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A Reflective Study on Strategies and Tools for Skills-based Virtual Lesson Formats

Seven photos including George Sayre, Jessica Young, Meg Moldestad, Valentina Petrova, Ashley Mog, Ellen Ahlness, and Carol Simons



  • Meg Moldestad, she/they, Graduate Student, Human Centered Design and Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Ellen Ahlness, she/her, Qualitative Methodologist, VA, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Valentina Petrova, she/her, Qualitative Methodologist, VA, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Jessica Young, she/they, Qualitative Methodologist, VA, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Ashley Mog, she/her, Qualitative Methodologist, VA, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Katie Tirtanadi, she/her, Designer & Systems Engineer, VA, University of Washington, Seattle campus

Project Question

The past three years have illustrated the value—and numerous challenges of— of adapting pre-existing lessons to virtual formats. Best practices in virtual learning literature significantly and rapidly expanded in response to instructor needs, yet there remain far fewer pragmatic suggestions on converting existing skill-based courses to virtual formats. We build upon theoretical considerations supporting engaged learning in virtual spaces to address this gap, articulating strategies for adopting active learning activities, and identifying activities for inherently interactive virtual courses.


This project emerges from the work of five qualitative methodology instructors who teach graduate students, postdocs, and early career professionals in health services. Previous in-person instruction rapidly shifted to unanticipated a synchronous virtual format due to COVID—a change maintained to date. Students (n=~20) learn basic-intermediate research methods (e.g., interview guide creation, interviewing techniques) and soft skills (e.g., conversational pivoting, recognizing safety risks).


The researchers conducted a digital archival analysis of group artifacts from their initial transition to virtual instruction to the present (01/2020-01/2023). Group artifacts—including meeting minutes, group chats, email communications, and MS Teams and shared drive files—collectively comprise data in the form of a miniature ‘archive.’. From this data, the group reflected on their evolution of thought and instructional missions through the transition to virtual-only instruction, developing subsequent strategies and tools for other instructors going through similar transitions.


Best practices in andragogy literature have repeatedly identified active learning and student engagement as critical factors that facilitate lesson retention, particularly in skills-based learning (Zepke & Leach 2010; Gleason et al. 2011). Opportunities that allow students to put into practice the steps, skills, or theory that they have just learned allows them to “flex their muscles” in an environment that allows for tailored feedback and generative discussion (Silberman & Biech 2015). Instructors must therefore critically consider, evaluate, and select the activities they implement in their online lesson formats based on fit with their course or lesson outcomes.

Instructors tested new skills-based activities in the virtual lessons, seeking a 50/50 balance of time dedicated to didactic and active learning. Activities shifted students from passive absorption to active application and included (but were not limited to) mock interviews, ‘what went wrong’ identification, and ‘hypothetical’ roleplays. Students completed standardized surveys (average completion rate 60%) after activity rollouts, evaluating activity interest, clarity, and perceived effect on self-ability (Duckworth & Yeager 2015). In each case, breakout rooms with lower instructor/student ratios allowed rapid feedback and expert evaluation of student improvement, balancing against subjective self-evaluation of student learning. Student and subject expert feedback informed which activities were repeated.


This project resulted in two practical tools that can be applied to skills-based courses across disciplines. The first tool is a common set of strategies that instructors can use to evaluate activities’ fit for their fields and virtual formats. The strategies lead instructors through a three-step prompt guide, articulating questions to promote clarity on desired lesson outcomes and guide instructors in evaluating the relative value-add of an activity for a lesson. The prompts are dually informed by reflections on lived live-to-virtual transitions as well as reflexivity literature. The strategies are presented as prompts to overcome the rigidity and prescription suggested through formats such as flowcharts while promoting reflexivity’s emphasis on promoting dialogue among decision-makers (in this case, instructors) (Markham, Tiidenberg & Herman 2018).

The second tool is an activity identification guide that presents suggestions on specific activities to implement in a course based on their fit with lesson outcome goals. This general guide furthers team efforts to transcend the project’s field-specific (methodology) constraints by acting as a short, accessible repository to spark initial instructor brainstorming and conversations on activity options and feasibility. This second tool recognizes that listed activities are not universally applicable but may still act as springboards for further field- and lesson-specific tailoring.

Additional Resources

Interactive qualitative methods (e.g., interviews, focus groups, participant observation) necessitate inherently interpersonal lesson formats and activities, given that student improvement requires real-time, iterative feedback and the tandem development of soft skills, which are rarely explicitly outlined in curricula.; Similarly, courses that emphasize practical or soft skills can learn benefit from existing reflections and case studies that detail the tricky transition to virtual formats.

Prompts for Evaluating Fit of Active Learning Activities and Learning Outcomes

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