Set Students up for Success in Online Courses

online student at computer

Student success comes from strong leadership, including establishing rapport, providing resources, and putting the onus of responsibility on the students, rather than the instructor. Perhaps the most important area for success in any online course is what I call the “start here” area. Let’s explore this idea further.

“Start here” area

Some instructors call this an introductory area or a “welcome to the course” area. I like calling it “start here,” because, quite frankly, it’s incredibly descriptive and leaves no room for misinterpretation.

Let’s take a look at the six key elements of a start-here area: the instructor introduction video, course expectations, main assignment tutorials, technology tutorials, student engagement areas, and a syllabus quiz.

Instructor introduction

The first thing that an instructor introduction video should do is establish rapport. When students take an online class, one of the most common complaints is that the human touch is lacking. They feel that they don’t have an instructor or a professor to interact with, that they’re really just interacting with a system. That’s why an introduction video is so important: it helps to establish not only the rapport and the human touch, but also a means for students to interpret all future communication, and that cannot be overrated.

Next, an instructor introduction establishes the instructor as a person and a professional, and as the expert on this topic. Also important in the instructor introduction video is the expectation for how students will address the instructor.

And finally, the instructor introduction video should touch on great things about the course or the subject area in general. It’s really important from the student perspective to see the instructor’s enthusiasm and passion for a topic. When students see that right out of the gate, they are more likely to be engaged and want to be engaged not only with the instructor, but with the course content as a whole throughout the session.

Course expectations

I recommend creating a course expectations video that establishes ground rules and unbreakable policies. This video should also include expectations for student conduct. Establish all important expectations here. If the course includes many interactive elements where peers are interacting with peers, definitely address that in this area.

At this point, it makes sense to touch upon grading expectations as well, or grading philosophy. In my classes, for example, I like to tell students that if you meet the letter of the assignment, meaning that you can read an instruction sheet and follow bullet points, that is average work. That is a “C” grade. If you want “B” grades or “A” grades, you need to go above and beyond.

The last component of a course expectations area involves technical specifications. Here I state, “If you are experiencing technical problems, call tech support,” then give students contact information in case of technical difficulties.

Assignment and technology tutorials

Assignment tutorials add different channels to explain a basic text-based instruction sheet, adding audio or video presence to communicate via a different channel, accommodate different types of learners, and reiterate the steps. The other thing these tutorials might explain is the grading and assessment process. This is really important, because students, again, need to know how they’re being assessed.

With technology tutorials, I recommend offering one for each new channel of communication that will be used in the course. For students who have never taken an online class before, technology tutorials eliminate confusion and are a means of supporting and supplementing the information that is already out there.

Student engagement

Next, including student engagement in the “start here” area is important. This is not only a means of delivering information, but it’s also an opportunity to get students to interact with the instructor, to interact with other students in the course, and to engage themselves with the content before they have even opened the textbook.

The first thing to think about here is that there are three interactivity types: student-to-student interactivity, student-to-content interactivity, and student-to-instructor interactivity. Most of the time in an online course, the student-to-content interactivity is assumed. But student-to-student relationships and student-to-instructor relationships aren’t always assumed or nurtured. Establish these within the first week of class.

I recommend a hallway conversation area; some people call this a general discussion forum. This is where students can be social, ask questions, and have the instructor respond or respond to each other, which is really important because students helping students allows them to take responsibility for themselves and each other.

Finally, establish the conversation area as a channel for connection. One of the complaints that a lot of students have in online courses is that they feel disconnected not only from the instructor but from other students. By adding a student engagement element to the start-here or introductory area, students are set up for success from the first day of class.

Syllabus quiz

This area could be called a course introduction quiz, an expectations quiz, or a syllabus quiz. The point of this quiz is to emphasize the important policies that govern the online classroom. Put these in a set of questions that get students to interact with them. In my classes, I like to use an adaptive release here—until students get a perfect 10 out of 10 on this quiz, they cannot proceed into other areas of the course. I love to use the contract question as the last question on the quiz: “True or false, I certify that I have read, understand, and agree to abide by all the terms on the syllabus.”

In summary, the six key elements that need to be included in that “start here” area for student success are the instructor introduction, course expectations, main assignment tutorials, technology tutorials, a student engagement area, and the syllabus quiz, that magic quiz that really brings it all home for the students. Plus, if online testing or quizzing will be a part of the course, students get a sample of that right at the beginning of class so there’s no ambiguity later.

Adapted from the Magna 20-Minute Mentor presentation, How Can I Set Students up for Success in Online Courses?

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