We Are All Learning

According to our instructors and students, Penn MEHP Online’s first courses, in Fall 2016, were rather good. But through dozens of iterations, we have learned how to shape even more impactful experiences for adult learners such as the midcareer health professionals in our programs. We have wrestled with synchronous classes, the size of discussion groups, supporting individual projects, and pacing student communications. And the results are reflected in high student satisfaction, low attrition, and strong learning outcomes.

Transitioning to Remote Teaching

As you transition to remote teaching, keep in mind that:

  • You and your students are in this together. You won’t be perfect, and your students can help you make the course a success.
  • Technology is important in distance learning, but the human factor is most important. Focus on course objectives, be flexible, and adapt to your students’ needs with kindness and respect.
  • Online communication is hard, even for digital natives. Without the help of informal and nonverbal modes of communication, it is more important than ever to be explicit about expectations around course requirements.
  • Help is out there. Look for help at your institution, tap your peers’ creativity, and utilize resources like this site to get you on track.

While the following suggestions are written with college or university faculty in mind, they may also be helpful for continuing education offices or in-house talent development teams facing a shift from face-to-face to remote sessions.

How do I help my students learn online?

If they haven't participated in a fully remote course before, your students may need guidance to stay organized and on-task. You can provide tools within your class to support that, as well as tips and resources on effective note-taking methods for online content. And don't forgot to facilitate peer engagement, so students don't lose the social and educational value of interacting with each other.

Consider sharing this PDF with your students: Strategies for Learning in Online and Remote Courses.

Structuring a course for online learning

Content. Interaction. Assessment.

These three pillars shape the structure of courses designed and delivered by the Penn MEHP Online Education team. Teachers who are starting in the midst of a term—adapting their courses to an unexpected delivery mode while they and their students likely face disruption in their personal as well as school lives—may find these guideposts useful.

How do I create a video lecture?

What existing course material can your students consume on their own time, asynchronously?

What fresh material needs to be added in order to teach about, as well as during, the COVID-19 pandemic?

Consider readings and lecture content. You may find existing resources to supplement with learning activities.

If you want to create your own videos or audio content: With a computer or smartphone and a few basic guidelines, you can plan, record, and edit relevant and educationally effective visual content for your students. Most of the time, remote lectures are best delivered asynchronously, divided into 8 to 12 minute segments.

Find further advice and resources on these PDFs: Delivering Effective Asynchronous Lectures and Filming Videos at Home.

How can I foster online discussions?

Both in person and at a distance, students learn together, with guidance from instructors and teaching assistants. Written discussions create a sense of community and help students clarify their thinking, leading to more effective—and time efficient—synchronous interactions.

Concerned about the level of participation and the quality of discourse? Create an atmosphere of respect in your virtual classroom by making civility a requirement in asynchronous discussions. Be clear in the directions that their conversations must be thoughtful and civil, and make civility a criterion on your grading rubric.

In addition, facilitate more thoughtful interactions by providing guidance for students’ replies to one another. Sometimes, we include guiding questions. And sometimes, we ask students to take on a different perspective or to suggest areas that might need further development based on their own experience.

Finally, don’t expect all your students to be available for every synchronous interaction. Even at the best of times, students’ schedules can be complex. We try to provide as much advance notice as we can for synchronous classes so students can get them on their calendars. And by recording these classes, students who are unable to attend don’t miss the content. We find that asking students to submit a reflection on one or two main takeaways encourages participation and deeper learning.

Find further advice and resources on this PDF: Synchronous and Asynchronous Interactions.

How do I assess student learning online?

Just as when you teach in person, look to your learning objectives to shape your assessments, and consider the ways you can measure learning. Also consider:

  • Have you made it clear how the assignment connects back to course materials?
  • Have you told students where they can find help?
  • Have you let students know how long you expect them to spend on the assignment?
  • Have you given students enough advance notice so they can plan their time?

It is always important to be explicit about assignment directions, but especially online—when there are fewer opportunities for students to ask informally for clarification—clear directions are key.

When an assignment given online builds on smaller components developed throughout the course, you may want to reference the cumulative nature of students’ work. For example, you may design four practice exercises build knowledge and skills by completing worksheets, writing smaller essays, and/or creating sections of a presentation. Then weave those elements into a summative assessment with an additional piece that unifies the whole, or prepares to take it to the next step.

Find a graphical annotation of an assignment for remote delivery, as well as additional advice, on this PDF: Structuring an Assignment for Remote Delivery.


Planning course communications—whether by email, LMS announcement, or chat—reminds students of upcoming milestones in the class and helps create a sense of inclusivity that can increase engagement and satisfaction. We have found that a brief message at the beginning of each week can set the tone, just as you might at the beginning of an in-person class, and help students prepare. 

If you find time to create a template for your communications, you can be consistent and ready. Then adjust the messages responsively as needed.

Find further advice and resources on this PDF: Planning Communications for Online Courses.

The approaches and pedagogical perspectives presented here are those of the MEHP Online Education team. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Perelman School of Medicine or the University of Pennsylvania.