consider for your next assignment’.
  • For final year students - ‘Identify four skills that you have developed in your studies and identify how they might be useful in your chosen study path or career’.

Use a variety of assessment approaches. MCQs can be used just as easily in the social sciences as they can in the sciences. Think about ways that assessments can increase students’ understanding of their performance. Be mindful that any assessment changes need to take into consideration QAA Benchmark Statements as well as relevant PSRBs.

Use a variety of feedback dialogues. In an online environment the use of audio recording can be helpful in providing clarifications to students.  Keep these files relatively short to enable ease of download, e.g. less than 5 minutes.

Establish a feedback enabled curriculum.  For a feedback enabled curriculum to be effective it is important that focus on feedback takes place from an early stage. While this is critical at level 4, we also need to be mindful of direct entrants into levels 5 and 6 as well as PG. Key features of a feedback enabled curriculum include:

  • Creates opportunities/strategies at an early stage which gets students to be self-regulated learners.

  • Ensures that feedback is viewed as central to the process of learning and is not just linked to assessment.

  • Gets students to be comfortable with the language of feedback and the academic discourses that go along with this.

  • Creates a climate where there is an ongoing dialogue between students and lecturers about feedback as well as the standards that need to be applied.

  • Embeds practices where students can make judgements on their own work and the work of others, i.e. through the use of exemplars.