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Five Tips for Teaching Online

Has the pandemic shifted your CE classes from in-person to Zoom? Has the need for social distance moved your training drills from classroom to Google Meet? Has the fear of transmission in close quarters pushed your educational program from a lecture hall to a Webex Room? Over the last year EMS educators have been forced to modify their delivery models. For didactic and lecture-based programming, the switch from live students to a Brady Bunch video call requires a shift in instructional techniques. Here are five tips to keep student engagement high.

1. Cameras: On or Off?

Many students prefer to turn off their cameras. Oregon State University’s Center for Teaching and Learning created a list of the pros and cons of requiring students to turn on their cameras during virtual classes.1 The pros include creating a sense of connection and accountability, fostering community, simulating in-person instruction, and making it easier for the teachers to identify students by name. The cons include invading students’ privacy, making students feel self-conscious, and feeling exhausted by staring into faces at close range for long periods of time.2

For EMS education, where the vast majority of students are 18 or over, I recommend having cameras stay on. Set an expectation at the start of class but have the flexibility to allow students to turn off their camera for a moment if they need to use the restroom or don’t want to eat a snack in full view. If you don’t wish to do that, know that “Zoom fatigue” is real and build in 5–10-minute screen breaks where you encourage students to stand up, stretch, and get away from their screens. If you allow cameras to be off, randomly have the students type a mystery word into the group chat or all turn on their cameras momentarily to check for attendance and attention. You can also frequently check for understanding.

2. Frequent Checks for Understanding

Jay McTighe, coauthor of Understanding By Design and an educational expert, is a proponent of raising student engagement by conducting frequent formative assessments.3 Some examples instructors can use on a video conference call include:

  • Hand signals—Have students use thumbs up, thumbs down, or a shoulder shrug to indicate if they understand or agree. Google Meet gives students the option to use a digital thumbs-up and -down.
  • Write it and hold it—Ask a question and have students write the response on a piece of paper and hold it up to the camera. For example, “What is the rate of compressions to breaths for a child in one-person CPR?” or “List three possible causes of altered mental status.”
  • Draw it and hold it—Many students learn better with pictorial representation. Ask students to draw a picture. They don’t have to be Picasso as long as they can visually represent their understanding. For example, “Draw an example of a closed vs. an open tibia fracture,” or “Draw the locations where you can place an IO in a pediatric patient.”
  • Summarize—Ask students to write one sentence that summarizes something they learned in the last 20 minutes and have them type it into the chat or say it aloud.

3. Present Naked

Don’t take this literally—please wear pants and a shirt on camera! “Presenting naked” is a concept from author Garr Reynolds where when you lecture and teach, you bring your authentic (or “naked”) self. How do you do this? According to Reynolds, use a framework of what he calls the “10 Ps”: preparation, punch, presence, projection, passion, proximity, play, pace, participation, and power.4 The presenter does this in a way that is direct, honest, and clear.

When educators get ready to present virtually, they often spend most of their time getting their content ready, which can include text-heavy slides. Instead, use as much time thinking about how you will share. Don’t read your slides! Have more visuals than text so you’re forced to explain, elaborate, and add details. What tone of voice and presenting style will you use? Modulate your tone, pitch, and volume. Take strategic pauses. A “naked” presenter approaches the lesson with the needs of their students in mind.

4. Use Classroom Tools

Just because you’re online doesn’t mean you need to be a talking head for hours. Utilize the tools you might use in a classroom if you were doing this live. These might include a whiteboard to draw or write concepts (like drug dosing or an anatomy model); a document or phone camera to demonstrate a tool or a skill (how to start an IV, place EKG leads, or set up a nebulizer); a prop or model (like a skeleton or airway trainer); a video clip; an audio file (like lung sounds); or having students practice with something at home (like self-applying a tourniquet).

5. Tools Beyond PowerPoint

There are a variety of interactive digital tools teachers from kindergarten through college are using while teaching remotely that increase student engagement. We know active learners retain more than those who simply listen passively. Pear Deck is a tool that lets instructors use their slides as a base and build in interactivity such as quizzes, surveys, sketching, fill-in-the-blanks, and more. Edpuzzle allows teachers to build quizzes to check student understanding. Jamboard is a free Google product that allows instructors to turn their computer into an interactive whiteboard. Padlet is an app that allows the class to all put “notes” on a “wall” and comment in real time. These are but a few examples of technologies to engage students more.

Just because the pandemic has forced your classes online doesn’t mean instruction has to suffer. While there is no substitute for hands-on instruction and skills practice in EMS learning, didactic and lecture education can be as or even more effective on a videoconference with the right tools and approaches.


1. Oregon State University. Zoom Camera Pros and Cons,

2. Will M. Most Educators Require Kids to Turn Cameras On in Virtual Class, Despite Equity Concerns. EducationWeek, 2020 Oct 20;

3. McTighe J. 8 Quick Checks for Understanding. Edutopia, 2021 Jan 28;

4.  Reynolds G. The Naked Presenter: Delivering Powerful Presentations With or Without Slides. New Riders, 2010.

Barry Bachenheimer, EdD, FF/NREMT, is a career educator with more than 34 years in EMS and fire suppression. He is currently a lieutenant with the Roseland (N.J.) Fire Department and co-training officer for the South Orange (N.J.) Rescue Squad. He is a frequent contributor to EMS World. 


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