5 Approaches to Improving Online Course Design in Medical Education

As the educational landscape continues to evolve, there’s a greater focus on teaching in a virtual environment. While online learning is common in education as a whole, it is still somewhat new in healthcare education. As you look ahead to teaching your online health education course, it’s key to remember the basics that will help you create a foundation for success:

1. Create and follow session objectives

For as long as you’ve been teaching, you’ve been writing objectives. At the beginning of my academic career, I often saw these as hurdles to get over before I could engage my students in “active learning”. Of course, I was wrong—session objectives help you guide what you’re going to teach and how you’re going to teach it while also setting expectations for students. With so many moving parts in the shift to teaching online, your learning objectives have never been more valuable. And they can serve as a bit of normalcy in this new type of classroom. 

2. Map session objectives

Mapping your objectives is more than just a way of preparing for that next site visit. Recognizing where your objectives meet course goals and core competencies helps ensure you’re covering the appropriate content. When all faculty play their part in mapping, you can quickly identify and correct missing content and unnecessary redundancies before a course is taught. Knowing you’re teaching the appropriate content, at the appropriate level for your current students, allows you to focus your time and energy on the task of scaling your content for an online course. If you have to create new content mid-semester in a new teaching environment, you can end up with disorganized lessons and confusion for students.

3. Choose the most appropriate teaching methods

Teaching methods matter, especially in an online environment. Conducting live or recorded video lectures may be convenient in a pinch, but they are not the long-term answer to student engagement. Students are already easily distracted when learning passively in an in-person lecture setting. Being at home without the social pressure to at least look engaged definitely won’t help them learn more effectively.

Focus on the basics when choosing how to teach content:

  1. Your teaching comfort zone: We all have teaching styles and instructional methods that are most natural for us, and it’s important to honor these when transitioning to teaching online. While you’ll likely need to make some changes, using reliable teaching methods and tech tools can help make this transition a little less hectic.
  2. Help students achieve learning objectives: We should be selecting teaching methods that address learning objectives at the appropriate level. For example, if the verb chosen at the beginning of an objective is focused on basic comprehension of a topic (state, identify, list), then a teaching method that promotes simple recall is sufficient. However, if the expectation is set that students will learn content at a higher level (analyze, create, apply), your teaching method should match those expectations. Students should be given the opportunity to actively engage with course content in a way that allows them to practice at the appropriate level. So, if your objective says students should be able to analyze a given topic, the teaching methods you choose needs to require students to analyze the content within the learning experience. Of course, these learning methods should have formative assessments included.
  3. Continuously engage students: Just like the face-to-face classroom, students learn best in a distance learning environment when they are actively engaging with content, peers, and faculty.

[A quick PSA: live video lectures alone are not engaging learning events for students, even when the camera is turned on!]

When creating your virtual lessons, think about what you’re asking students to do during each session. Student engagement means helping students actively discuss, research, read, think critically, and share information about course content. If your students aren’t doing anything more than listening and taking a quiz, it may be time to re-evaluate your instructional methods. Holding students’ attention during a live video lecture can be challenging, to say the least. There are more distractions at home, and no social pressure for them to even act like they’re paying attention. Plus, fatigue from staring at a screen all day is very much real. We’ve all felt that. So, remember...engage, engage, engage.

4. Prepare formative assessments in advance of delivering your lesson

Formative assessments should be strategically created and delivered to promote student learning. As you create your lessons, plan these assessments in a way that will engage students with content and advance their content knowledge. Contrary to popular practice, a quiz at the beginning or end of class isn’t the only way to do formative assessments. Things like group discussions, presentations, summarizing a lesson, and small group activities are all effective ways to assess student knowledge and give feedback. 

A primary benefit to planning formative assessments with your lessons is that it organically creates an engaging teaching method. From an informal discussion to a quiz that counts as a grade, we should give students opportunities to share what they have learned on a given topic. Even informal formative assessments provide students with the opportunity to self-assess. Faculty can also use student performance results from these activities to quickly re-teach any areas in which students perform poorly before moving onto new topics. Formative assessments should always be part of your online teaching as they help keep students engaged, better informed on their own learning progress, and provide you valuable information on what and how to teach moving forward.

5. Offering feedback that matters

Regardless of the teaching and formative assessment method used in an online/hybrid class, giving students feedback needs to be part of the process. Without specific feedback on performance, students may not self-assess appropriately, causing them to move through the curriculum with misconceptions about the content and their own knowledge. With “face-to-face” time being at a minimum in today’s online environment, faculty need to take advantage of these learning/feedback interactions to ensure students are getting the information they need to be appropriately prepared for summative assessments.

Some ways to provide this valuable feedback:

  • Post comments related to course content in the gradebook
  • Provide explanations to differentiate between the correct answer and distractors on multiple choice questions
  • Follow class discussions with posted feedback in the course discussion board
  • Create short videos to clarify topics with which students are struggling

As the landscape of medical education evolves, it is critical to follow sound educational principles. Working with students at a distance takes away the typical safety net of being able to meet with students in person, making it more difficult to help those students that fall behind. Proactively engaging students with course content, giving appropriate feedback, and adjusting lessons to meet current students’ needs creates a foundation on which your successful online/hybrid course can and will be built.