4 Do’s and 3 Don’ts for Adult Online Instruction

Put yourself in your online learners’ shoes—imagine the variety of distractions they have. That means you need to change things up to hold their attention.

Whatever you call it—remote, online, Web-based, you name it—learning by cyberspace is here to stay.

It was growing in force well before the Coronavirus pandemic so thoroughly altered our daily lives. Clearly, one of the pandemic’s most profound areas of impact has been society’s heightened reliance on online learning.

This is true not only for K-12 schools and higher education, but any area of online learning, including as adults pursuing advanced and specialized certifications.

As a veteran project management instructor, since 2010, I have taught thousands of people enrolled in boot camps as they prepare for their Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. For five of those years, I occasionally taught online, as well—before moving exclusively to the Web-based format in March 2020.

Here are four “do’s” and three “don’ts” to keep in mind while striving to connect more effectively with adult learners:

#1 Do: Pump Up the Paralingual 

Perhaps the biggest drawback to online instruction is the absence of body language from students. From nodding, smiling faces to slumped shoulders or crossed arms, those cues have always offered valuable feedback to teachers who adjust their presentation style accordingly.

However, without the ability to see students much, if at all, presenters must tap into their paralingual tools—especially the tone and pitch of their voice.

A boot camp is very intense, and there is a lot to cover over a four-day span. I used to be able to see when someone started to drift a bit, get lethargic. Now, I assume it is happening with at least part of my class, so I rely more than ever on varying my tone and pitch.

#2 Do: Provide a Variety of Stimuli

Put yourself in the students’ shoes—imagine the variety of distractions they have. A monotonous, slide-by-slide plodding style is unlikely to inspire rapt attention. You need to change things up.

Some examples:

  • Have poll questions that you “sprinkle in” occasionally. That said, resist the temptation to “poll learners to death.” If you do not have a polling tool, an online chat tool works just fine.
  • Provide virtual handouts that supplement your main presentation. These materials should build on that core program, which often will be in PowerPoint, with elements that might include pictures and diagrams.
  • After the class session, send an e-mail to participants with helpful information—the act of checking their e-mail and seeing the material in that manner helps keep them engaged.

#3 Do: Stay on Schedule

Respect your students’ time. Few people enjoy being held hostage by long-winded stories. Especially when those tales veer off-topic.

Failing to stick to the schedule often leads to “playing catch up” later and having to race through more relevant and sometimes complex concepts. Such an erratic approach undermines students’ chances of retaining those crucial points. If you have a story, keep it succinct—a minute or less, and link it to a key lesson you are sharing.

#4 Do: Be Predictable

Be clear on where you are headed with the lesson, and then make it easy to navigate in terms of the materials you deploy.

Don’t jump around with slides. Students don’t want to feel like they have this moving target that forces them to be on the edge of their seats. If you do need to jump around a little, give fair warning. Slow your pace for a few moments and say something like, “Now we will be pulling up a Word document.”

#1 Don’t: Don’t Make Yourself the Visual Focus 

At the start of a session, create a visual connection with your class—enough so they know you are a caring, well-groomed professional. Beyond that, give your class freedom to turn off their Webcams—and then, as the instructor, put your materials on center stage.

I turn on my webcam for the first 10 minutes each day, introduce myself, and check in with people. I want them to focus on the material we are covering—not me.

#2 Don’t: Don’t Rush Your Responses

When a student has a question, make sure you understand it before plunging into what you think is a helpful answer. Be very attentive, and patient.

Sometimes you can run off too quickly in providing an answer, but fail to address the essence of their question. After answering, check in and ask, “Did that help you?” or “Does that make more sense now?” or “Did that help answer your question?”

Also, because some students are reluctant to ask a question verbally, invite them to use the “chat” feature. Give permission for them to unmute their mic to provide you with a quick verbal heads-up that they have a chat question.

#3 Don’t: Don’t Go Too Fast

For simpler, lower-priority topics, it’s all right to move faster. The key is to let students know up front that is what you will be doing; likewise, be sure to share that you will slow the pace “for tougher, more complex” portions of the material.

You don’t want your students to panic with information overload. Give them a bird’s eye view of how you will be covering the material. In my case, we have a Process Matrix with five process groups, 10 knowledge areas, and 49 processes. I say, “This is your overall road map. We’ll often visit this page to keep our overall bearings and prevent us from getting lost in the weeds. Come back here if you ever get lost.”

Mark McGreevy is a Project Management Professional (PMP) boot camp trainer who works on behalf of EdWel. Since 1992, the adult education and training firm has helped more than 25,000 boot camp graduates work toward PMP certification. With training sites in nearly 20 U.S. cities, the training program is so effective that some students have attained key certification within a few days of completion of its boot camp course. For more information, visit www.edwel.com.