Top Takeaways:

  • Be intentional in your interactions to build community and minimize confusion.
  • Establish and maintain due dates and regular course communications.
  • Appropriately challenge your students.


Plan about a term ahead for an engaging online course. During the term, interact with your students often.

Students take online classes for many reasons, but one factor that many of them may not consider when choosing this format is the challenge of connecting with their instructor and peers. What steps can you take when building an online course to help students make meaningful connections with you, their classmates, and the content?

  1. Be present: Encourage regular student/teacher communication and establish an encouraging online environment. Being present doesn’t mean that you have to be online all the time. You can maintain regular contact with your students through weekly updates, video reminders, and full-class messages acknowledging students’ good work.
  2. Be active: Provide examples and encourage peer-to-peer collaboration. A common misconception about online courses is that students can’t collaborate. However, tools like discussion forums, Google Hangout, and Google Docs, make remote collaboration easy. When establishing collaborative activities, remember to provide examples of what you expect, including examples of what kind of work you want them to produce. Examples help guide students and make them feel like you’re an active participant in the class.
  3. Be clear: Set expectations from day one, share course objectives, and keep a predictable schedule. Students feel more confident and are better able to focus on the meaningful work of the course if the logistics are in place early and throughout the course. It helps to have regular due dates and to attach learning objectives to major activities and assignments so students understand what they’re working toward.
  4. Give regular feedback: Set reasonable expectations for information and acknowledgement feedback. For example, let students know that you’ll post assignment updates on Fridays or that you’ll comment on their work weekly. All feedback doesn’t have to be individualized. Sometimes it’s appropriate to send tips and insights to the full class. However, when you’re wanting a specific student or group of students to revise an assignment, individualized feedback is best.
  5. Get regular feedback: Provide a Q&A space, and ask students for feedback about the course with enough time to make adjustments. If the Q&A space is made public, students can answer questions for each other and everyone can view the answers. This builds community and gives instructors and students the opportunity to connect. Feedback about the course can come in the form of a survey, brief questionnaire, or written reflection. Whatever the form, it helps to focus the reflection around specific course practices, assignments, or assessments so students know what kind of feedback you’re looking for.
  6. Give deadlines: Help students manage their schedules by giving deadlines, both synchronous and asynchronous. For example, you might require an online chat session for individuals or groups of students (synchronous) and give a flexible assignment deadline, one for students who want feedback and one for students who don’t (asynchronous).
  7. Give challenges and choices: Encourage students to attempt challenging work and give them choices about how they illustrate their learning. Consider how you can shape assignments so students have to apply concepts to the real world rather than just recall information. Providing students with choices about how they’ll meet course learning outcomes motivates them to engage in the work and doesn’t have to be more work for you. Choice can be as simple as allowing students to write an essay, make a video, or build a slideshow to demonstrate their understanding of the content.

These best practices were synthesized from three sources: “Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses,” “10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching: Best Practices in Distance Education,” and “Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online: Quick Guide for New Online Faculty.”

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