Best Semester Practices

These practices are recommended for successful course management throughout the semester. To explore pedagogical themes, see our Best Practices archives.

  • Use backward course design to ensure:
    • that assessments align to outcomes
    • that assessments are scaffolded, allowing low-stakes practice before summative assessments
  • Ensure that RSI standards are met. Beyond regulation concerns, it’s just good practice for a quality learning experience.
  • Check that instructional materials follow copyright permissions by consulting library staff.
  • Check that course structure is consistent, clear, and easily navigable. The majority of online students are working adults who require flexibility and transparency to succeed. This is best achieved with intuitive structure using:
    • a chronological format: weekly progression rather than topical organization
    • manageable chunks: disperse in
    • transparency of workload: avoid weekly rollouts that present barriers to time management
    • simple layouts: use bullets when possible
  • Create module overviews that provide information about contexts and outcomes.
  • Prepare all assessment materials, including:
  • Update calendar dates for all course schedule information and syllabus to current semester.
  • Set up Teams. Activate team for each course so that it’s visible for students.
  • Post the welcome content one week prior to start date, including the syllabus and major course components – enough to spark curiosity and quell anxiety. Hide the bulk of course content if it’s necessary for your purposes, but offering transparency on core components is an ethically sound practice in age when the student population is trending toward nontraditional working professionals.
  • Create a course introduction video to familiarize students with you and the course. Remember- it’s perfectly fine to leave the imperfections in, because the point is to humanize yourself.
  • Design your course’s welcome module with the understanding that instructor presence is a central factor in online student success. In face-to-face courses, students may develop a sense of belonging (and importantly, persistence) organically. However, in online environments, student belonging requires more intentional facilitation.
  • Send a welcoming email introducing yourself and inviting students to login to the course. Share pertinent information about getting started: meeting requirements, required materials, significant deadlines, and first day expectations. Most importantly, set a personal tone that emphasizes your humanity.
  • James Lang, of Notre Dame’s Kaneb Center for Teaching Excellence, outlines a few principles to get your students invested in the course:
    • Focus on curiosity: captivate students’ interest in the course as an intellectual journey. Consider what field professionals find compelling and create learning experiences around deep questions. Effective instructors connect with students’ current fascinations, draw from their own passion for the subject, and emphasize the course’s relevance to both students and the world. Rather than starting with the syllabus, spark curiosity about the content first, and later show how the course addresses that curiosity through a syllabus review.
    • Prioritize community: (1) Humanize yourself. While it’s best to keep the primary focus on course content, a little self-disclosure, especially about your own intellectual journey, goes a long way in establishing instructor presence. (2) Get students talking. This doesn’t have to mean icebreakers. Give them a course-related task that entails small group interaction.
    • Establish learning awareness: This doesn’t necessarily mean using the term “metacognition.” Consider some interactive activities that ask them to consider: What learning strategies are necessary for success in the course? What support do they require from you for these strategies to be effective? Evaluate past experiences by having students reflect on the best and worst classes in your field. Compile their responses on the board. Have students create lists of actions for their success and expectations from you and peers. Discuss these lists in class or on the learning-management system. See Lang’s full article for examples of the principles applied in various disciplines.
  • Administer a midterm course review. The problem with “Distance Education” is just that. The potential for uncommunicated frustrations is greater, and it may be due to some course designs or practices contributing to common confusions. Check out a survey example as well as some discussion oriented alternatives.
  • Check Blackboard Analytics. To see student engagement, check course activity, where you can find details including time spent and last login date for each student.
  • Check that you are on track for regular and substantive interaction (RSI) as regulated by the U.S. Department of Education for all institutions receiving Title IV funds (federal financial aid). Follow some straightforward recommendations to ensure that you are meeting the requirements.
  • Review your gradebook to ensure that assessment values and dates are aligned to the syllabus as originally laid out.
  • Check that assessment settings are user-friendly:
    • Allow multiple attempts whenever possible. This does not impact late submission records. It merely ensures that students can resubmit up to the due date.
    • Provide all necessary instructions, especially if students are expected to use software other than Blackboard (for example, Respondus testing).
  • Check that you have set assessments to record past due items as automatic zeros. This ensures that students are tracking missing assignments early enough in the semester to follow up with you.
  • Help students to contextualize course content within the larger scope of their program of study. Provide an activity that allows them to connect course content to subsequent courses, real world application, or lifelong learning.
  • Consider these approaches to provide a successful transition:
    • Summarize the enduring takeaways you want students to have from the course in 20 years.
    • Encourage current students to pass on advice to future peers through written notes or recorded videos. They can share crucial topics and effective learning strategies.
    • Prompt students to set goals for furthering the skills acquired in your course, outlining how they will apply these skills, seek feedback, and continue learning.
    • Have students create personalized learning plans detailing how they will stay informed about the subject and enhance their skills. This can include joining associations, reading journals, or following leading scholars on social media.
    • Link students to ongoing affinity groups in your field, such as student organizations, professional associations, and community groups.
  • Institute a plan for course reflection and revision each semester. Consider a comprehensive approach that looks at alignment among learning outcomes, learning assessments, and delivery.

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