How can you approach webinars as an effective teaching tool? Webinars can be effective for outreach and education; they enable us to reach out to teach, share information, and even create connection and community with customers we might not otherwise be able to meet in person.

Webinars for learning and connection

It's probably safe to say though, that webinars are not anyone's favorite method of learning, and we all have sat through boring webinars where it's not clear if anyone retained much at all. Webinars have enormous potential, but it takes planning to create effective learning opportunities while also avoiding the common pitfalls that can tank a webinar with otherwise interesting and needed information.

Webinar challenges to learning

First, let's understand why webinars can present challenges for learning delivery:

  • They are usually just broadcast lectures

Webinars as tend to adhere to an older model of learning, where the expert lectures and the learner listens, trying to absorb and retain the information the best they can. This approach can work, and sometimes it is the only way to deliver certain information. Usually, however, this is not the best approach.

  • The best learning is active learning

Learning happens better when it is not passive, but active – when learners can ask questions, discuss, or exchange information, and when they can engage in activities that prompt repetition, reflection, and synthesis. This is of course easiest face to face but can be done in webinars with some preparation.  

Here are some strategies to help you use more active teaching practices in your webinars. This is a good time to experiment, learn from trial and error, and maybe get a little uncomfortable as you try new techniques to develop and deliver webinars for Penn State Extension.

Start with the end in mind

Backwards design is a core principle of good teaching:

  • Decide what you want your learners to be able to do after the teaching is over

The first step is to ask yourself what you want learners to know and be able to do when they walk away. In other words, focus on your learning outcomes. This is teaching 101, but hard to execute face to face, much less online.  Extra material creeps in because it might be useful or interesting, or we provide too much background that learners don't need. Here are some tips to stay on point:

  • Ruthlessly stick to your learning outcomes

Design your content backwards, and prune out anything that does not lead to your outcomes. Too much extraneous information confuses learners, and many a useful webinar or lecture has crumbled under the weight of too much extraneous expertise.

  • Limit your learning outcomes

Pick 3 to 5 things you want your learners to walk away knowing how to do. Focus and organize your presentation according to those things, and if something doesn't fit, either cut it, plan to address it in any questions or follow-up, or provide it as a supplemental resource. Your colleagues can be helpful here—ask someone to review and focus your presentation and be strict with their feedback.

Create structure

We all need structure, and good teaching is structured teaching.

  • Outline the scope and sequence of your presentation

Creating structure and demonstrating it during the webinar not only helps keep you on point as a teacher, but also provides your learners with a mental model that promotes comprehension and retention. Divide your presentation into subtopics, then create an outline slide: tell your learners at the beginning what they will learn and in what order.

  • Refer to your outline early and often

Each time you shift from one topic to the next, refer to the outline slide again and highlight where you are and where you are going. This organizing approach lets learners know what to expect and gives them a mental map of the information.

  • Tell them what you will teach them; tell them what you've taught them

Structure helps learners to organize content. We all have mental folders in our minds to put things, but we need to know which folder.

Connect to your learners

  • Be human and relevant

Help your learners focus on key takeaways by using plain language that connects to your audience and their goals. Use informal, direct address that is concrete, specific, and treats the learner as a person. Here is an example to illustrate this:

Instead of a topic slide that looks like this:


  1. The importance of greenhouse preventative controls
  2. Treatment of infestation

Try to write in a style that connects to your learner and the experience they want to receive:

What will you learn today?

  1. How to practice preventative controls in your greenhouse
  2. How to treat an infestation

Writing in concrete language that your audience can relate to helps to promote interest and connection.  This example illustrates our three techniques:

  • A focus on outcome
  • A coherent structure
  • A human connection

These techniques will also help you 'sell' your webinar at the beginning of your presentation, and throughout it. We have all drifted to our phones during a presentation, but we have also been engaged enough by something to forget about our phones. With planning, this is possible even in webinars.

Break it down

None of us can listen to a solid hour of presentation content and really process and retain it. “Chunking" is a way to create digestible portions of learning. 

  • Connect your outline to your outcomes

Use your outcomes to structure the outline of your presentation—3 to 5 outcomes with 3 to 5 sections. Keep your sections 10-15 minutes each, then give your learners some time in between topics to pause and integrate what they have just learned—you could design a reflection activity that encourages learners to think and apply what they have just learned to their own situation, or provide time for learners to ask questions.

  • Time to reflect is a key to active learning

Breaking up your structured topics with time for learners to think or inquire helps to prevent content overload and shifts their brains from passive to active mode. This increases engagement, attention, and retention.


People learn actively through interaction, but how do we do that online?

  • Use Zoom tools to promote interaction and participation

Learning is made concrete by asking questions about what we don't understand and getting an answer, and by hearing things explained again or restated another way. Zoom has great tools to manage participant interactions:

  • Chat
  • Q&A
  • Polls

Chat allows learners to type in comments or questions, either among all participants, or depending on how it is set up, only to the host and panelists of the webinar. Chat allows for free-form commentary along with questions. Depending on the size of the webinar and the nature of the attendees, it provides a good opportunity for participants to exchange thoughts and information, as well as for hosts to answer questions or share information with participants. For larger webinars, Chat among all participants might not be feasible. Note that in the webinar settings at, you have the option to enable Chat only between participants and the hosts/panelists, or to disable it all together.

