Method to the Madness: Using Human Factors Principles to Guide Remote Teaching

By Dr. Jay Smart, Associate Professor of Psychology

Rather than begin with the ubiquitous “in these unprecedented times” (which isn’t entirely accurate), let’s start with the problem: How do we rapidly and accurately adapt an in-person learning experience into an online learning experience? This issue was presented this past summer after limping remotely through the suddenly online spring semester. It wasn’t a matter of simply holding class over a web-based meeting application—it was clear from the spring semester that this “new” mode of delivery came with its own issues. So many of us, myself included, embarked on a quest to learn all about online teaching in time for the fall semester. So let me tell you how that went…

First, the switch made me realize how much I relied on the in-person, live interaction to allow for improvisation in content and delivery. That fluidity had to take a different form in an online format. Second, the switch helped me recognize that I am not as tech-savvy as I thought, as the options for designing, laying out, and interacting with students in an online fashion were overwhelming. New considerations of lighting, background, sound levels, worrying about how I sounded and appeared, as well as lecture duration, joined the already present questions of just what are you going to teach anyway.

So I took a step back, took a breath, and remembered my training. I am a Human Factors psychologist, which means I am supposed to be good at getting people and technology to play together nicely. Making sure this happens depends on maintaining a particular relationship between the designer/instructor, user/student, and the interface between them. When this relationship is altered or misrepresented, the door opens for poor to catastrophic outcomes.

The first mismatch (A) is what we all experienced moving to online—techniques that work in person do not translate to online (particularly the 80-minute lecture). The second (B) revolves around expectations for online interactions that you have that are different from what students expect or are capable of (e.g., if you provide reading and a video, no reading will be done). The last (C) emerged when we found out that everyone’s access to technology is not the same, which will constrain the type of online interaction that can be performed. Given these mismatches, the goal of online teaching becomes clearer—ensure that the concepts that you wish to convey are reflected accurately in the interface/platform in a manner that is accessible to the student user. Simple, right?

Here’s how I approached it:

1. Listen to the experts

At Miami, we have a wonderful team of staff that were really helpful in providing guidance. They were a great source for determining how to not only set up my course content but my video content as well.

2. Start with your learning objectives

This will help you organize your content. Important because in an online format you have to not only provide the content but the structure that frames it. You shouldn’t (and can’t) assume that students will automatically understand the context and background of the material. This also helps determine what the “core” content that must be covered is.

3. Small bites rather than big meals

I found it helpful to do lectures in 10–20 minute chunks, followed by a low-stakes assessment. This time frame is a little longer than recommended in other venues but seemed to be appropriate for the content I was presenting (cognitive psychology). The small assignments were short “quizzes” or discussions aimed at making sure the content is understood before moving to the next topic. Larger assessments were also utilized (exams, presentations) but were spaced out over the semester to keep the workload relatively even.

4. Make structure visible

I can’t take full credit for this one; it has been one of Don Norman’s (2013) core design principles. You have the benefit of knowing your field and understanding how the pieces fit together. Your students will not have that context, so the structure (topic/module sequence) of your course should be explicitly verbalized—again, don’t assume that the layout of your site will automatically make sense to the students.

5. Interactions come in many forms

The goal of online education is not to just be a distant in-person proxy, it is to provide an engaging experience. I taught asynchronously, so direct, live interactions were few, however, providing timely feedback whether as individual written comments or video responses to discussions/questions can be as engaging as being in a classroom and has the advantage of allowing you to provide thoughtful (but not long) responses.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I’m sure there are other things that are important but left out. What I hope you get out of this is that starting with general principles like these can help provide a means of approaching the challenge of moving to online teaching. They are purposely non-prescriptive because I have definitely learned that “one size fits all” approaches do not work.

I was truly surprised that I began to enjoy the online delivery because it allowed me to try approaches and ideas that might not work in person (e.g., demonstrating attentional blindness by changing shirts during a lecture and not having students notice). Adaptations that I made during the move to remote have changed the way I think about how I will run in-person classes when we can return—I think for the better. While I don’t have all the answers, I look forward to finding more of them together.


Norman, D. (2013). The design of everyday things: Revised and expanded edition. Basic books.