Whether through an official faculty development training or informal feedback from a colleague, you have probably been told about the importance of communication in health professions education more times than you can count. Given the current, and likely future, emphasis on online learning, communication with students is more important than ever before. But what exactly is meant by “communication” and, more importantly, how do we use it to positively influence student learning in an online environment? Let’s take a look at the different types of communication needed in online learning and how to make it an asset in your program:

Faculty Communicating with Faculty

In online learning, you are often physically apart from fellow faculty in addition to your students. We no longer have that comfort zone of walking down the hallway to a colleague’s office to discuss content or assessments. And we all know how easy it is to get distracted during Zoom meetings, making those live course planning meetings even less effective. Does anyone want more emails? I know I don’t. So, it is time to lean on collaborative, living documents and your learning management system (LMS).

Other than email, I have spent more time in my LMS than any other platform. It is a familiar tool that we have used to organize our courses and share content well before we ever dreamt of being online educators. Using your learning objectives is the communicative key for how your LMS can positively influence your teaching. By including these objectives for each class session and mapping them to your course goals, you are contributing your part to the curricular puzzle. Your peers that teach before and after your sessions will be able to view your objectives and gain quick insights into students’ prior knowledge, in addition to what they will need to know before future lessons. This simple step will help avoid those unwanted redundancies or gaps in course content.

While a living document may not be as structured as your LMS, each instructor can add their learning objectives into this sharable living document to achieve a similar level of communication on course content. These are simple steps that all faculty can take on their own that will create on-going communication to improve your course’s instruction. More communication with less meetings and emails – you cannot beat that.

Faculty Communicating with Students

In the online learning environment, clear and meaningful communication with students is vital. To make this communication with students meaningful, educators must do more than send emails, ask students to post to discussion boards, and turn on cameras on during a live video lecture.

First and foremost, we, as educators, need to set clear expectations for each course and class. This can be a simple, but also easily overlooked step. This is initially done through writing clear learning objectives and directing students to use them to guide their studying. Highlight the importance of your objectives by putting them at the beginning of each lecture presentation/active learning session. It is also important to clearly explain expectations for each class, whether it is a simple live video lecture or group learning. Answering the following questions will establish these expectations: What learning goals should students meet? What is their expected participation in class? What can students expect from you, the instructor, during class? Don’t forget to give these instructions in writing AND verbally in each class session. 

Including formative assessments in your teaching is a great way to communicate to students. From teaching via a live video lecture, to creating self-paced asynchronous modules, these interactions serve as an opportunity for faculty to communicate which content is most important to students. Here is the cool part about formative assessments – they can be more than a classic quiz…and they certainly do not have to be graded. They DO have to be focused on meaningful content. Do not waste your time or students’ time by making trivial exercises. Focus on key content, encourage students to interact with that content via quiz, discussion, journal entry, and peer review and make sure to let students know that you focused on this key content for a reason. Of course, no formative assessment is complete without faculty providing feedback to students. Use these learning activities as a chance to clarify information, reinforce strong performance, and proactively correct student misunderstandings. This type of feedback can, and should be, communicated in multiple methods to ensure the learners receive the feedback as intended.

Some helpful tips:

  • Provide focused verbal feedback at the end of each class, especially after group discussions that tend to include conversations on many topics
  • Give written feedback at the end of your PowerPoint so students will see it when they study for exams
  • Add comments and answer rationales to quiz scores, and create short addendum videos to clarify difficult concepts

Students Communicating with Faculty AND Other Students

Online learning can be quite isolating for students, especially for those that are accustomed to face-to-face classes. Faculty can encourage student communication with their instructors and classmates through teaching methods, and more importantly, by listening. There are several ways to stimulate student communication in the online learning environment:

  • Use active learning methods to engage students with each other in discussion boards and live breakout room conversations.
  • Use student performance on formative assessments as an opportunity for students to communicate to you what they need help on moving forward.
  • Give students opportunities to evaluate their peers. Communicating about a peers’ performance provides students with a unique opportunity to think critically about course content. Designate class time for this type of evaluation with and without you present to let students communicate about content in a more comfortable peer-only space.

Communication in health professions education comes in many forms, all of which can provide value in course delivery. Recognizing these simple, and sometimes common, elements of each online course can become real assets when emphasized appropriately. From clearly defining course expectations to providing feedback after a group discussion, capitalizing on these opportunities will certainly influence improved student performance outcomes in your online learning course.


Did you know that the Harvard Macy Institute Community Blog has had more than 265 posts? Previous blog posts have explored topics including going back to basics with the Plus/Delta, engaging students virtually, and social distance without social isolation.

Dan Thompson

Dan Thompson, BS, MS, is an instructional designer and educational technologist. Dan currently holds a position as Marketing Manager at DaVinci Education. His areas of professional interest include formative assessment & feedback, interactive teaching methods, and the creation of asynchronous learning experiences. Dan can be followed on Twitter or LinkedIn, or contacted via email.