Friday, January 9, 2015

Setting up Your Online Course for Maximum Student Success

Note: If you are interested in online teaching, I will be presenting "College Success Online" at the First-Year Experience Conference in Dallas on Sunday, February 10 from 8:00-9:00 am.  I hope to see you there.  

Investing some time at the beginning of your online course can maximize student success. Here are some items to consider in getting your online class off to a good start.  These suggestions are based on my 10 years of successfully teaching college success courses online, including good student success, retention and satisfaction.  Modify these suggestions to match your own teaching style, use of technology, and the needs of your students. 

1.        Get Organized
When your course is well organized, your students will be able to easily navigate your course and you will have fewer students with problems and questions.  The following is a suggested basic checklist:

The Welcome Letter
Once your class is filled, send your students a welcome letter that outlines the course content, benefits, myths about online courses and time required.  This helps students know what to expect before the class begins and to make sure they are ready for online learning.  For a sample online letter, go to:

The Course Syllabus
The course syllabus is different from a face to face course in that it includes links to all your online material.  As you gain experience in your course, revise your syllabus to clarify any questions you received in the previous semester.  For an example of an online syllabus, go to: 

The Course Calendar
The course calendar is one of your most important organizational tools.  It contains all the assignments on a weekly basis.  For an example of an online calendar, go to:

The Course Management System
Your course management system (such as Blackboard) is usually provided by your college and has your course content and grading.  Attend professional development sessions at your college to learn your course management system and have it set up and available before your class begins. 

Having a website with all your course information is helpful to begin communication with students during the registration process.  List your web address in the college course schedule.  Here is my page:

Set up a system to send text messages to your students.  A phone app called Remind enables you and your students to communicate via text messages without students being able to view  your cell phone number or the phone numbers of other students.  You can send text messages from your computer to all students or small groups of students in your course.  Set up your faculty account at: 

Your college probably provides a way to send emails to your students, but realize that text messages are more likely to be read than emails.

Set up Your Assignments and Grading System
Use your course management system to set up your assignments and grading system.  Provide clear directions on how to complete the assignments with outlines or student examples if available.  Plan to provide immediate feedback on assignments.  Make a column for “Current Grade” since it is important that students know their overall grade in the course each week.   

2.       Make it personal.
Take steps to help students get to know you and other students.  This will help students maintain interest and involvement in the course. 

The Course Blog
I use a blog in my course instead of a discussion board.  I can begin my blog before the class begins and it is independent of my course management system.  In the welcome letter, students are invited to my blog to begin their introductions before the course begins or during the first week.  My first blog has a brief video introduction of myself and the course.  I ask students for a 100 word introduction and a 100 word description of their educational journey.  I do the first postings as an examples. 

Here is my completed blog for Fall 2014: 
You can set up a blog for free at:

Establish Positive Rules for Conduct
It is easy to criticize others online because of the lack of proximity and personal involvement.  However, students learn better in a supportive environment and I set this up before the course begins.   I spell out the rules for conduct in my blog.  Students are encouraged to be supportive of other students.  If they disagree, they are asked to simply state their opinion without putting other students down.  I closely and quickly monitor student interaction, especially in the first postings. 

Provide Personal and Supportive Feedback
Grading assignments is a good opportunity to provide personal feedback and to be supportive to your students.  Of course, include suggestions for improvement.  

3.        The first 2 weeks are critical.

Once your course has begun, pay particular attention to the first 2 weeks which are critical for student success and retention.  If students are on track the first 2 weeks, they are more likely to have fewer problems in the course and to successfully complete it.  By the end of the second week of school, all students must:

·         Log into the course management system.
·         Connect through the phone app, Remind, for text messages.
·         Introduce themselves on the blog.
·         Complete the online orientation. (See
·         Complete the first assignment.

I look at the first two weeks as a trial period where it is possible that students may not understand how the course works and the requirements.  If any of the above items are missing, I follow up with students and allow them to make up the work without penalty.  My follow up is quick and I am persistent.  Students are then required to turn their work on time after the second week.
4.       Make it interactive. 
Students are more likely to stay interested in your course and finish it if it is interactive.  Think about ways in which you can encourage interactivity with the professor, other students, the textbook, the Internet and how you design your assignments. 

·         The blog encourages interaction between the professor and other students.
·         Text messages help remind students of assignments and how to stay on track. 
·         Select one of the new generations of textbooks that are interactive as well as online.  To see a sample of an interactive online textbook, take a look at this short video demo of CollegeScope, the interactive online text used in my course. For more information on CollegeScope, go to:
·         Design assignments that make use of the Internet and encourage critical and creative thinking.  

