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Quick and Easy Course Improvements All Online Instructors Should Consider

Many articles and workshops explore complex concepts and tools that may not be suitable for everyone.  With this in mind, I asked our instructional design team at ASU Online, “What are some easy, non-technical, low-hanging-fruit-type enhancements for online courses that all instructors should consider?  Here are the recommendations we came up with.  

Note: Keep in mind that these are considerations and may not work for all courses.  As always, use common sense and experiment to see what works best for your course.

Create a Frequently Asked Questions page for students

At the start of their course, some instructors create a Frequently Asked Questions page for:

  • Any questions frequently emailed to instructors/TAs or posted in a community forum
  • Any questions that students have answered incorrectly in the past for other students
  • Any questions instructors think students should ask

This can make for fewer student misunderstandings, lower response workload for instructors, and less frustration for students.  Frequently, students may be waiting for an instructor response before doing work, and if the instructor needs more than 24 hours to respond, this can greatly impact a student’s ability to succeed in the course.  Here are some good general questions to start with.  

  • What are the most common reasons students receive lower grades on assignments?
  • What’s the policy for late assignments?
  • How will this course be relevant for my career in [Insert major here]?

Even if these are mentioned in the syllabus, it’s not a bad idea to be redundant for higher visibility.

Create a discussion board for students to introduce themselves

To promote networking and a sense of community, many instructors add a discussion board where students introduce themselves, their interests, and their goals.   To take your discussion board to the next level, ask students to share a favorite podcast or other fun/interesting items that will motivate other students to read their peers’ posts.  Additionally, consider using media based tools like Flipgrid or the Canvas media recorder for a more personal experience.  If you want this to be mandatory task but not make it worth any points toward the grade total, consider making it a Canvas requirement where they’ll need to submit a post before accessing Module 1.

Use the post-first setting for discussion boards

Like Blackboard and other learning management systems, Canvas has a setting where you can prevent students from seeing other students’ posts on discussion boards until they’ve already posted.  This promotes original and unique entries and prevents students from simply borrowing or summarizing the work of other students.  Consider enabling this to encourage original ideas from your students in discussions. Here’s Canvas’s tutorial on the post-first setting.

Add “Likes” to discussion board posts and announcements

If you’re interested in more interactivity in your course, Canvas has the option of adding another layer of engagement to your announcements and discussion board posts with “Likes”. Likes can build on the sense of community and positivity in your course, and can be an indication to instructors or to students that their work was read and appreciated, which is not always clear outside of direct discussion replies.  Here’s a Canvas tutorial to enable likes for discussions and a tutorial to enable likes in announcement settings.

Insert images into your course and course card using the Canvas Flickr integration

If your course consists primarily of text, Canvas has made it incredibly easy to add copyright-free images to your content using an integration with Flickr.  Consider adding pictures to break up text or help immerse your students in a narrative. As always, if you’re including images of people, be mindful of diversity.  Here’s a video walkthrough on adding Flickr images.

Additionally, there’s a beta feature in Canvas that allows you to add a picture to your course as it shows up on the Canvas dashboard for you and your students to give students an inviting and attractive portal for your course. Here’s a video walkthrough on adding course cards for ASU Courses.

Note: As the video shows, you’ll need to enable the beta feature in Settings/Feature Options, then *reload the page*, then the course card option will be displayed under Settings/Course Details.

Boost your audio quality for instructor-created media with an external microphone

While there are many media tutorials available to instructors, an incredibly easy enhancement that can have a great impact on your media is using an external microphone.  Improving audio quality can boost student engagement and retention (especially for longer videos), and as an added bonus, it can make auto-captioning for videos much more accurate.  Many instructors rely on microphones built-in to their computers or phones for lectures or video announcements, and the difference between a built-in microphone and a properly-positioned external microphone can be drastic.  External microphones start at $25, connect via USB or the headphone jack, and are easy to enable in any video recording program with just a couple clicks.

Add instructor enthusiasm to announcements and messages

While there are a lot of ways to improve instructor presence in online courses, one particular way that’s easy, fun, and often overlooked is communicating instructor enthusiasm. Online courses are often very direct and emotionless, with instructions such as “Read this article and begin your literature review” or “Remember to watch the video by Friday and post in the discussion board”. In face-to-face courses, instructor enthusiasm for a given topic, story, or resource is very transparent, which gives context and inspiration to students. Comments in your online course like “Read Chapter 4 this week. I personally love how they describe…” or “This is my favorite assignment to grade because…” can be encouraging and endearing for your students.  To take your enthusiasm impact to the next level, express it in a video announcement rather than through text.

Craft an effective welcome message 

Before each term, it’s helpful to share a welcome message to students through an announcement or email outlining how to get started in the course, how to ask for support in the course, what materials are required for the course, and any additional language you can share to get them excited to begin.  For additional tips on crafting an effective welcome message, we recommend Using a Course Start-Up Message to Improve Student Outcomes by Moser, Philipson, and Reed.

Add reflection elements to assignments

Another quick and easy way to engage students in your content is to add a reflection element to your assignments. This can be as simple as adding a reflection prompt or two to an already-existing activity or assessment.

Students are often more motivated to learn—and retain more information—when they understand how your content is relevant to their lives and connects to their personal and professional goals. Consider asking students to reflect on things like:

  • What they found most interesting, valuable, or relevant
  • What may have surprised them or caused them to change an opinion or previously held belief
  • How they might apply the information now or in the future

This will help students connect to the content in a powerful way and make learning sticky.  As an added bonus, this can make grading more enjoyable when you see how you’ve impacted your learners.

Add context, narratives, or enthusiasm to make learning materials more appealing

As instructional designers, we’re often asked: “How can I make sure my students read the textbook?”.  An important question an instructor should also ask is: “How can I make sure my students want to read the textbook?”.  For each item in your learning materials, students will often wonder questions like, “Do I have to?”, “Is this worth my time?”, and “Can I get by just doing the assignment and referring back to parts of this?”  Consider adding a couple of sentences “selling” the item.

Compare these two statements and what effect it might have on whether students click the link:

  • Watch Roman Mars’ TED Talk on Vexillology.  In this surprising and hilarious talk about vexillology — the study of flags — Roman Mars reveals the five basic principles of flag design and shows why he believes they can be applied to just about anything. You’ll discuss this video in the discussion board for this module.

The concept of motivating students with narratives and context in online courses is explored more in depth in the article “Engage Students with the 6 C’s of Motivation”.  

Many thanks to the following ASU Online instructional designers who contributed to this article: Julie Allen, Jessica Cole, Mary Loder, and DeAnna Soth.  Cover photo by John Doyle on Unsplash.