Best Practices for Large-Enrollment Online Courses, Part I

Best Practices for Large-Enrollment Online Courses, Part I

Whenever student enrollment capacity dramatically increases for an instructor, there are a number of common questions and concerns: How will the increased grading load be managed?  How can instructors facilitate a discussion among 100+ students? How will students receive meaningful feedback? Here are some best practices and considerations for managing high-enrollment courses that have been successful in our ASU Online courses.

This article is the first in a three part series:

Part 1: Managing student expectations, leveraging quizzes, and reducing grading load

Part 2: Managing groups, peer review, and other peer-to-peer interactions

Part 3: Managing instructor-student communication and presence

Manage Student Expectations

One of the most important and often overlooked aspects of high-enrollment courses is the management of student expectations. Instructors will design a course built to adequately handle hundreds of students, only to receive end-of-the-semester student evaluations claiming they had no instructor support or feedback. At the start of the semester, we recommend that you send out an announcement describing some policies or scenarios that may be unfamiliar to students accustomed to being in a small course. Consider mentioning the following:

Be upfront about the grading differences in a large-enrollment course: Will you occasionally need up to a week or more to grade an important paper? Will you not be able to respond to every discussion board post? Clarifying these differences before the course begins is important in case they have expectations based on smaller course experiences, and can lead to better student experiences and course evaluations.

Remind students of the ways you can be reached for feedback or help: Do you hold video conferencing office hours for students?  Will you give student additional feedback on an assignment if they request it by email?  Promote these extra feedback mechanisms so students are reminded of your investment in their success and to encourage them to reach out.  Students in both face-to-face and online high-enrollment courses are sometimes prone to thinking “I’m just a number so I shouldn’t bother the instructor/they won’t have time for me.”

Leverage Quizzes & Exams

With the ability to automatically grade students and provide feedback, quizzes are a natural fit for large-enrollment courses.  Many instructors are reluctant to use quizzes for various legitimate reasons, such as low-cognitive challenge, risk of cheating, and because some topics aren’t conducive to multiple choice questioning.  It’s important to recognize that quizzes aren’t a viable solution for everyone, but here are some important considerations.

Use Quizzes whenever they are a viable option. If an assignment can be adequately replaced by a well-constructed quiz, this is an excellent first option. If a paper or project can be cut in half, with half being a written reflection assignment and the other half being a quiz of the student’s knowledge of a topic, this drastically reduces the amount of text an instructor has to read, correct, and grade.  

Build in feedback for all questions for right and wrong answers.  This serves two functions: helping students correct misunderstandings in an environment where they may be less likely to receive extensive feedback, and reducing emails to the instructor on why they missed a question.

Challenge students at higher cognitive levels when applicable.  It’s common for multiple choice questions to require low cognitive levels of thinking, such as remembering or recognizing information.  Instead of using simple questions like “What year did Arizona become a state?” which can quickly be googled, try writing questions that require the synthesis of multiple ideas, such as “Which of the following reasons that led Arizona to become a state also applies to the current application of Puerto Rico to become a state?”

Use Item Analysis to review data on how students answered your questions: This data can inform you on what questions need to be rewritten or can help you identify any ineffective learning materials.  Here’s a tutorial on how to run an Item Analysis in Canvas: (

Use strategies to reduce the likelihood of cheating: There are a number of pedagogical ways to reduce cheating, such as open book expectations, shuffling questions and answers, limiting student quiz time to prevent time to look at other resources, and changing some of your questions each term, as well as technological solutions like RPnow for online test proctoring.

Reduce your Grading Load

When assignments can’t be adequately replaced or reduced with quizzes, you may need to rethink how they’re structured.  A good first step is to work backwards – estimate the time you expect to have each week for grading and feedback and divide by the amount of students.  For instance, if an instructor allots 30 hours a week to a course with 200 students, that equates to 9 minutes per student per week, including grading, feedback, and responding to any emails if students need help. If an assignment (or multiple assignments) can’t be handled within that time, keep brainstorming or connect with a peer or instructional designer for ideas.  Here are some additional tips to consider:

Change your approach to discussions: In smaller classes, most instructors choose to grade and leave feedback for every student in discussion boards.  To dedicate more time to assignment feedback, many successful high-enrollment course instructors opt to make two important changes.  First, they ensure that discussions are reserved for open-ended questions without a correct answer (which typically yields more interesting responses and conversation anyway) so there’s less “correction” that needs to happen from the instructor.  Second, rather than leaving private feedback in the grades section, instructors will leave public replies to some students in the actual discussion board, which leads to higher instructor visibility (as opposed to private grading feedback) and proof that the instructor is reading comments, without needing to respond to every single student.  Another option is to not post anything in the discussion boards, and just post an announcement when the discussion board closes about your two or three favorite posts or ideas presented by students, which lets the students know you’re reading their work and can create a sense of competition for the next discussion board.

Use third-party tools with auto-grading:  Some third-party tools like the discussion platform Yellowdig automatically assign points for participation or completion.  Others like Labster (an online science lab platform) offer a robust experience with learning materials and feedback that automatically forwards student scores to the LMS gradebook.  Connect with your peers or your instructional designer to consider and explore third-party tools to help you leverage technologies.

Use rubrics for all assignments:  Rubrics loaded and assigned in the LMS help communicate the assignment requirements to students (promoting higher quality work and reducing errors in need of feedback) as well as assignment deficiencies and grade justification after students submit.  Rubrics also make grading quicker by only requiring instructor clicks instead of typing out common errors.

Use templates and worksheets instead of essays and papers: Unless a course specifically requires papers and essays as a writing or literacy requirement, try to convert all writing assignments to worksheets or templates, which reduces the scavenger hunt that instructors need to do to confirm that students addressed all of the required elements.  A worksheet or template essentially asks students directly about the required elements with a space to write the answer (which can be a brief statement or a paragraph), which is typically much quicker to grade and evaluate student efforts, and is often more straightforward for students as well.  An example of a worksheet is provided below, with questions in grey on the left hand side and a space for writing in white on the right.

Compare how much quicker this worksheet would be to grade compared to a 5-page analysis paper.  It also removes the need to grade on writing style and formatting, plus it’s more straightforward for students, reducing the likelihood that they’ll reach out to instructors confused about the assignment.

Be careful with assignments that require timely feedback: With a high student submission pool, it can sometimes be tricky to provide timely meaningful feedback if a student is dependent on it before the next assignment.  You may need to change the nature of the assignment stages or plan due dates around when you can get the most grading done.

Special thanks to Mary Loder, DeAnna Soth, and the instructional design team at ASU Online for sharing their thoughts and expertise on this topic.

Best Practices for Teaching Online

One of the most common questions an Instructional Designer is faced with is, “How can I enhance the student experience in my online course?” Often times, instructors wish to replicate the activities they do in face-to-face courses in the online environment but are not sure where to begin. One recommendation is to consult an instructional designer. We also strongly encourage instructors to participate in the Master Class for Teaching Online, an online workshop designed to facilitate peer sharing of strategies for teaching online. The workshop is facilitated by a team of instructional designers and touches on several best practices. The graphic presented here lists seven best practices for teaching online. Incorporating these best practices will help ensure that you and your students stay engaged and have a positive experience. Continue reading

Faculty Showcase: Short Introductory Video Announcements

Joana Girante, Professor of Economics with the W.P. Carey School of Business, discusses how she uses short introductory video announcements in her online courses to introduce weekly topics. Knowing that her largely non-economics majors’ audience is a bit apprehensive about the topic, she illustrates that economics is everywhere and relevant; it is in music and in everyday decisions.

Girante uses highly engaging video announcements based on narrated PowerPoints using a variety of animated graphs, pictures, and Youtube videos to contextualize her weekly online content.  She discovered that her students used the videos as an additional study tool and that it gave her an opportunity to mimic the impromptu comments often made in the in-person environment.

Cheaters Never Prosper

“How do you prevent cheating in online courses? Since 1995, when the ASU Online instructional design team first started working with faculty to develop online courses, this is one of the most common questions we’ve received.

At ASU Online, our aim is to preserve the integrity of our students, and the credibility and rigor of our degree programs, which requires keen attention to academic integrity.

We provide the following resources in an effort to minimize opportunities for cheating and promote academic integrity in online courses. Continue reading

9 Proven Ways for Instructors to Address Online Student Retention

With accessibility to online education increasing, the retention of online students has become a concern of academic leaders in higher education (Allen & Seaman, 2015). As a result, many universities have launched initiatives to improve course completion, program completion, and student support services (Johnson, Adams Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2015). Although many causes for students withdrawing from an online course are beyond the realm of instructor control, retention and attrition can be reduced through various means. Continue reading

The CATs in a Hat: Fostering Higher Order Thinking

This is the third article in our series on Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) which can be used to gauge lesson effectiveness and student comprehension. To review, CATs were developed by Angelo and Cross (1983) to efficiently check whether students understand a certain concept. For more examples of these formative assessments, please see our previous posts:

In this article, we will present three CATs focusing on developing Higher Order Thinking Skills (see Collins, 2014) and that can also be used face-to-face, hybrid, or online teaching. Continue reading

Strategies for Providing Effective and Efficient Instructor Feedback

or “You can provide student feedback, but how do you know if it’s really ever read?”

Instructors strive to provide effective feedback in a timely manner to help their students learn and be successful. Logistically speaking grading especially in large enrollment classes, can become an especially arduous task. Frequently, TAs are employed as graders to help lighten the workload. While such a strategy may be necessary from a management standpoint, it does hinder instructors from making a closer connection to students and better identifying where students are having difficulty. However, no matter what the size of the class, there are strategies to help instructors to more easily manage the delivery of feedback to students. Continue reading

How Important Is Instructor Presence in an Online Course?


Creating an Educational Experience

The ability to establish presence is closely connected to the ability of the instructor to create a sense of community among learners in an online course. (Palloff & Pratt, The Excellent Online Instructor, 2011)

Research has long pointed to engagement as a key predictor of student success (Pascarella & Terenzini (2005), Kuh, (2005) CITE). Fortunately, new online learning environments and tools (see ASU Online Digital Learning Platform) provide a variety of opportunities for students to engage not only with course content, but during student-student and student-interaction as well. (Swan, 2004) Continue reading

ASU Faculty Showcases Innovative Teaching

Faculty, instructors, graduate students, and staff from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) recently met for the 3rd CLAS Demofest to showcase innovative teaching practices across diverse content areas. For this semester’s event, eight presenters from seven different departments and schools in CLAS shared and discussed their teaching, spanning a variety of course formats (face-to-face, blended, online) and different student enrollment (large lecture courses, small undergraduate and graduate seminars, etc.). Continue reading

Are my students really getting it? CATs will show you the way.

In a previous post (see Gauging Student Understanding: CATs are puuuuur-fect), we introduced instructors to the idea of using Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) by Angelo and Cross (1983) to check whether students understand a certain concept. To recap, CATs are generally short, non-graded, and student-centered activities that provide instructors with feedback about lesson effectiveness and student comprehension. Best of all, they require little preparation, class time, or grading. In the following section, we present three additional CATs and suggest ways to adapt them to online courses. Continue reading