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Getting Started with Online Courses: Student & Course Considerations

The guidelines below aim to help you organize your online course according to best practices and an understanding of the challenges students face when learning online. You will likely encounter a wide range of student aptitudes for online learning at Portland State. We can’t assume that all students are digital natives, have 24/7 access to the internet, or even have their own personal computer. Online students also tend to have busy lives and need to fit coursework into a regular schedule so that they can manage their time.

A U.S. Department of Education report from 2009 found that online students performed better than those taking the same courses in class, but other studies show that younger students and those with low grade-point averages often struggle to succeed in online courses (U.S. Department of Education, 2009; Xiu 2013). It’s important to recognize this spectrum of student skill and make your course as user-friendly as possible.


Key goals for a user-friendly and effective online course are:

  1. A well organized, consistent pattern of activities and coursework (ideally one that reflects a basic learning cycle) and chronological modules to organize weekly or bi-weekly lessons. See the Course Planning article for details.
  2. Clear and detailed instructions for all activities, assignments, and materials (avoiding colloquial English for accessibility to non-native speakers).
  3. A sense of instructor “presence” through the use of video, audio, images, and regular communication.
  4. A learning community that encourages productive student interaction and active learning.

Preparing an online course involves a process that classroom teaching may not require: detailed lesson planning and instructional writing. This is more time-consuming than in-person course preparation, so it’s best to begin at least one term ahead and schedule time for it as you would a writing project.

Getting Started

We recommend using a “backward design” strategy to develop your course (Wiggins & McTighe 2005). Start from your key learning outcomes. Next define how your students will show evidence of learning in the form of assignments. Break down those assignments into component skills/knowledge, and decide which should be learned first. Prioritize things students struggle with and need to practice more than once. Consider where students can get feedback on smaller components of an assignment, from peers or the instructor. Distribute your incremental challenges regularly over 10 weeks and then develop your learning plan with lessons to teach each skill and/or knowledge set.

Keep in mind that frequent, distributed assessment is shown to be far more effective for learning than testing only at midterm and finals week (Dunlosky et al, 2013). Similarly, final projects are often greatly improved when students can work on them incrementally. Formative feedback is more useful to students than feedback given after final work is turned in, when it is often not actionable or retained.

Once your course is organized, written, and running, you can expect to spend your time:

  1. Posting new materials (announcements, interesting links, new discussion topics);
  2. Checking on learner interactions, participation, and other assignments;
  3. Managing activities (setting up Collaborate sessions, posting reminders, pairing students for peer workshops, etc.);
  4. Giving feedback on assignments. Feedback should be given within 48 hours if possible; rapid, brief feedback is more effective than detailed but delayed feedback. It’s best to establish a schedule for your feedback so learners know when they will hear from you. For example, if you plan to give collective feedback on class discussions or on individual assignments on Mondays, let your students know to expect that. This allays their anxieties and helps you schedule your workload (Vai and Sosulski, 2011). Use rubrics and minimize the amount of comments in your marking to avoid repetitive writing. This helps you to create feedback that “coaches” students in how to best improve their performance (Haswell 1983).

In addition to clear organization, communication, and scheduling, successful online courses need to be engaging. Many students enroll in online courses expecting to work alone and at a flexible pace. This “correspondence course” approach is, however, not very effective.

Though some students balk at collaborative and peer-to-peer interactions, these types of active learning are shown to be far more engaging and effective than asking students to simply receive and remember new knowledge. Active learning involves activities to explore, apply, and generate knowledge, and also reflection on the learning process (Fink 2013, 116). For ideas on how to incorporate active learning into your lessons please see Learning Cycles and Sequencing .

Campus Resources

Weekly D2L training workshops (OIT)

In the OAI library

Vai, Marjorie and Kristen Sosulski. 2011. Essentials of Online Course Design: A Standards-Based Guide NY: Routledge.

L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (Revised edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013.


Slides on active learning strategies from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.


Dunlosky, John, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, and Daniel T. Willingham. 2013. “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14.1, 4-58.

Haswell, Richard. 1983. “Minimal Marking,” College English, Vol. 45, No.6 (Oct., 1983), 600-604.

U.S. Department of Education. 2009. “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.”

Xu, Di and Shanna Smith Jaggars. 2013. “Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas." Columbia Community College Research Center Working Paper No. 54.

Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. 2005. Understanding by Design, 2nd Ed. NY: Pearson

Resource Category: 
Designing Your Course