Mayo's Clinics

May 26, 2020, 0:06
Online Teaching Pitfalls and Strategies

Online Teaching Pitfalls and Strategies

23 March 2020

Instructors can help mitigate frustration and extra work by following Dr. Fred Mayo’s advice for avoiding common online education teaching pitfalls.

By Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT

Online teaching can be an adventure that teaches you about the subject and opens new ways to communicate with students. It can also be very frustrating and confining since there is much to be typed and many of us do not live at our desks. I have found some unexpected pitfalls or curves of online teaching during my experience having taught completely online, taught hybrid (some online and some onsite), and having coordinated an online program. I hope I can help you understand these potential curves as you move to online teaching these days.

Method of Submitting Assignments
Supposedly, asking students to submit written work online seems easy but oftentimes doesn’t work as it should. Some students submitted papers in the incorrect areas of the classroom management system. (This may not be possible depending on the design of your classroom management system.) Others submitted incomplete work or the wrong assignment. Additionally, a few students were not able to make the system work and submitted papers by appending them to an email. As a result, I often had to collect and download some papers and then chase after others.

After a while, it became clear students did not understand how to submit an assignment. In this situation, where students are used to personally handing you papers and are now required to electronically turn them in, you will save yourself a lot of pain by indicating, carefully and repeatedly, where and how and by when work should be submitted. And don’t assume explaining it once will produce 100 percent compliance. Try explaining how to submit an assignment every time you explain what the assignment should cover. Remember, this process may be new to them and show patience and tolerance when you ask for an assignment that you cannot find.

Expectations of Assignments
I thought I was clear about what a paper should cover or what an assignment should include, but students did not seem to have the same understanding or they forgot them. Some of the confusion or surprises I found were:

  • Papers were handed in without a title or name. When I downloaded them to read and evaluate, if I was not careful, I would end up with papers that did not include titles or students’ names. That meant I had to guess or collect all the papers and by the process of elimination decide who wrote the untitled paper.
  • Papers without page numbers. When commenting on a paper, I needed to refer to a page, which was difficult without page numbers. I often took the time to add a page number footer, which was something I did not expect to have to do.
  • Papers without required attachments. Some assignments requested attachments such as interview schedules, bibliography, annotated bibliography for a graduate course, or charts and graphs. Often, students would forget to send them or send them as separate documents, which then required time to download separately and label correctly to connect them. Providing more detailed information about how to attach a document or other sheets to a paper helped in some cases. This is just an area that took more time than I planned.
  • Several variations of a paper. Once a paper was submitted, students would often try and upload an updated version, but the system did not accept a second submission. I would receive a range of emails indicating which version should replace the older one with messages that were not clear and resulted in more work from me. Reminding them to check papers before they send them helped a bit in many cases. Oftentimes, I would receive several papers and had to label them appropriately, in order to only read the most recent version.

The solution to these issues is to write out your expectations very explicitly, to mention them when explaining an assignment, and to include the information in the syllabus when discussing expectations of written work. I learned I could not repeat myself enough when teaching online.

Substitutions for Assignments
Converting in-class assignments or projects to at-home individual work can be a complex process. Not all assignments shift easily; some require more planning and coordination.

Organizing an observation assignment to be conducted in groups took a lot more coordination and explanation in an online course. In a classroom, I could help the groups form, review the assignment and answer questions. I encourage you to provide a question and answer document for the online assignment. This document may clear up any confusion among your students and protect you from some frustration or poor submissions.

I hope these suggestions will assist you as you shift to online teaching. The next Mayo’s Clinic will discuss challenges – such as preparing video lectures, finding other resources, and evaluating student work – with online teaching. If you have comments on these ideas or suggestions for other topics or teaching practices you want discussed, send them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I will include them in future Mayo’s Clinics.

Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, is retired as a clinical professor of hotel and tourism management at New York University. As principal of Mayo Consulting Services, he continues to teach around the globe and is a regular presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide.