Six Elements at the Core of Great (Online) Teaching

Six Elements at the Core of Great (Online) Teaching

By Dr. Ian Kelleher

I am of a certain age where reskinning Winamp was a thing. Winamp was a media player way before Spotify existed, and you could completely change the way it looked, from a 1980’s boombox to a sleek car stereo to a sophisticated looking tower system, by reskinning it — but it was, at its core, the same Winamp underneath. Yes, we are all teaching and learning online now, but the core of what we do should be the same because the core is based on how students learn best. We are reskinning teaching, not reinventing it.

So what is the core? For those who have the CTTL’s placemat, that is a good resource. And our website has a curated list of links to others. But perhaps the most useful right now is this wonderful piece from our friend Carl Hendrick in the UK that distills it to just six ideas. 


  • Reviews previous learning
  • Checks for understanding
  • Provides impactful feedback
  • Creates a positive classroom climate
  • Guides success
  • Reduces cognitive load
Six elements of effective classroom teaching, drawn from research Illustration, by Oliver Caviglioli. From the Education section of The Guardian (2017),
Retrieved from

As we explore what great online teaching looks like, we must still do these six things. It will look different than before, but effective teaching must still contain these six elements. And it will be a bit different for each of us — they are not the teaching equivalent of instant ramen where you just throw it in hot water and sustenance appears. What do they look like in your subject with your kids? With the resources available to you and your students? With the guidelines given to you by your school or district?


We have often touted the importance of the first 10 minutes of a class. Carl concurs, and suggests, “The beginning of a lesson is an excellent place to consolidate previous learning and to create a sense of continuity as Barak Rosenshine notes: The most effective teachers in the studies of classroom instruction understood the importance of practice, and they began their lessons with a five- to eight-minute review of previously covered material.”

If you have a synchronous online class, we would suggest opening with a short social-emotional check-in / relationship building moment, because this is going to underpin our efforts to be successful educators. But following this, take time to review previous learning and provide a sense of continuity. If you are asynchronous, create short assignments to do this. 

This element is important because teachers often overestimate students’ ability to link prior learning to current learning, and underestimate how much these short reviews can help learning.


Use your knowledge of your students, your knowledge of your subject, and your experience with the problems and misconceptions students often encounter to predict “hinge points.” These are so called because successfully learning what comes next hinges on students being able to understand this concept or successfully do this skill first. Pose all students short questions to find out. Crucially, alter what you do next based on what you find out. Aim to get a high success rate before moving on. 

How do we add this element to online learning? It should be doable, and Carl’s quote of Dylan Wiliam gives us pointers as to what we should be aiming for: “Firstly, it should take no longer than two minutes, and ideally less than one minute, for all students to respond to the questions; the idea is that the hinge-point question is a quick check on understanding, rather than a new piece of work in itself. Second, it must be possible for the teacher to view and interpret the responses from the class in 30 seconds.” Can we leverage technology to help us? Probably, yes, there are all sorts of tools. But it could also be as simple as holding up a piece of paper in front of your camera.

This element is important because without a solid foundation to build on it is hard to successfully learn what comes next. And in an online class, where it is harder to read facial expressions and body language, it is easier to find yourself moving on without really knowing what your students get and what they are still wrestling with.


The feedback you give your students is only successful if it changes your students. It is not about fixing a particular piece of work to make it fabulous, it is about helping the student learn how to do it better the next time they come across a similar task. Begin by separating out when you give feedback from when you give grades. When you give grades, do not give feedback – this is wasted effort. And when you give feedback, always give students an opportunity to use that feedback really soon.

When you design units for online learning, have at the forefront of your mind these questions: Firstly, when am I going to give feedback? Where are those crucial moments when some feedback from me would help students learn the skills and knowledge they need to? Secondly, how am I going to give feedback in a way that students will be able to understand and use it? And what technology should I use to (1) make efficient use of my time, and (2) be highly usable by students? Thirdly, how will I use the time I have been allocated to give students a chance to act on this feedback as soon as they get it or shortly thereafter?

These elements need to be designed when you create assignments, or the feedback you give (and all the time and heartache it took) will likely be wasted. 

This element is important because feedback can be one of the most potent research-informed strategies for boosting students’ performance — but only if we do it well.

We’ll tackle the final three elements later this month. Until then, stay healthy.

Dr. Ian Kelleher is a science teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, and Head of Research for its Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning. His work focuses on helping teachers translate the science of learning into everyday practices in their own classrooms, and measuring the impact. Ian is the co-author of “Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education,” and co-designer of Neuroteach Global. Ian is the the inaugural Joseph and Kathleen Dreyfuss Faculty Chair for Research, an endowed position at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School for the lead CTTL researcher.