Reduce Your Stress when Teaching Online

Reducing Your Stress while Teaching Online

Teaching online for the first time can be time-consuming and stress-inducing. It always takes longer than you’d think—learning new technologies and teaching approaches, developing new materials, and possibly grading and communicating more than you had to in your on-campus classes. Add to that the general stress of this pandemic, and it is easy to burn out. This site is intended to provide you with some ways to save yourself time and stress while teaching online this fall.  

Saving Yourself Time and Energy  

We will admit up front that teaching online will take more time—at least this first time through—but here are some suggestions that can shave some hours off that work.  

Think Strategically about Your Engagement  
Many instructors spend far too much of their time in low-return-on-investment efforts with individual students, whether it is long Zoom meetings or multiple emails. That is absolutely not sustainable—or healthy. Instead, aim for highly-visible class-wide messages. Where can you invest your time that has the greatest impact on the most students? This isn’t meant to be impersonal, just strategic; in fact, by mentioning a few students’ good questions or work in these messages, you do a lot to personalize the course with minimal effort.  

Get Students to Do the Work  
Think of ways to get students to do more work in the class—not busy work, but some of the intellectual work that will both save you time and get them more engaged in their learning. Some ideas:  

  • Have them crowdsource notes from lectures in a Google Doc, perhaps rotating through a few people who write the first draft, then opening it up for refinement within the class. They have a vested interest in getting the best notes possible. You can review them, but don’t take over the work for them.
  • Have the students create the study guide for an exam, or perhaps generate actual exam questions. 
  • Use a tool like Piazza that allows students to answer each other’s questions, both about content and housekeeping details of the course (deadlines, procedures, etc.). Again, you can skim through to spot grievous errors, but don’t let it become a place to dump questions for you to answer directly.

Set Expectations for Communication  
Give students clear expectations about how promptly you’ll answer emails, chat messages, discussion board posts, etc. Will it be within 24 hours? What about on weekends? Being accessible is important in an online class, but as long as you clarify what they can expect, you don’t have to be online 24/7. You might work out a process for indicating urgent messages, but clarify what “urgent” means—not asking a question that that is answered in the syllabus.  

Same thing with returning work—set an expectation that you can live with and that lets them know what to expect. And if having a load of assignments waiting to be graded stresses you out, spread them out, letting Group A submit on Monday, and Group B on Wednesday; flip the order next time. You can even let them practice their negotiating skills, if you don’t mind individuals swapping groups to buy a few extra days.  

Establish a Culture of Self-Sufficiency, or “Three before Me”  
Try to encourage the “three before me” rule: students should look for three resources that could answer a question before asking the instructor—e.g., the syllabus, Piazza, somewhere in the Canvas site, the AI, or another student in the course.  

Rather than constant reminders to students about what they should be working on, what due dates are approaching, etc., tell students you’ll provide all that information in one weekly announcement in Canvas. That should be one of the “three before me” places students go.  

Never Answer the Same Question Twice  
If a student asks a good question via email, answer it, and then add it to a running Q&A page—which is one of the “three before me” sites. Same thing if you get a second question on the same topic. Get the answers on the Q&A site and be polite but tough about checking there first. It may sound rude, but you need to train them to look at the Q&A page, not let them train you to answer questions repeatedly.  

A Video Can Be Worth a Thousand Words  
Get comfortable with making short videos that quickly answer questions or respond to assignments, especially those that involve working a problem or demonstrating a software tool. Nothing fancy, so get used to one-take quality. The Kaltura tool built into every text editing box in Canvas is your friend. Plus, videos are a great way to make the course more personal and supportive of students. See Make Super Simple Videos for Teaching Online for more suggestions on using video (but don’t aspire to his level of editing quality right off the bat).  

Encourage Students to Use Boost  
If your assignments are all detailed in Canvas, have students use the Boost tool, a mobile app, integrated with Canvas, that reminds students about due dates, aggregates announcements from their various classes, and provides encouragement along the way. The best part is it takes no setup on your part. Let Boost remind your students about deadlines, so you don’t have to.  

Be Selective in Discussion Board Responses  
While instructor presence is vital in online courses, you shouldn’t be responding to every discussion board post. If you give credit for discussion board posts, do quick skims for a complete/incomplete grade, and then give students an assignment that requires them to analyze or synthesize what was said in the discussion; those advanced skills are more beneficial in the long run anyway.

