10 Tips for Successful Online Lessons

10 Tips for Successful Online Lessons

Teaching online for the first time might seem a bit intimidating, much like the first time we do anything. Remember the first time you had to teach your own class? How did you feel then? Excited and a bit anxious, I suspect. But guess what? You got through it. And you flourished and developed into a great teacher. So, compared to that, teaching online should be a cinch, right?

The thing to remember is that teaching online doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. Your basic teaching skills and knowledge are still what drives a lesson – they are 100% transferable to the online environment. And the actual structure of a lesson, whether you’re teaching from a coursebook or standalone materials, in many ways remains pretty much the same. Therefore, it’s very much a case of tweaking what you already know and managing it in an online environment.

Arguably the thing that will have the largest impact on your online lessons and how you approach them is your choice of online videoconferencing platform and your confidence in using it. The more functionality it has, the easier it is going to be for you to do the things you want to and to create as normal a classroom environment as possible. Basic features that are a must include: screen-sharing, chat boxes, breakout rooms, and document sharing. And with that, let’s look at some tips for successful online teaching and learning.

1. Embrace the challenge

Maybe you never envisaged being an online teacher, but here you are. Welcome to the brave new world. And while you’re here, embrace that challenge. Think of all the professional development you’re getting and how it’s going to make you an even better teacher. So, be positive and make the most of the opportunity.

2. Plan lessons effectively

You might be a highly experienced teacher and be able to breeze into a classroom and deliver an award-winning lesson with minimal planning, but you won’t be able to get away with that in the virtual classroom. That’s not to say you can’t take what you do in the real-world classroom with you online. By the very nature of the online classroom, some things just won’t work as well, or at all. Therefore, you need to more aware of your planning and what you’re going to do. When using a coursebook, asking these three questions can help you decide what to do: What can they do on their own? What can they do in groups? What do they need you for?

For example, doing readings and extended listening and watching videos are best done away from the virtual classroom as they are time-consuming and so the focus should be on speaking and listening. This kind of planning will also make sure that activities don’t drag on and the lessons are as snappy as they can be.

3. Mix things up

When teaching online for the first time, it can be tempting to just “teach the book” as you would do in class. That’s perfectly natural as too much “new” at once can be overwhelming. However, just because you’re online doesn’t mean you can forget about all the fun, off-book activities that you’ve learned over the years – a lot of them can still be used online with a few tweaks here and there. You just need to be a little creative. For example, you can use Google docs to get students collaborating on writing tasks, or use collaborative whiteboards to brainstorm. On top of that try to incorporate other software like Quizlet or Kahoot, much like you would in a real-world classroom.

4. Master the tech

A wise person once said: “Fail to prepare and prepare to fail” and that is as true for the online classroom as anything else in life. Before you head into your virtual classroom for the first time, make sure you’re as comfortable as you can be with the technology and software as well as what you can and can’t do with it. To help with this, it’s a good idea to practice as much as you can beforehand with a colleague (or colleagues) so you can run through different scenarios and try things out. Remember, practice makes perfect.

5. Be organized

You wouldn’t go into your classroom without all the photocopies or CDs/audio that you need for the lesson and the same is true for the online classroom. On top of the pressure of teaching online, the last thing you want is a panic because you’ve forgotten to upload something. So, make sure that you have all the documents, materials, weblinks, flashcards, PowerPoint presentations, etc. already uploaded or all in a folder ready to send when the time comes. Alternatively, you can send/share documents/worksheets with the students before class.

6. Set & Manage Expectations

The online classroom will likely be as much new experience for many of your students as it is for you and therefore it’s important to set and manage expectations from the start. These should include what they can expect from you, the course as well as what is required of them. Using a collaborative whiteboard in-class or a Padlet is a good place to start with this, with students contributing their own ideas as well as setting your own expectations. This might include things like participation levels, communication outside of class as well as general conduct.

7. Keep It Interactive

It’s absolutely vital that you keep students involved as much of the time as possible. Just think how distracted students can be in a real-world classroom when you’re in the room with them. Now think how many distractions there are when they’re in a virtual classroom. Therefore, you have to make lessons as interactive as possible. When you’re planning, think about how you can utilize the breakout rooms and chatbox; think about how you can get students collaborating on a whiteboard (e.g. brainstorming tasks); think about how they can utilize the annotation tools and what polls you can run. And, as mentioned above, try to avoid long readings and listenings if possible.

8. Lights, Camera, Action

Keeping your camera on and ensuring your students keep their cameras on is one simple way to ensure the involvement of everyone in the class. Turn them off and you have no idea what they’re doing. And just as eye-contact is important in the real-world class, the same is true of a virtual classroom – arguably even more so – so try to look directly into the camera as much as possible. By the same token, smile and be enthusiastic – this will keep your students engaged and focussed.

9. Be Clear

In an online environment giving instructions can be a minefield, especially with larger and lower-level learners, so make sure your instructions are clear by using other tools available to you. For example, write your instructions in the chatbox or use the annotation tools to highlight or circle the activity you want them to do, or use arrows to point to the activity. Another option when using ZOOM is to get students to use the check mark stamp to confirm they’ve understood the instructions.

10. Don’t Panic If Something Doesn’t Work

Technology isn’t reliable. Things go wrong. We know that. Students know that. So there’s no need to panic when something (inevitably) does go wrong. But do be prepared. For example, the internet will go down – that’s a fact of life. Make sure your students are aware of what to do should the connection go down and try to have an alternative means of communication with your students, for example, a Whatsapp group (if students are over 18). Maybe a video won’t play. If that’s the case, have a direct link to it which you can share with students to watch by themselves. Technology can misbehave, we just have to know what to do if that happens. In other words, keep calm and carry on.

Bonus Tip – Keep Learning Outside the Classroom

With an online class, it’s even more important to stay in touch with your students outside of class time and provide them with additional content to support the learning within the virtual classroom. Using online workbooks is an obvious way of doing this, as it ensures students are continuing to practice what you are doing in class. Other platforms that could be used include online platforms like Moodle, but also platforms like Padlet and blogs. If your students are all over the age of 18, having a class Whatsapp group is a simple way of setting discussion tasks and activating schemata before class, as well as getting students reflecting post-class.

Author: Alex Warren

Alex Warren is a DELTA trained teacher trainer with over 14 years’ experience of working in ELT as a teacher, academic director and teacher trainer. Working for National Geographic Learning, Alex is driven by his passion for developing teachers on a global scale and helping them to reach their true potential. A firm believer in a communicative approach to language learning and student centred learning, Alex enjoys working with innovative, thought-provoking materials and presenting on a wide range of ELT-related topics.


  1. I’ve been teaching online for a month due to the quarantine and everything Alex says here is true and his tips are really practical.

  2. I agree with you. Being interactive with the students is one of the essential points.to the successful online learning. The students are still the same humans that we teach in the regular classroom, so they need feedback like comments and appreciation for the work they are doing. Believe me that they appreciate it much as they feel they are also part of the online learning not just as an object of being burdened with tasks assigmed by the teacher.

  3. Thanks Alex, the tips are clear and must. I am following uour webinars also. I got really great use of them. Waiting for the online worksops Thanks a lot.

  4. It’s had its good; it’s had its bad… My biggest challenge right now is teaching ESL PreK students online… I’ll give you my update next week! Hahaha!

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