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7 Tips for Creating Successful Online Classes

The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics of the Department of Education show that nearly one-third of all students take at least one online course during their college education.  Online courses offer convenience and flexibility for students with jobs, families, and other responsibilities. In addition, online courses allow college and university faculty similar flexibility, not requiring classroom space and freeing up teaching hours during the day. 

Online courses do have some drawbacks, however.

They require a higher level of initiative and self-discipline from the student. Without meeting in a classroom regularly, it can be easy for students to disengage from the course. Online courses can also be isolating. Is it possible to build a community in an online course? How can we keep students engaged and motivated for the duration of the semester?

Here are 7 tips for setting up a high-quality course that promotes learning, engages students in multiple ways, and fosters connectedness with the rest of the class. 

  1. Syllabus Quiz

The first assignment that students in my online course complete is a syllabus quiz.

  • They are expected to read thoroughly through the syllabus and any supplementary orientation materials on their own, then take a quiz over it. 
  • The questions on the quiz could cover due dates of specific assignments, how grades are determined, and how to get help with course material.
  •  An effective syllabus quiz ensures course expectations are clear and well-understood.  It also prevents students from contacting the instructor at the end of the semester saying they weren’t aware of some assignment or due date. 
  1. Weekly Announcement Run-Down

Beginning the first week of classes, I send out a weekly announcement to all of my students that provides a run-down of everything going on that week.

  • It may include upcoming due dates, specific instructions or details on assignments, results from previous assignments, and any other relevant learning opportunities that might come up. 
  • This serves as a weekly touchpoint that keeps students thinking about the course and refreshes their memory on expectations. 

Without an email delivered to their inbox each week, many students may find themselves checking out for weeks at a time.  This weekly email helps the student stay informed, encourages consistent participation, and can make the course feel less overwhelming. 

  1. Quality Online Learning Resources

Another key to creating an engaging online course is to have quality online learning resources. Many instructors may create or curate their own course materials and resources, but there are also several high-quality online learning platforms available through textbook publishers.

  • Adaptive or game-based systems, like SmartBook 2.0, offer students innovative ways to engage with e-textbooks and provide online assignments and experiences that promote student learning.
  • Many of these platforms also offer useful analytics that can help instructors identify struggling students early and intervene, as necessary.
  1. Recorded Lectures

Classroom lectures are often a central component of a course that may be missing from online courses. There are many lecture-capture software options that allow instructors to record and post lectures for students to watch on their own time.

  • The instructor is able to create a classroom-like experience, providing students with more detailed explanations and discussion of relevant content. 
  • The student is able to listen and learn, which can make the course feel more traditional.
  • It also serves as another point of contact for the student to feel more connected to the instructor. 
  1. Group Discussions

Most learning management systems, like Blackboard and Canvas, allow instructors to set up discussion forums.  Assigning discussions on topics relevant to the course is a way to foster a sense of connectedness within the online course. 

  • Students are able to see the names of their online classmates and discuss relevant topics. This creates a space for idea-sharing and healthy debate.  It creates interaction between students and imparts a sense of community within the course, in the absence of actual classroom experience. 
  • Additionally, these group discussion forums can also serve as a place for students to ask questions about the course content; both instructors and fellow students can answer questions.
  1. Online Office Hours

One thing students often find lacking in online courses is a face-to-face connection with their instructor. Depending on the type of course and the institution, some instructors may be able to hold on-campus office hours. Another option is to hold online office hours, through applications like Zoom or WebEx

  • This provides students with another layer of connection. They have the opportunity to speak to their instructor “face-to-face” to ask questions, express concerns, or simply to introduce themselves, bridging some of the ‘distance’ in distance learning. 
  1. Optional Face-to-Face Experiences

Depending on the type of class, offering optional face-to-face ‘field trips’ may be another method of engaging students with course materials. Students would have the opportunity to interact with the instructor and classmates in a setting that reinforces the content of the course. Even an afternoon meeting with coffee and conversation can deepen students understanding of a field of study and create networking opportunities that may be lacking in many online courses.


U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Digest of Education Statistics, 2016 (NCES 2017-094), Table 311.15.

About the Author

Dr. Whitney Breslin is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Health and Human Performance Department at the University of Houston, where she teaches courses in health, functional anatomy, exercise physiology, and exercise testing and prescription. Dr. Breslin completed her PhD in Kinesiology at the University of Houston in 2012. Since then, she has taught a wide-range of course formats and enrollment sizes, ranging from face-to-face sections of 20 students to online sections of 2,000 students. She is passionate about teaching and loves the challenge of finding new ways to engage students and promote learning in a variety of course formats. She lives in Houston, TX with her husband and two daughters. In their free time, they enjoy running, cooking, traveling, and exploring as many parks and playgrounds as possible.

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