You are currently viewing Six Elements at the Core of Great (Online) Teaching (Part Two)

Six Elements at the Core of Great (Online) Teaching (Part Two)

By Dr. Ian Kelleher

Our friend Carl Hendrick, the head of learning and research at Wellington College in the UK and author of “What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?” distills the core of great teaching to just six ideas. In an earlier blog we covered the first three elements: reviews previous learning, checks for understanding, and provides impactful feedback. Now we’ll tackle the final three, and share how they can be implemented in a virtual learning environment:

Six elements of effective classroom teaching, drawn from research Illustration, by Oliver Caviglioli. From the Education section of The Guardian (2017),
Retrieved from


Design and communicate clear, concrete routines that set up class cultural norms. To quote Tom Bennett in Carl’s article, “Driven home often enough, (routines) can create tramlines for behaviour to default to. Instead of leaving behavioural choices to chance, the best strategy is for teachers to draw up exactly what is expected of their students from the beginning of the relationship.” We have all put in significant energy this year to try to build strong, positive relationships with the students in our classes — and it is time to double down and work hard at this again.

This element is important because it is harder to create a positive classroom climate with online teaching, but without one, it is much harder for learning to happen.


Experts and novices learn differently. Experts thrive with independence, but novices do not. So avoid creating online assignments that demand independent learning of new material. Most of our students, most of the time, are novices, and benefit from guidance through the learning process.

But it is important that the level of guidance is dialed down as students progress through a learning episode so independent work can be fostered. So we should aim to move students on a progression from direct instruction, to guided practice, to independent practice monitored by you, to truly independent practice. Then, on occasion, we should challenge students with the ultimate step of having them apply their newly acquired learning to a new context with a high degree of independence. Even in an online teaching world, this fundamental rhythm should remain. At each step, though, a different technology, app or website might be the best tool for the job. But resist the temptation to make students too independent too soon. Begin with direct instruction, guidance, and scaffolds.

As Carl puts it, “Getting students to a place where they can work independently is a hugely desired outcome, but perhaps not the best vehicle to get there. Providing worked examples and scaffolding in the short-term is a vital part of enabling students to succeed in the long-term.”

This element is important because the temptation of sending students out to the internet to learn often leads to little learning or the illusion of learning.


Our cognitive capacity is finite — there is only so much cognitive load each of us can manage at any given time. Right now, with the strangeness and stress of the situation, often coupled with less than ideal environments for learning, students are dealing with a lot of extraneous cognitive load. This leaves less cognitive capacity to deal with the task of learning. Teachers need to be mindful of this when they plan online classes, assignments and assessments. Carl gives us insights into what to look out for:

“Reducing the level of information to an optimal amount, which avoids overloading or boring students, is crucial to effective learning. Once learners have built up schemas of knowledge that allow them to work on problems [and assignments] without exceeding their cognitive bandwidth, then they can work independently. Without it, their work might be in vain. 

Present new information in small steps, providing worked [or model] examples and offering images and text simultaneously so that the learner isn’t trying to remember too much. This will help create ideal conditions for learning new material.”

It may be tempting to give long, open-ended “search the internet and find out some information on this” assignments — but there is not enough structure here. A diet of all worksheets is just as bad but for different reasons. Instead, build knowledge and skills piece by piece, and check for understanding before moving on to guided work, then independent work.

This element is important because if cognitive load is too high students do not learn effectively.


Importantly, where does technology help us with these six elements? And where could it get in the way — where might a different approach be better? Nobody really knows this yet. We are educational explorers taking our first steps on a virgin shore, and we get to write the book of our journey together. So keep in touch, and please do share your distance learning stories with us.

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.