5 Pitfalls of Online Teaching

Female student looking frustrated with books and computer

I took my first series of online courses for professional development in 2009.  The courses were highly interactively and well-designed because they were taught by experts in the field of computer-assisted language learning.  A shout-out to my professors in the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certificate program, Principles and Practices of Online Teaching!  (See blog on this topic). Ever since then, I’ve compared online courses to those.

As a working instructional designer and current PhD student enrolled in online courses, I bring a well-rounded perspective to the topic of distance education.  I’ve researched and written about how to develop an online community of inquiry.  It has become my personal agenda to ensure that students taking online courses don’t get frustrated from the course design and lack of teacher presence.

Here’s a list of what I consider the top 5 pitfalls that will surely decrease student learning outcomes and student satisfaction:

  1. Lack of pattern in weekly assignments will cause confusion, especially in a hybrid (blended) course. For example, as you plan threaded discussions, quizzes, and assignments, make sure they follow a pattern; otherwise, indicate on your syllabus any gaps in the established pattern of assignments.
  2. Numerous clicks to find content leads to frustration. To increase findability, use clear navigation practices to reduce time lost on task and frustration levels (Simunich, Robins, & Kelly, 2012).
  3. Lack of synchronous sessions to connect with the human leads to reduced achievement. To increase student achievement, include synchronous sessions (Bernard et al., 2004), Arbaugh and Hornik (2006) suggested video conferencing, voice messaging, or some other types of multimedia.
  4. Instructors not responding to students’ discussions in a timely manner. There are  several theories on human learning about delivering targeted instruction at the right time such as Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development, Ebbinghaus’ serial position effect (primacy and recency effect), and the presence or absence of retrieval cues in Cormier’s information processing theory.  Students need prompt feedback that targets their instructional needs (Arbaugh, 2001).  See my blog post on instructor feedback for online courses.
  5. Lack of student-student interactions (Bernard et al., 2004).  Make sure students can talk to one another and share their finished projects.

Do you agree with my top 5?


Arbaugh, J. B. (2001). How instructor immediacy behaviors affect student satisfaction and learning in web-based courses. Business Communication Quarterly, 30, 42-54.

Arbaugh, J. B., & Hornik, S. (2006). Do Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles also apply to online MBAs? The Journal of Educators Online, 3(2), 1-18.

Bernard, R. M., Abrami, P. C., Borokhovski, E., Wade, C. A., Tamim, R., Surkes,  M. A., & Bethel, E. C. (2009). A meta-analysis of three types of ITs in distance education. Review of Educational Research, 79, 1243-1288.

Simunich, B., Robins, D., & Kelly, V. (2012). Does findability matter? Findability, student motivation, and self-efficacy in online courses.  Quality Matters (QM) Research Grant, Kent State University.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Author: teacherrogers

Content developer, instructional designer, trainer, and researcher

7 thoughts on “5 Pitfalls of Online Teaching”

  1. Yes! I totally agree with these pitfalls. There should definitely be a pattern in assignments. The identifiable pattern is what makes learning meaningful. Ertmer describes this as the cognitive approach to learning. Ertmer says, “cognitive theories emphasize making knowledge meaningful and helping learners organize and relate new information to existing knowledge in memory. Identifying a pattern in the assignments allow students to relate new information to existing information.

    P. A. Ertmer & T. J. Newby. Copyright 1993 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Journals. Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism: Comparing Critical Features from an Instructional Design Perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jem,
      Thank for you input! My classmates and I were discussing this same article last week. We’re also reading Ertmer and Quinn’s ID CaseBook for our alternative methods course in instructional design. As for my pitfall (#1) in my blog post, I was referring more to the patterns at the course level and not the content level. I added a sentence to that pitfall to make it clearer. Patterns at the course level serve as reminders as to what is due next. Consistency in online courses is a good thing, but it is also useful to change it up a bit to re-engage the learner, as long as this is made clear in the syllabus or other channels of communication. As for the content level, you’re right. Pattern recognition helps us perceive and recognize new information in order to assign it meaning (Bruning, Schraw, & Norby, 2011).


  2. Absolutely. Learner frustration is magnified at a computer screen, anything you can do to make learning easier in terms of knowing where they should be and being actively available for questions as a trainer can make a huge difference between bought and completed for the learner.


    1. Hi Corinne,
      Thanks for your response. Through my doctoral studies, I learned about the psychological distance created by the nonhuman interaction of online learning. As a learner, I experienced that feeling of isolation in some e-courses. As cited in Moore and Kearsley (1996), Moore’s 1973 transactional distance theory explains how electronic communication tools promote student-student and student-teacher interactions. They theorized that the geographical distance matters less than the course structure. Online courses that provide e-tools for communication close the distance and provide psychological closeness between the teacher and the class similar to closeness created in traditional courses (Lemak, Shin, Reed, & Montgomery, 2007). E-tools and appropriate interactions can help the online instructor avoid pitfalls 3, 4, & 5 listed above. The first two pitfalls deal with basic user interface, which can be addressed with universal design and accessibility guidelines.


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