Does this seem like a lot of work?  It is more work in the beginning and less once you have passed the first two week critical period.  All your hard work will pay off when your course is running smoothly and students are enjoying and benefiting from the course.  Keep in mind that how you begin is how you will end, so invest your time at the beginning of the course to make it the best it can be.  I wish you much success as you teach your online course.  

For CollegeScope Users

Many of the followers of this blog use my interactive online textbook, CollegeScope.   

Here are a few reminders to get started with CollegeScope at the beginning of the semester:

·      Delete your students from the previous semester.

·     Delete your previous groups and set up groups or classes for the new semester.  In this way, when students register for CollegeScope, their accounts will appear under “My Students.”

·     Have students register for CollegeScope the week before class begins.  Registration is free. Students do not pay until they begin Chapter 2.

·      Compare your class roster with “My Students.”  If any are missing, use the search function to locate them and add them to your account. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Making the Most of the First Week of Your Course

The first week of the course can be the most important week of the semester because it is an opportunity to set the stage for all that follows.  Here are some suggestions for the first week:

1.    Do an engaging and enjoyable activity so that students leave the first class with enthusiasm for the course.
First impressions are important in many areas of life, including the impression you make on the first day of the course.  Be sure to include an enjoyable activity that engages students and gives them an opportunity to participate in discussion.  There are many engaging activities for the first day or week of class in my Instructor Manual, Section 1:

2.    Pace your class to maintain student interest. 
As a general rule, plan to spend no more than 10-15 minutes on any activity.  Plan some activities that require student interaction. 

3.    Establish a supportive environment for learning.
Provide positive feedback to students who volunteer, especially during the first class.  Encourage students to be supportive of one another.  I usually make this statement early in the course:
I believe that students learn better in a positive and supportive environment.  It is my goal to be supportive of your learning and encourage you to be supportive and respectful of other students.  

4.    Introduce yourself. 
Spend about five minutes or less introducing yourself so that students get to know you.  Here are some ideas to include in your introduction:
·         Your educational journey
·         Your most important values
·         Why you enjoy teaching this course
·         What you hope students learn in the course
·         Your professional experience
·         Your favorite inspirational quote
Don’t spend too much time on your personal introduction since there are other important goals for the first class. 

5.     Get to know your students and help your students get to know one another.
Students begin any new course with some excitement or anxiety about a being in a new situation.  You can build on the excitement and reduce anxiety by doing some ice breakers.  You can find a variety of ice breakers and introductory activities on this page of my website:

Don’t spend the entire first class on ice breakers since there are other important goals for the first class.  Ideally, aim to spend no more than 10-15 minutes on the ice breakers.  You can do the ice breakers quickly by dividing your students into groups of 5 and having the group share some answers to the ice breaker questions.  Call on each group to share some of the responses.  Remember to share some of your own answers to the questions. 

6.    Use your syllabus to help students understand the course objectives and requirements. 
You can find components and sample syllabi at:
As an alternative to reading your syllabus, give students 5 minutes to skim your syllabus.  Tell them that there will be some discussion questions at the end of 5 minutes.  Ask for volunteers to answer some questions such as:
·         What is a syllabus and why should you keep it?
·         How can you make an A in this course?
·         Do you have to attend every class?
·         What behavior is required in this course?
·         What happens if your assignment is late?
·         How do you contact the instructor?
·         What textbook is required?
·         What is one student learning outcome that you find interesting? 
If students cannot answer your questions, pause so that they can look up the answers.   You could also give a 5 minute quiz on your syllabus at the beginning of the second class meeting. 

7.    Set the standards for appropriate behavior in your classroom.
Standards for student behavior should be outlined in your syllabus and implemented on the first day.  It is important to enforce the standards from the beginning.  For example, if you want only one person speaking at a time, enforce this behavior at your first opportunity.  If you would like some ideas on dealing with difficult students, see Faculty Resources on this page of my website:

8.    Provide an overview of online components of the course such as your course management system or electronic textbook. 
While you may not be able to provide this overview during the first class, it is important to include this information during the first week or no later than the second week.  Show students how to log into Blackboard or other course management systems.  Help them to access their online textbook or other online materials. 

Adjust these suggestions to match your teaching style and the needs of your students.  I hope you find these ideas useful in making a good impression and generating enthusiasm for your course.  Best wishes as you help your students to be successful.