Teaching Them How to be Online Students: Suggestions for Lessons and Assignments

This blog post is part of a longer series to help you quickly design an effective online course. If you began with the Start Here post, you’ll have already written your syllabus, chosen your materials and assignments, and built your online shell. Next, we turn to designing lessons and activities. Typically, I recommend designing these together so that you are assured that the activities you assign reflect the lessons you have taught.

Usually, lessons and assignments are organized into units, so each unit is tightly focused on the learning objectives. One caveat to this is “learning to learn” assignments, which are not so much about the learning objective but about teaching students HOW to do the work of a successful student. This is especially important in an online class, given that many of them will not have been online students before. And it is even more urgent in the coming semester, when I anticipate many online classes will include a mix of students well- and less-prepared to learn online.

File:Gerrit Dou - Scholar sharpening a quill pen.jpg

Teach your students the academic and tech skills they will need to learn in your class. Above, an older man sharpens his quill pen with a small knife. He stands over a book and wears a cloak with fur trim, a pair of armless spectacles, and a cap. He wears a gold hoop in his right ear. Garrit Dou‘s Scholar Sharpening His Quill Pen (1633). Public domain.

For this reason, I recommend several kinds of assignments to help students prepare and monitor their learning.

For every class, I recommend:

A quiz over the syllabus. This creates greater accountability than hiding an Easter eggin your syllabus, and if students don’t read the syllabus but just take the quiz, they still learn. You can gate it so that students cannot open the rest of the course until they take it. I recommend letting students take it an unlimited number of times (always recording the most recent, not necessarily the highest) score. Use the same format as you will use for quizzes so that students can practice the tech skills they will need on a low-stakes assignment.

Ask questions over the syllabus over every question that bugs you that students ask as well as over every policy. Here are the questions I use, using only multiple choice or true/false answers.

Among the following, which are appropriate ways to address your professor in this course?

  • What is the best way to reach the professor if you have a question about course content?
  • What should appear in the subject line of your email to your professor when you write to her?
  • If you are struggling with a tech issue related to the class, which phone number should you call?
  • All work except the final paper for this class is due on the same day and at the same time each week. What is it?
  • What is the late work policy for this class?
  • When is the last day to drop this course?
  • Which kind of assignment contributes most to your final grade in this course?
  • How many times each week are you required to post in the discussion board?
  • You may take each quiz in this class how many times?
  • If you take a quiz more than once, which grade is recorded in the gradebook?
  • What should you do if you witness someone violating the privacy of your peers in this class?
  • What should do you do if you witness someone being unkind in our class discussion board?
  • Is extra credit available in this class?
  • If you have a question about the content of this syllabus, what should you do?
  • What is the name of the Academic Assistant for this class? What is that person’s email address?

Time management calculator. Successful online students know that time management is the key their success in a course. You help them by making the time requirements for lessons and activities clear on the syllabus and in your LMS, but they have to be able to recognize if they have the time necessary to do the work. Have them use an online calculator to figure out if they have enough time necessary to do the work well in this class. Here is one from the University of Wisconsin, and here is one from Ferris University. Be sure that whatever one you offer your students, consider the number of weeks in the semester (since a 3.0 credit 7 week class moves about twice as fast as a 3.0 14 week one). Simply have students screenshot their results and upload to the LMS.


Ask them to describe their study space and their plan for studying. This can be just a paragraph, and you don’t have to comment on it–the point is for them to identify practical steps to success.

Mid-term and final reflections. Student reflections are a form of secondary assessment; they allow you to measure what students say they are learning. At midterm, ask questions that will help you make any necessary adjustments for the second half of the course, and at the final, ask them to synthesize information from the whole course. At midterm, I use a survey, asking questions like

  • What are you doing to ensure your success in this class?
  • How many times this semester have you contacted the professor for help understanding course content?
  • How many times this semester have you contacted a classmate for help?
  • How many hours each week are you devoting to this class?
  • How many times do you read each reading in this class?
  • How many pages of notes have you taken so far in this class?
  • How often do you talk about what you are learning in class with someone outside of it?
  • How many times have you posted in discussion board so far this semester?
  • What is your current grade in this class?
  • Does your current grade in this class reflect your level of effort? If your grade is lower than you want it to be, what is one step you can take this week to improve it?

For finals, I use questions that are more open-ended. They include items like:

  • What is one assigned text that you would recommend is taught in future versions of this class?
  • What is one thing you learned or practiced in this class that will make you a better citizen, neighbor, friend, partner, parent, or professional in the future? Be specific about what you learned, and limit your reflection to a single role you play now or plan on playing in the future.
  • What is one piece of advice you would give to future students enrolling in this course to help them get the most out of it?

Consider if the following kinds of learning-to-learn activities are useful to you:

Tech practice activities. If they will have to record and upload a video, create a digital product, or use a new app, give them a low-stakes assignment that lets them practice the tech first.

Academic resources practice. Even excellent F2F students don’t know how to use resources online. If their success in the class relies on these resources, let them practice them before they have to use them. For example, create activities in which they demonstrate that they know to

  • locate library resources
  • contact a librarian
  • schedule an appointment with a tutor, including a writing center tutor
  • cite sources in the citation style you require

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