But be sure you make some occasional comments in the discussion boards, pointing out something insightful that others can learn from. Try to spread that around, so all students get some positive feedback on their work at some point in the semester.  

Look for Grading Efficiencies and Shortcuts  
While creating a rubric can take some time up front, it makes grading a lot faster, especially if you use SpeedGrader in Canvas .  

If you respond to student writing , don’t keep typing the same comments over and over. Instead, make a document that collects the types of comments you make most often, and copy/paste them into your responses on students’ papers, tweaking them a bit as needed. And fight the urge to correct grammar and other sentence-level mistakes. Being each student’s editor will turn into a job in itself.  

Give Students—and Yourself—a Break  
Trying to enforce strict policies on deadlines and extensions can take more time and emotional energy than it’s worth. Consider giving each student an “Oops Token” or two that lets them miss a deadline—say, with a two-day grace period—no questions asked. It gives them important flexibility during a crazy semester and saves you from being the deadline police.  

Swap Content with Colleagues  
If you teach a class with multiple sections, collaborate with a colleague to be “guest speakers” in each others’ classes, either live on in a recording. That alone can give you each a break once in a while. And consider sharing assignments, resources, or Q&A responses.  

Avoid Zoom Fatigue with an Alternative to a Live Class Occasionally  
Give everyone a break from Zoom fatigue by recording a few shorter videos for independent viewing, in lieu of a live session on occasion. You may need that break yourself. Look for content that is hard to present during a live class session—demonstrations from a lab or field setting, or a conversation with a guest speaker who cannot make it to your live class. You can provide these in a recording, and then discuss them with your students during your next live class session.  

Also consider having students take turns making video reports on certain content areas in the course, especially in the three weeks after Thanksgiving.  

Self-Care for Faculty  

Even beyond the time-saving tips above, there are many things we can do to take care of ourselves throughout the semester.  

Build in Breaks  
Back-to-back meetings can make for a very long day, and sitting that long isn’t good for us. So, schedule shorter meetings to ensure breaks—e.g., 50 minutes rather than an hour, or 25 minutes instead of a half hour. Be firm about this and have a hard-stop—no “one last thing” that eats up your break. And work to make this the culture in your department; you will be everyone’s hero.  

Be Well-Supplied  
Make sure you have water, and probably a healthy snack, nearby when teaching or in meetings, especially if they are long. Encourage students and colleagues to do the same.  

Get Up and Move  
Don’t sit for extended periods of time. If you have a smart watch or Fitbit that tells you to move, obey it. And take breaks in your longer classes; you used to walk back and forth for all that time while teaching, so don’t park it in a desk chair for that long instead.  

If you have a long online class, break it into segments and take standing or exercise breaks. Get your students to do it, too. You could even have students take turns leading simple exercises—jumping jacks, a quick dance party, or anything to get everyone moving.   

Beware of Your Screen and Lighting  
Make sure you have adequate lighting in your workspace to fight eye fatigue, and consider adjusting the colors on your monitor to drop the levels of blue light, which can be harder on your eyes and throw off your sleep cycles in the evenings.   

Pick Your Battles  
Most of us were the “good students”—prompt, ethical, and extremely conscientious—and it is frustrating to see students skirt or break the rules, or look for the easy way out. But sometimes we can obsess over creating and enforcing rules, setting us in an adversarial relationship with students that takes the joy out of teaching. We still have to maintain academic integrity in our courses, but consider if there are places where we might just “let it go”—adopting open book exams rather than fretting over cheating or proctoring, relaxing attendance rules, or providing a few “free passes” to extend deadlines.  

Remember What—and Who—Is Important  
We are all dedicated to our work, but remember what is most important—family, friends, community, health. Take time to enjoy life in this trying time, and make sure you remind your students to do the same. We should all strive to make sure grace and kindness are parts of everything we do, and be ready to give our students and colleagues a break, as we hope they will give us a break when we need it. We will get through this a lot more easily if we do it together.  


For More Help

For more help with any of the teaching ideas above, see the resources on our Fall 2020 page, or contact the CITL at

To get more tips about maintaining your well-being during this stressful time, see Healthy IU's page on COVID-19 & Personal Well-Being.