Preparing Students for the Online Course

Preparing students for the online learning environment can be challenging.  Your students have a wide variety of motivators for taking an online course.  Some of which think that taking an online course will be ‘easier’ than a face-to-face course.  Preparing all your students for the rigor and workload is essential to their success.  Here are a few shared tips to prepare your students:

  • Provide a Welcome email that goes out at least one week before the course begins. In this letter, state explicitly what the expectations are, i.e.: Expect to spend 18-24 hours per week in this course.
  • Provide a list of technical skills that students need to have in order to be successful in the course.
  • A well-structured syllabus.
  • Course Description
  • Course Learning Outcomes
  • Instructor Contact Information
  • Required Materials
  • Student Expectations
  • Instructor Expectations
  • Course Assignments and Evaluation
  • Grading Information
  • Class Policies
  • University Policies
  • A detailed Course Schedule. This schedule should include exact time and day assignments are due, rather than, when you want them to work on a specific assignment. For example, Quiz 1 is due by Wednesday at 11:00 pm.
  • Be very clear about course communication. State your expectations of the students, i.e.: Post all questions to the Q&A Forum. State student expectations of you, i.e.: I will respond to your questions within 24 hours.
  • Expectations Quiz. This can be a first week quiz on your syllabus that address workload, time spent on course, late-work policy, etc.
  • Virtual Office Hours on a regular schedule.
  • Teams. Having student teams not only supports collaborative learning, but also helps the student not feel so “alone” in the online environment. For example, during the first week, allow students to choose a team, or use a deliberate method in creating teams, such as by major, year in school, etc. Have a first ‘get to know you’ activity where team members work together to create a team ‘plan’ or ‘contract’ that addresses how they will communicate, meet deadlines, define, and how they will problem-solve when members go astray. Team plans/contracts should be signed (electronically!) and submitted to the instructor.
  • Online orientation module that each student must complete before they can enter their first online course. This would include various elements, such as technical, learning style, communication, course navigation, etc. Also, it would be helpful to ask questions such as, how many online classes a student has taken previously
  • Create a Planning Calendar. As a first week assignment, provide students a semester calendar template to fill out on how they will plan their coursework on a semester calendar based on assignment due dates, etc. Have them share this in a discussion forum, or team discussion for feedback from peers.
  • A discussion activity to encourage them to think and consider the workload for the course, as well as talk to other students in the course.
  • First week activities that model/test what they will be doing throughout the course. For example, if students will be using blogs, provide an icebreaker activity using a blog.
  • Student involvement in making some decisions about course activities, content, and offer alternatives to assignments, i.e.: if a final project allows various format submissions, video, audio, written, etc.  “When a student has some control over how they learn they can also discover their strengths and weakness as a learner, a vital metacognitive skill they will use the rest of their life.” – Terry Doyle, Ferris State University
  • Mid-semester check in. Half way through the course, ask students how many hours per day/week they spend on coursework.
  • Student Advice. Ask students to submit advice to future students of your course. Use this advice for next semester.

~Kimberly Vincent-Layton – June 2013

Social Presence in the Online Classroom

Kimberly Vincent-Layton, June 2013

Published by Oakland University Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

The course is all built, the students are logged in and posting in forums, now what do I do?  As a new online instructor, or even one that has been teaching online for some time, there are many ways to provide your presence in your online course.  Recent research refers to this as adding some ‘humanizing’ elements to your course. Finding opportunities to connect to your students in the online environment can seem challenging at first. When you think about all the ways in which you connect to your students in the face-to-face environment and begin to translate these ideas to online, you will find many opportunities to engage and be present. Your role as the instructor in the online environment is every bit (if not more!) as important as it is in the face-to-face classroom. The benefits of social presence in the online classroom not only increases the student’s comfort level, but it also breaks down the ‘barrier’ that is often there between between the instructor and student (DuCharme-Hansen, Dupin-Bryant, 2005).

Opportunities for presence include frequent sharing of personal stories and experiences, feedback, and continuous conversation.

community of learners

Sharing of Personal Stories and Experiences

  • The icebreaker/creating classroom community
    Just as in a face-to-face classroom, it is essential to set the climate from the very first day of class.  In the online classroom, your icebreaker can translate easily by providing opportunities for students to introduce themselves to you and their classmates.

    • discussion forum where each student makes an introductory post
    • wiki where each student provides their name, major, hopes for the class, etc
    • community bulletin board (try where each student posts their introduction on a class ‘wall’
    • try something fun and use a class metaphor (i.e.: food, running, etc) to engage students and ask them to post their favorite “food” or exercise activity, etc.
    • collaborative Google slide presentation where each student takes a slide to introduce themselves with text, images and/or video.

As the instructor, it is important to model what you are asking your students to do, so be sure to add/post/create just as they do.  And then reply to students’ posts and welcome them individually.

  • Introductory video – introducing yourself to your students in a way that is more personalized can be more meaningful and give them a connection right from the start. Using Introductory Videos in Online and Hybrid Courses
  • Posting/Blogging
    If you are asking your student to make blog posts, use this method to communicate key concepts, reminders, current events/articles with your students.
  • Office hours – encourage just as you would in face-to-face (you can even offer extra credit to encourage them to attend at least one).


  • The weekly email
    Emailing your students a weekly summary provides connections, summarizes the week, gives a preview of the next week, offers tips/suggestions, what went well, what could improve, i.e.: after you post your YouTube URL to the Class Blog, don’t forget to also paste the URL in the designated Moodle assignment area so you can receive a grade; the first quiz was a bit ‘rocky’, however, the technical issues have been fixed for the next quizzes; point to your Weekly Check-in Video on class blog, encourage them to look at all classmates’ presentations on blog, read their classmates comments; point to exemplary student presentations.
  • Audio or Video Feedback – this feedback feels a little more ‘real’ and students feel a connection to the instructor and the course.
  • Office hours – encourage just as you would in face-to-face (you can even offer extra credit to encourage them to attend at least one).
  • Require each student to contact you at least once during the course. This can be via chat, video (Skype) or any other method that supports synchronous conversation.


  • Ask a Trivia question to get students engaged.
  • Post a link (in Q&A forum) to a current event/article that relates to course topic/assignment/theme.
  • Provide opportunities for discussion, maybe a thought-provoking question to elicit student discussions.
  • Offer a poll where you ask their opinion on something related to the course/topic – this can be fun.  Here’s an example: Presentation Skills Survey   Or, create your own and set up in the course.
  • The Student Corner (“commons area” for off-topic discussions)and offer some guidance on the purpose. (This engagement is extracurricular but it can help students build relationships that are advantageous inside the classroom.

Dreon, O. (2013, May 13) Tips for Building Social Presence in Your Online Class. Faculty Focus: Higher ed teaching strategies from Magna Publications.

Garrison, D.R. (2007, April). Online Community of Inquiry Review: Social, Cognitive, and Teaching Presence Issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks – Volume 11:1 – April 2007. (pg 61-72).