Here’s a blog post just in time for the winter quarter…
In an online course, first impressions matter. The first week of the term—and the few weeks before your course begins—may be the most critical as you welcome students to your course and begin building a learning community.
It is easy for this part of your course to be quiet and still. Since students haven’t started participating yet, you haven’t started chatting in the discussions or giving feedback on assignments. However, there’s no need to wait—you can get the conversation started early.
A warm welcome can help build excitement, establish trust, increase feelings of belonging, and share information to help students start strong.
In a term that is only 10 weeks long, every day is critical; for some students, just joining the course site in Canvas for the first time can be a psychological hurdle. What can you do to roll out the red carpet for your students?
Make a plan
Welcoming your students well can be more involved than simply sending an announcement on the first day of class. What will you do two weeks prior to your course, one week prior to your course, on the first day of class, and within the first week of class?
TIP: Create a facilitation guide for your course that includes welcoming activities.
In the School of Professional Studies, it is our policy to open course sites to students two weeks prior to the first day of class. Rather than click that Publish button and hope that students explore on their own, this is a great time to begin building excitement for your course.
TIP: Send announcements at two weeks prior, one week prior, and on the first day of class.
Encourage (but don’t expect) early engagement
What might these announcements look like? Well, you’ll want to begin sharing course information early on so that students can plan. Before the course begins is a great time to profile the first module in order to ease students in and send brief reminders about materials that students may need to acquire.
TIP: Inform students how they can get started if they want to begin the course early.
While we can’t require that students will log into the course site before the first day of class, they may be more likely to plan their participation throughout the term and better understand your expectations.
Really introduce yourself
Your course will include an About the Instructor page where you share a photo, short biography, contact information, and availability. But these announcements could be a great way to really introduce yourself.
Although you may teach a course many times, the context always changes. The world is changing around us, life is happening, and your student group will be different. This is a good time to share personal connections to the course and the topic. You may wish to talk through why the course topic excites you, describe how the course topic is particularly salient at this moment, or share tips for getting started based on your prior teaching experiences.
TIP: Post an informal welcome video created specifically for this course and this term, sent in an announcement.
This is also a great time to describe how you intend to interact with the class. For example, how will you respond to discussions? To a few students, to every student individually, as an announcement? Will you give assignment feedback following a certain timeline? Will it be written, or recorded as audio or video? How will you connect via sync sessions?
If students need to contact you, how can they reach you? By email? By phone? Via Zoom? Sending an email can be a hurdle for students; they may feel hesitant to bother you. This is a good time to reassure students that they should feel free to contact you with questions both large and small.
Make it Northwestern
Although most of our online courses are asynchronous and students do not need to come to campus, it never hurts to show some Purple Pride and remind them that, yes, they are Northwestern students!
TIP: Create custom graphics using university themes, colors, and mascots to build energy and bring polish.
I’ve found it easy to develop quick graphics for facilitation purposes—simple banners for announcements, for example—using Adobe Express (which you have free access to as a faculty member!) and Canva.
Write with a warm tone and build excitement
During course development, you may have been encouraged to write content for your course with a neutral tone, so that it could be easily taught by another instructor; you may be that instructor, teaching a course developed by another faculty member.
TIP: Be yourself, and bring the enthusiasm!
Just because module overviews, assignments, and rubrics are written in a neutral way doesn’t mean that your voice as the facilitator should be the same. Your announcements, discussion responses, and assignment feedback should sound like you.
Build excitement by using active verbs and personal anecdotes, and don’t hold back with the exclamation points! Pitch your course—what about it excites you? This is a time to show your enthusiasm. Are you excited to meet them? Emphasize that you want to connect and describe the course tone you would like to see: should they “start strong,” or “get excited”?
Invest time in introduction activities
Although your course is asynchronous, there are important days in your course where you should plan to be active. The first day of class is one of them! Be sure to send a first-day welcome announcement, and begin responding to students in the introduction discussion.
TIP: Respond to every student in the introduction discussion to welcome them to the course.
A one-on-one connection early in the term will help students feel that they can approach you at other times with their questions and concerns.
Follow up individually
Keeping that in mind, the first week of the course is a particularly good time to follow up with students individually. If it’s a few days into the term and you notice that a student hasn’t gotten started yet, send them a message. You’d be surprised how encouraging a single email can be to a hesitant student!
TIP: Develop message templates that can be customized quickly.
I use a template to ensure that I keep the workload manageable, but I always customize it in small ways. I try to keep my message energized and welcoming (“We are looking forward to seeing you in the course site soon!”) instead of punitive (“You have not yet started in our course. Do so now or risk being dropped from the class”).
Do you have other ideas for making meaningful connections with your students and building interest in your course early in the term? Let us know in the comments!