Setting Course Expectations for Online Learning

July 31, 2021

No matter how hard you try, the virtual classroom will never exactly mimic the physical classroom. But here’s the kicker: that’s actually not a bad thing. 

Yes, online learning brings a set of unique challenges, but it also provides numerous benefits for students and instructors alike, including:

  • Self-paced learning and teaching 
  • Immense flexibility
  • Improved communication and collaboration
  • Refined critical-thinking and technical skills
  • Broader perspectives

That said, figuring out how to foster community and student engagement in online learning can be a daunting task. It requires a strong foundation from the get-go, which is why establishing course expectations is critical to student success. Here are some pointers.

How to Set Online Course Expectations That Ensure Student Success

1. Craft and Provide a Syllabus

A course syllabus is the perfect place to share all of your course expectations. If you don’t know what all should be included, check to see if your institution has a template you can use. 

Be sure to include the following information:

  • Your email, phone, and communication policy
  • Prerequisites
  • Course description and objectives
  • Course materials and how to locate them
  • Participation and behavioral expectation
  • Grading policies and rubrics
  • A table for assignments and their grade percentage
  • Technical support information
  • An honor pledge

Lastly, make ample room to note all other policies. In addition to university-wide policies — such as the student code of conduct, copyright violations, and principles of diversity and inclusion — include your own policies.

2. Describe Your Communication Preferences 

Near your instructor info on your syllabus, add a line about your communication preferences. Something like: “I will provide responses to emails within 36 hours.” Or “On Fridays and Sundays, I will be offline.” Additionally, provide regular office hours, whether they’re within a certain window of time each week or must be scheduled by students through an app or email request. This gives students a heads up on when and how they can get in touch with you. 

3. Explain Your Instructional Strategies 

Each instructor has a different teaching style, which contributes to a well-rounded education. However, it may be helpful to give students an idea of how you do things. Will you record audio of yourself reading a lecture? Will you allow students to interrupt with questions if you’re teaching live? Will you use different types of assessments? 

Be sure to include information about your evaluation methods as well, including your reasoning behind them. 

4. Share a Welcome Video

The warmest welcome you can give as an instructor is a short video in which you briefly go over your credentials, the syllabus, your connection to the course content, your family and hobbies, and anything else of interest. This way, students can immediately put a face to your name. You may also want to ask students to make short introductory videos of their own so they get the same chance to get to know their fellow classmates. For a less formal alternative, consider creating a welcome forum where students can post the same information. 

A warm welcome sets the stage for open and honest communication and engagement right from the start. 

5. Give and Get Feedback

The most sure-fire way to gauge how well your course expectations are working is to hear from students. Provide them a chance midway through the quarter or semester to anonymously comment on the course thus far. This gives you time to make any necessary adjustments. 

Similarly, the halfway point is also a good time to check in with students individually. You can do it under the guise of discussing their idea for the final paper, but it can also serve as a time to check in and answer any questions they may have. An end-of-the-year survey also provides helpful insights as to what might need to be changed for the next time around. 

6. Promote Interaction and Engagement

If engagement is an online course expectation of yours, embed your course with opportunities for students to interact with you as well as one another. Utilize online discussion boards, divide the students into smaller groups where they can interact further or work on group projects, and prohibit covering up cameras during synchronous class sessions.

As the instructor, you should follow these rules as well. Ideally, you interact with the same online discussions they do. This also gives you keen insight into the students and their progress. 

The Takeaway

Virtual learning may have a couple of drawbacks, but it certainly has many advantages. To ensure you make the most out of your online course, set strong and clear expectations and set them early. Success is sure to follow. 


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