October 15th, 2015

Three Ways to Efficiently and Effectively Support Online Learners


computer keyboard

Trying to support students in an online course can create an unsustainable burden on the instructor. “I’ve heard faculty members say things such as, ‘When I first started teaching online, I drowned in my course. I was making myself available 24 hours/seven days a week. If a student posted, I felt I had to reply immediately. They were counting on me regardless of time of day,’” says Dr. Laurie Grosik, assistant professor in the master in health science program at Saint Francis University. In an interview with Online Classroom, she suggested ways to support online students without creating an undue burden on the instructor.


“We don’t want students to be baffled by the technology. The technology shouldn’t be the barrier to the coursework. We want them concentrating on the course content, and by that I mean we strongly stress the use of a template of some sort so that the students can get into the rhythm of each week. Each course I’m going into has a similar look and feel, so that way the technology becomes transparent to the learner and instead they can concentrate on the course materials, which is ultimately our end goal—for them to learn the course materials,” Grosik says.

In addition to having a familiar look and feel, online courses should provide students with regular interaction. Each week features written assignments, online discussions, and chapter checks (more on chapter checks below). “Oftentimes the assignments are components of a larger project that the students would be completing throughout the semester, but we break it into segments to ensure that the students are moving along in their work. We found that students in online courses can get left by the wayside if you don’t have something that’s due. If you don’t have that interaction with the students on a weekly basis, it’s quite easy for them to stray from their personal timelines,” Grosik says.

Streamline assessment

Timely assessment is essential in the online learning environment, but if not done in an efficient manner, it can easily become an undue burden for the instructor. Grosik recommends carefully considering how you provide feedback and identifying ways to streamline it.

When Grosik was an instructional designer, she worked with an instructor who had students create chapter outlines each week to ensure that students did the readings. As a result the instructor had to assess 25 five-page chapter outlines each week. Grosik suggested an alternative: chapter checks, weekly timed quizzes featuring 10 questions generated randomly from a bank of 25 questions. She further suggested allowing students to take the chapter check as many times as they would like and count only the last score.

“This actually challenges the students because each time they take the quiz, a different set of 10 questions is pulled. By doing this, the system is automatically providing that feedback to the students. What I’ve seen essentially is mastery learning in which students will continue taking that chapter check multiple times until they achieve a score they’re comfortable with. In essence, we’re also ensuring that they’re familiarizing themselves with the reading materials because the questions are derived directly from the reading materials, and by having them go through that repetition they’re actually reinforcing the key points of the readings, which is the same goal we were going after with the chapter outline,” Grosik says.

As for feedback on student writing, Grosik recommends taking advantage of the technology that’s available to make it more efficient. For example, technology such as VoiceThread can eliminate the need to type long paragraphs of comments. The Track Changes tool in Microsoft Word is another effective tool. It provides an easy way to insert changes and comments. Grosik recommends saving a Word document with tracked changes as a PDF so that students will actually read the comments rather than simply clicking “Accept All Changes.” Also, when the document is saved as a PDF, students won’t have any problems with different versions of Word. They can simply open the PDF with the freely available Adobe Reader.

Peer-to-peer learning

Having students provide feedback on each other’s work is an excellent way to reduce the instructor’s workload while providing opportunities for students to learn from each other. When having students assess each other’s work, it’s important that you set expectations and provide rubrics so they know what to look for.

The discussion board plays an important role in many online courses. Grosik likes to have students discuss case studies, scenarios that provide background but no conclusion. She asks students to choose a position or write what the next step a person in the case might take based on the details of the case. She also has students reply to each other’s posts. “I spend a lot of time in the discussion boards as well. I want to make sure students are presenting detailed thought processes. I want to make sure they are on target. I’m also providing feedback to the students. I want to be sure that the discussion topic adds value to the course and allows the students to apply the course materials,” Grosik says.

Grosik’s involvement in the discussion board is greater at the beginning of the course, modeling how she would like students to participate in discussions. As the course progresses, she is able to participate less and less so she can focus more attention on providing feedback on the written assignments that get progressively more detailed and involved as the semester progresses.

In any online course there will be several standout students—those who are highly competent, motivated, and engaged. Grosik recommends recruiting these students to play “devil’s advocate” in discussions. She’ll ask these students to post the most unpopular opinions, which tends to generate interest in the discussion because these opinions are in direct contrast with those of most students.

An instructor could play devil’s advocate, but having select students do so is more effective, Grosik says. “If I were to play devil’s advocate, I feel the students may tend to agree with me because as a faculty member I’m the one controlling their grades. I’m the one leading the course.”

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 14.6 (2014): 7. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.