Q & A provides a more structured questioning format, and for this reason is only available in webinars, not meetings. Participants can type in questions that are visible to the host and panelist to all, and there are several options to configure:

  • Allow anonymous questions
  • Allow attendees to view
    • answered questions only
    • all questions 
  • Attendees can upvote
  • Attendees can comment

Some best practices when using Chat or Q &A:

  • Use one or the other but not both; participants may be confused if there are two different ways to communicate and ask questions during a webinar. Additionally, it may be harder for the host to moderate two input streams.
  • When using either tool, use a buddy system with a partner when you are presenting. It can be challenging to monitor ongoing questions and chat while you are presenting. Have a colleague help to monitor and curate the flow of incoming questions or comments.
  • Invite participants to use the Chat or Q &A, and tell them how you'll be using them during your presentation. And importantly, use these tools yourself to model how they work and encourage participation.
  • Be sure to wait and allow some time for participants to share a question or comment. It may take a few moments for folks to think about and formulate a question, and then to type it in.

Polls are another tool to create interaction with your learners, and they can be used in a couple of different ways. The concept of a poll is simple – you create one or many multiple choice or true/false questions in advance of your webinar or meeting, and then invite learners to respond during your presentation. Learners can see the responses from the webinar group displayed on screen as they join in.

  • Use polls to activate prior knowledge. A good way to spark engagement is to ask a relevant question or two before even showing the outline or talking about outcomes. Pick something that is universal and maybe fun to think about.
  • Use polls to learn about your audience and show that you are interested and want to learn about them. This can establish rapport and connection at the beginning or throughout a presentation. Ask customers to identify their type of operation – such as what size, what crops grown, what quadrant of the state. Or you could ask customers to rank their most pressing need or problem.
  • Use polls to learn about your participants and create a connection among your audience. If they can identify themselves among others from southeastern PA, or those with an operation of a certain size, or among Steelers or Eagles fans, that helps create a sense of community. In this way polls can act as a sort of icebreaker at the beginning of a presentation or training.
  • Use polls to 'quiz' your audience and promote recall. A poll doesn't have to be just a poll – it is essentially a multiple choice question, and you can use them for anything you'd like. Mix it up a little with your audience by quizzing them on some key questions throughout your presentation and engaging them in some active learning. Asking your audience to switch gears from passive listening to active recall also helps to renew engagement and attention.

Manage the forgetting curve

As educators we are all aware of the forgetting curve –the fact that after learning something our retention decreases over time. As educators our job is to manage the forgetting curve, through:

  • Repetition

Questions, discussions, rephrasing, and always circling back to your outline and outcomes will reinforce learning through repetition. Use the Q&A tool to promote repeated rephrasing of material. Use Polls to test or quiz your participants to see what they remember at the end of the webinar. Can they recall your key points? What were the learning outcomes for the webinar?

  • Distributed practice

Research shows that distributed practice—different activities over time—is perhaps the best method teachers can use to promote recall. Quizzes, polls, vocabulary practice, writing activities, discussions, etc. spaced out over time is a ubiquitous best practice in education. Creatively use Zoom tools to engage learners with distributed practice.

  • Once again, make learning active

Assign material before and/or after your webinar, to activate prior knowledge and reinforce what was just learned. Having students read an article before the webinar helps level the playing field and establish common, foundational knowledge. Reinforce your presentation by sending out materials afterwards. Provide a PDF, a recording, a handout or cheat sheet of your presentation; this offers concise actionable knowledge and takeaways—something your learners can use to recall and apply what they have learned, and mitigate the forgetting curve.

Practice makes perfect

Whether it's perfecting the use of new tools as a webinar presenter or timing your presentation so it fits perfectly into your allotted time,

  • Practicing ahead of your presentation is critical to success.

First, time yourself, especially if you're planning to incorporate audience interactions. Plan for pauses to allow learners to absorb your information, formulate questions, and use the technology; interactions can take longer than you think. Use a partner to help moderate and manage the flow of questions as well as the technology. A partner can also help with monitoring time.

  • Time your presentation so there is not a rush at the end.

We've all attended presentations that run out of time and the presenter flies through the last slides, rushing some interesting and valuable information and closure. Don't include something if you are not going to give yourself enough time to cover it.

  • Practice obsessively with technology and any of the tools you plan to use like Chat, Q&A, or Polls.

Don't assume the tech is easy to use. Under pressure and time constraints, everything becomes difficult. And this should go without saying, but make sure your core technology is working ahead of time. Be professional. Make sure any videos play or external links are working. Have everything look and sound good. Run through the webinar with a partner to see all the tools in place.

Teaching, not just technology

  • Good teaching does not depend on format

A good teacher can use any tool to successfully teach any concept. By meticulously regarding your learners, webinars can be engaging, valuable, and even enjoyable learning experiences. Technology offers bells and whistles, but an excellent webinar does not have to use them all, or any of them. Well planned learning takeaways and a focus on connecting to your audience and their needs are the most crucial. Zoom offers great tools to support learning and engagement but using them strategically only to further your attention to solid outcomes and active learning is what is important.