Concepts Important to Online Learning

Critical  Thinking

Encouraging critical thinking means building relevant experiences and reflection on those experiences into curriculum. Teaching critical thinking is not just helping students memorize a set of skills, but rather learning a process, or way of knowing, that should transform both learning and practice. (Critical Thinking Community, 2011). Helping students become better critical thinkers is about understanding how students use information in their daily practice. Faculty can deepen the understanding of experiences already familiar to students as they introduce previously unfamiliar content. Students are better engaged by content that is connected to their experience, needs, and perspective and which they perceive as relevant. One of the most important aspects of this principle is the role that attitude plays in this process. Technology can enable us to more easily develop and use content which appeals to all of our students (Carter, et al., 2006).


We often think that in an online environment our attitude is not transmitted to students: however students can hear the ‘tone in our voice’ by the tone of our words.  In an online course this is particularly important because we have very few ways to convey our excitement and passion for the subjects we teach.  Students easily pick up on our mood and negativity will stifle meaningful learning.  Unhappy students can derail a course that is otherwise perfectly designed.

Ideas to encourage a positive student attitude also encourage co-operation and active learning some of these are described in challenges and solutions, creating community, and communicating online.

Learning Modalities

The concept of learning modalities is simple yet powerful. It states that people have preferred somatic (sensory) modes for receiving and transmitting information, and that they learn best when information is encoded and presented in their preferred modes (Fleming & Mills, 1992; Fleming & Baume, 2006).  Thus, visual learners learn most effectively from material that is presented pictorially; learners who prefer the read/write modality learn more effectively from content formatted as text;  auditory learners learn best from hearing lectures or podcasts;  and people whose preferred learning modaility is kinesthetic or haptic  learn best by doing. Many people show only a slight preference for one style or another, or respond best to a blend of several styles.  To learn more about learning styles, click here.


Carter, L., Rukholm, E., Mossey, S., Viverais-Dresler, G., Bakker, D., & Sheehan, C. (2006). Critical thinking in the online nursing education setting: raising the bar.  Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, 32(1), 27-46.

Critical Thinking Community (2011). Nursing and health care.  An introduction to critical thinking concepts and tools. Retrieved from  (Includes links to a number of articles about foundational concepts of critical thinking, some with and some without a specific focus on nursing education.)

Fleming, N. D., & Baume, D. (2006). Learning styles again: VARKing up the right tree! Educational Developments, SEDA Ltd.(7.4), 4-7. Retrieved May 17, 2012 from

Fleming, N. D., & Mills, C. (1992). Not another inventory, rather a catalyst for reflection. To Improve the Academy, 11, 137-155. Retrieved May 17, 2012 from

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service. Available at