Soft skills for remote instruction, teaching and discussion

By Jason Alba

When you switch from instructing in person to instructing virtually, you might feel overwhelmed by how much is different: How you read the class, how you create energy for the class, how you draw on that energy and how you take cues and adjust your pace and delivery. 

You’re not alone. Many teachers, instructors and content creators feel this way right now. Whether you work in higher education, do professional training, write coding courses for developers or do something else, we’re all adjusting to a new normal.

As someone with eight years of experience creating learning content remotely for the Pluralsight platform, here are some specific things I’ve learned you can do to create an enhanced remote learning experience for everyone.

Encourage your learners to set up the right environment

If you are new to teaching virtually, it’s likely your learners are new to learning virtually as well. Invite them to create an environment that will help them stay focused. This might be a room free of traffic, or at the kitchen table while someone else is quietly working on a different laptop.

Ask your learners to close all other windows and applications on their device. This will reduce their chances of having problems with the webinar app and the internet connection. As important, it will help them focus on your class without pop-ups from incoming emails or chats. Encourage your learners to leave their phones in another room or to silence them so they can focus on your lesson.

Incorporate an excellent question strategy

Just as you use questions in your physical classroom to keep your learners involved and focused on your lesson, you want to use questions in your virtual classroom, too. Great questions will help your audience actively engage and participate in the lesson.

Depending on the technology you have available, you have a few options for asking questions. Let me share three common ways questions might play out: 

  1. Poll: If your technology allows for it, invite your learners to respond to questions using a poll. This allows you to ask yes/no, true/false or multiple choice questions. Create your questions and response options before you start class. Creating polls during class can be distracting. 
  2. Chat: If your technology has the capability, ask a question and have your learners respond in the chat box. The chat box isn’t great for aggregating responses, especially if you have a lot of students, but it’s a good tool for generating discussion topics, surfacing common confusions and talking through responses as you see them appear. (Side note: You might have to ask learners to only use the chat to reply to specific questions you ask. It’s easy for distracting and unrelated side conversations to take off.)
  3. Game show style: A fun way to have questions be a part of your lesson is to have everyone write their response on paper and then show it on their webcam. This is a great way to keep eyes focused on the screen, as students get to see and interact with one another. Again, your ability to ask questions this way will depend on your web conferencing technology and whether or not everyone is using a webcam. 

Regardless of which method you use, talk through the responses. You want to show you’re paying attention to their contributions, and that their answers matter. 

Get creative to explain complex concepts

Complex concepts are hard enough to teach in a classroom. Whether in person or online, you still need to explain complex concepts in a way your audience can understand. 

Not being in the same room to get real-time, physical cues—such as blank stares, hesitation or questions—can make this more challenging. Here are some ideas to help you explain complex concepts effectively: 

  • Visual aids: Find an image, graphic or chart, or draw your visual (using a whiteboard, blackboard or drawing software) and talk through it. Using visuals can encourage your learners to stay engaged and add clarity to difficult concepts. Remember, you can and should keep it simple. For example, don’t try to learn new-to-you software to draw diagrams for the class without having practiced. If things don’t go well, you risk making the concept even more confusing. Stick to what you know. Using a whiteboard in front of a webcam is great.

  • Examples and analogies: If visual aids are hard to come by, that’s okay. Mental visuals created by sharing examples and analogies can be just as powerful. Stories help learners put themselves into situations to better grasp feelings and concepts. Be mindful of your examples and analogies, especially if you want to bring current events into the conversation.

  • Learner explanation: Another tactic you could use is to tell learners, before you start your lesson, that you’ll invite one of them to explain a concept in their own words after you teach it. This isn’t a pop quiz, but rather a way to allow someone who grasps the concept to explain it to the rest of the class. It’ll also prompt everyone to take more (and better) notes during your lesson. Once a learner tries to explain the concept, you’ll get a good idea of how well the class understood it. Instead of singling someone out you could ask for a volunteer.

Give feedback

One of the tricky things about remote teaching is interaction. This can be especially important during a time when many people aren’t getting much social interaction. This is your opportunity to create a culture of cohesiveness and humanity that, while perhaps common in your physical classroom, is much needed for some of your learners virtually. As you create this culture, here are a few things to keep in mind: 

  • Misunderstandings online are common: Be kind and patient as people make mistakes online that they might not make in person. Set some ground rules at the beginning of each instruction period, such as only using chat for things relevant to the conversation and to not chat anything sarcastic or disparaging. The class clown might have mastered their craft in a classroom, but could say something unwittingly insensitive in a chat. Take this opportunity to teach your class about online etiquette.
  • Body language is harder to read online: Many of the webinar tools used for remote teaching allow you to see your learners. Some will have their thinking face on, while others might show little facial expression as they vigorously take notes. We need to shift our assumptions about body language, and respect the differences of in-person versus online interaction. Just because someone doesn’t seem engaged doesn't mean they aren’t. You can use engagement techniques to try to keep them engaged, but don’t assume that lack of eye contact or responding to questions means they aren’t getting anything out of your instruction.
  • Feedback is key to online learning success: While including sarcasm in your communication might have been easy to do in a physical setting, it is much harder to do virtually. Every communication you have with your audience—written, vocal, and visual—helps reinforce the culture you’re creating. That’s why it’s important to avoid things like teasing and bantering in your online communication, especially when giving feedback.

Different is okay

As the world makes this massive shift to online teaching (or more accurately, online everything), you have the opportunity to define what that means for you and your audience. The tools you use will be different. How you structure your material will be different. The way you engage learners in deep conversations will be different. And that’s all okay. It provides you and your learners a chance to use new software, develop new soft skills and build new routines. 

Take the time to really understand what’s working and what’s not working for you and your audience and adjust accordingly. The idea that everyone learns differently is more relevant now than ever, and it’s on you as the instructor to really tailor the experience to help your learners succeed.

About the author

Jason Alba is founder and creator of He is a Pluralsight author of multiple courses on job search, career management and personal branding. You can find all his courses on his Pluralsight author page.