How to communicate your online teaching structure to students – and why it matters

By miranda.prynne, 5 November, 2020
It is important to explain your online teaching plan to students at the start of the course, so they know what to expect. Here, Dawn Gilmore explains why and how to do this.
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Communicating your teaching approach to your students manages expectations and maintains engagement throughout the semester. When students know what to expect, when to expect it, and how to approach the semester, they are empowered to fit their studies around life. Teachers, too, are protected from feeling permanently “on call” and other habits that can lead to burn-out. 

In this article, I describe four proven ways to deliver a successful online experience for your students. 

1. Define your communication channels  

Be ready from day one! Identify each communication channel that you’ll be using with your students and tell them how and when you’ll be using each channel. Follow through on your communicated approach so that your students trust you – this will build your online teaching credibility with your students. 

The channels that you’ll need to define how and when to use are most commonly announcements, discussion boards, webinars, email and one-to-one appointments or office hours.  

For example, when defining your email communication channel, you might write:   

Using email: I’ll strive to respond to your emails within 48 hours. I’ll be on email every morning from 8am to 9am. If you have not heard back from me within these time frames, please send me a polite nudge. 

2. Establish a webinar routine   

Communicate the dates and times of your webinars in advance. Try to use the same time/day each week to help your students plan their lives around the event. 

Set a webinar agenda and time frames and communicate these at least 48 hours in advance. This will help your students to mentally prepare for the webinar, so they can strategically read and research the topics, as well as prepare questions in advance. 

Show up early but begin on time and stick to the agenda. Use the time before the webinar to build rapport between yourself and your students, and with each other. And don’t forget to record the webinar (or set it to auto-record) for those who can’t attend or who need to revisit concepts. 

For example, when communicating your webinar routine, you might write: 

Webinar routine: Our live webinar will be every Wednesday from 7:30pm for 45 minutes. Each week we will review key concepts and complete one case study together. Please come prepared with at least two questions each week. These sessions will be recorded and shared the following day by 1pm. 

3. Create an assessment ritual 

Create a three-step assessment ritual for every assessment in your course. Remember that assessments are a stressful time for your students and that rituals cue students to prepare and help to calm performance anxiety. 

Step one (student driven): Two weeks before the due date, create a discussion forum dedicated to Q&As for each assessment. Make sure to check this every 24 to 48 hours. If students think you’re not responding in this space, your email inbox will fill up quickly! 

Step two (teacher driven): Also, two weeks out, host a 30-minute webinar to unpack the assessment expectations and grading rubric with the students. This will tell students what they have to do and how they will be assessed. 

Step three (student driven): Three to five days out, host a 30-minute drop-in session for students to ask questions, problem solve with you, and get feedback and encouragement on their progress. 

4. Use regular feedback loops 

Continuous feedback loops – or learning cycles – scaffold students’ learning by catching what needs to change, leveraging what needs to continue, and identifying gaps in a student’s understanding. Your ongoing group and individual feedback will enable your students to build on the content from one week to the next. 

Provide weekly group feedback to the entire class. There are ample opportunities to provide group feedback: for instance, in the discussion board at the end of an activity, at the start or end of webinars, and in an announcement after grades are released. Group feedback should focus on high-level themes, trends and observations on what students are doing well, and areas or skills that need to be revisited. 

Use a similar approach for all your assessment feedback with your students. Include the student’s name and a holistic feedback message that tells a student where they have achieved on the current assignment (feedback) and what to do before the next assignment (feedforward). 

And don’t forget to label all your feedback with statements such as “This is feedback” or “The purpose of this feedback is to…” Otherwise students might not see your feedback! 

Remember, setting up and following through on consistent ways to engage with your course will enable to you to facilitate your and your students’ success. Good luck! 


Dawn Gilmore is director of quality and enhancement at the Centre for Academic Quality and Enhancement (CAQE) at RMIT University.  

It is important to clearly explain your online teaching plan to students at the start of the course, so they know what to expect each week. Here, Dawn Gilmore explains why and how to outline your teaching structure



3 years 4 months ago

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Rosemary Schmid
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So true! And the flip side would be to offer and require a preliminary course for all students who are being asked to work online. It has been obvious to many professors that some things are truly "better" online, yet students are not sophisticated in their own practices. Learning under fire is quite challenging, and administrators, boards of trustees, and legislators who control public university funding, in general, are too often completely in the dark about all the physical, mental, social, and emotional challenges among the teachers and learners on the front lines. (I know. My thoughts here are not about THIS excellent article.)
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