Creating engaging online lectures

Last Updated: January 15, 2024
A man sitting in front of a microphone looks at his computer with a sense of satisfaction

How this will help:

Understand the importance of chunking information, minimizing cognitive overload, instructor affect and effective visuals for student learning in online lectures.

The basics

Although there are many skills used in delivering face-to-face lectures that are equally important in an online context, there are important unique features of teaching and learning online that, when taken into consideration, can set your course up for success.

As instructors begin teaching online, they often have a gut instinct to try to replicate what is done in a face-to-face course as closely as possible.  Face-to-face learning environments and online learning experiences each have their own unique advantages and need to be designed with those features in mind. For example, when designed well, online teaching offers learners opportunities to learn at their own pace and at times of the day that work for them. Lecturing is a technique used in both face-to-face and online contexts, but the lectures themselves are likely going to be very different depending on the context. This module will provide insights from scholarship on multimedia learning and online learner preferences to help you develop engaging and effective lectures for your online course.

There are a couple of obvious differences between lecturing in a face-to-face course and lecturing online: You aren’t in the same physical room as your audience when you lecture online, and you don’t actually have to be engaging with the content at the same time as your learners in an online course. Online lectures are described as asynchronous, where each learner downloads (or streams) the lecture at a time of their choosing, or as synchronous, where the class community is all meeting at the same time via phone and/or web conferencing.

Asynchronous lectures have many advantages for learners:

  • For learners with non-optimal internet access, videos can be downloaded and watched on a device rather than trying to simultaneously stream audio and video via web conferencing applications.
  • Learners can increase or decrease the speed of the video playback as suits their preferences.
  • Students can focus on learning from the lectures at times that work for them personally, as opposed to at the time that works for the largest percentage of their classmates and the instructor.
  • Students can pause, rewind, fast forward, and rewatch videos based on their own level of understanding of and comfort with the content of the lecture.

Asynchronous lectures also have advantages for instructors:

  • The style of the video (e.g. those described in Choe, et al., 2019) can be varied based on the nature of the content of the lecture and the learning objectives.
  • The instructor has flexibility around when they deliver the lecture.
  • Depending on the content of the lecture, many lecture videos can be used in future iterations of a course.

All of these advantages aren’t to say that synchronous interactions aren’t valuable in an online course – it behooves instructors and course designers, though, to mindfully decide what the best use of time “together” is.

Guidelines for engaging lectures

  • Don’t recreate your classroom lecture

Or at least, don’t feel compelled to. This is a different format, so you are free to be different. Maybe instead of a video, you try a podcast? Maybe you don’t lecture, and instead provide a written commentary on someone else’s lecture.

  • Think about who your learners are

Knowing your audience is essential to producing any good lecture, but it’s especially important when you won’t be able to ‘read the room.’ When possible, gather data on what courses your students have already taken (like in Atlas), identify current events that relate to course content, and articulate how the knowledge and skills learners are gaining can support their goals for the future.

  • Keep them short

Shorter lectures make it easier for an audience to maintain their attention and align closely with what we know about how learning works. Breaking long lectures into a library of shorter ones, where each lecture focuses on just one, or maybe two, concepts decreases the cognitive burden on learners, enabling them to focus on learning what you want them to learn. There is no magic length for an asynchronous lecture, but aiming for 7-10 minutes is a reasonable rule of thumb. There are resources for ideas on how to create a concise framing for your lectures, such as our page on Half-Life Your Message.

  • Be yourself

Feeling a sense of belonging is a human need, and research indicates that a sense of belonging promotes learning. This is true regardless of the type of classroom a course uses. In online contexts one of the key components to building a sense of belonging is helping learners “feel that they relate, as real people, to those with whom they interact online to develop feelings of trust, being valued, and mattering.” (Peacock, et al. 2019) Being yourself, including not worrying too much about the “umms” and “uhhs,” is one way to help learners feel connected to other real people in the course community. When using video, having your face on-screen for times when you don’t need other visuals to explain content can also help students engage with you and the lecture.

  • Keep it interactive

Video or audio recordings can be used for more than explaining concepts. Using recordings to remind students of upcoming events or due dates, explain the instructions or details of an assignment or task, or respond to student work can ensure that some of your recorded content is very up to date, even if you are re-using recorded content from previous runs of the course. Some software tools also allow quizzes to be embedded in videos so that there can be a close connection between the lecture and student reflection on the content. Pair a lecture with a low-stakes self-assessment quiz through Canvas as a knowledge check to see if students are understanding the material.

  • Use visuals strategically

If asynchronous video lectures are used visual aids can greatly enhance the learning experience, so long as they are aligned with the message of the lecture. It is important to keep in mind the accessibility of the images used – make sure the video includes a verbal description of the image.

One model for slide design, the assertion-evidence model, is useful for helping identify when visuals might be useful for learning and for designing effective slides to deliver the message. If creating an assertion-evidence slide is proving to be particularly challenging for a particular point in a lecture, it is better to have a “talking head” than to have a slide with only words. Most presenters, when using text-only slides, end up reading the text or summarizing it, which actually can create “cognitive overload” for learners. When presented with spoken words and written words, the human brain struggles to take in information from both channels; it can only focus on one set of words at a time. Images are processed differently than words, though, so there is less burden on the learner when they are presented with an image and spoken words. If there are visuals that illustrate a point, using them in a lecture increases both the engagement of learners and the effectiveness of the lecture.


Check out this infographic on keeping students engaged during online lectures.


University of Michigan

Home Recording Accessibility Considerations

Other Resources

Temple University: 6 Tips for creating engaging video lectures that students will actually watch

Rethinking Presentations in Science and Engineering


Choe, R.C., Scuric, Z., Eshkol, E., Cruser, S., Arndt, A., & Cox, R. (2019). Student satisfaction and learning outcomes in asynchronous online lecture videos. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 18(4).

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Peacock, S. & Cowan, J. (2019). Promoting sense of belonging in online learning communities of inquiry at accredited courses. Online Learning, 23(2), 67-81. doi:10.24059/olj.v23i2.1488

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