Five Simple Reminders about Course Beginning

As you are all finishing the preparations for your fall course, here is a five-item checklist about what it is good to do in the first week of a course. Using these five practices help to ensure student satisfaction and effective learning and to make teaching more enjoyable as well!

See if you can check off "yes" to each of these reminders

1. Have you incorporated ways to "make yourself known" to your students… just as you would in a face-to-face environment? Students love stories about their faculty and the more embarrassing the better! One item of information that is fun to share is to describe the room or favorite place where each of us does our online teaching and learning. As I work out of my home, I have a dedicated office, which is a good thing, as I "file in piles" and have tons of books. In other words, it is a long way from being paperless, despite my love of digital tools! A couple of small oil paintings do provide a nice "eye rest" for me however. What are ways for you to make yourself known? Here are a few. How many are you using? Do you have others that you would recommend?

  • Picture
  • Short Bio
  • Link to your favorite professional publication
  • Other personal picture or favorites

2. Not only do students want to know you -- the faculty, but they also want to know something about their fellow students. Do you have a "Getting Acquainted" discussion post as the very first discussion in your course? This is a real opportunity to tell a story about yourself as a model and to encourage your students to share something more personal about themselves. This can be done by simply asking students to complete a statement, such as, "My favorite movie, or book, or meditation or relaxation is…." Or asking students to share/ post one of their favorite pictures. Students will often share pictures of themselves on vacation, with pets, or even their hobby, such as refurbishing an antique car! Simple sharing at this level elicits a wealth of information, so that we "connect" on more levels with each other. The "getting acquainted" board is also a great place to test use of the new Voice Board. We learn a lot about each other by hearing one's voice!

Some faculty also ask the students -- in their introductions to answer course specific questions such as why they are taking the course, what their motivations are, what skills or competencies they expect or hope to learn, etc. These getting acquainted posts help us learn more about the students to make it easier and more natural to build associations and relationships for the students, developing core concepts based on what students already have in their heads. One of the library of ecoaching tips focuses on the learning principle from Lev Vygotsky and his "Zone of Proximal development." This principle requires that we know what students know on an individual basis. How do we know what students know? And the kinds of experiences they have had? We ask them to tell us in various ways. Getting acquainted is just one way of doing this.

3. Your Virtual presences! In real estate it is location, location, location. In online learning it is Presence, presence and more presence!

Be sure schedule yourself so that you can post a message or announcement in the course site to everyone at least three times a week-- and absolutely in the first week. In other words, let your students know you are there and interested in how they are doing with their assignments and general progress. On a simple level, your presence is there to encourage the students to think aloud, so that they can process information and link ideas and concepts. Students, like children, often just need to hear an occasional "uh-ha" to keep going and feel as if their efforts are being recognized.

Your presence and involvement also changes over the weeks of a course. In the overview of the phases of engagement in a course, your role is that of a "social negotiator." Later you shift to being more of a "structural engineer", designing opportunities for students to form dyads or teams of three and having the students engage in critical thinking and sharing of ideas. More on this in later tips! (Conrad and Donaldson, 2004)

4. Do you have a practice in the first week to check that your students all have access to the textbooks and course materials and know how to use the course site and the various course components? If any student doesn't post in the Getting Acquainted post by the end of the first week, a good practice is to send an email to that student, or put out an announcement reminding students to do so.

The first week is also a good time to refresh student awareness of the communication processes of an online course. Remind them of the resources and times of the help desk if they need technical help. Remind them that their fellow students are resources for questions as well in the open discussion forum. And have your personal schedule for when you are going to be online and available for chat or other course related questions. You may choose to do this in a general posting area or in a couple of announcements.

5. The first week is also a good time to discuss/process the course goals, objectives and projects in some way. We often develop ambitious syllabi assuming that students will read and digest it! But a specific post or assignment that requires students to review the course objectives and to develop some personal and customizable objectives helps to focus students on performance goals as well as knowledge goals. You may want to ask students to select the most important objective for them in their current/future plans, or to ask them to identify the section that they believe is most fundamental/difficult/easy for them, etc.