August 22nd, 2014

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: Raising, Communicating, and Enforcing Expectations in Online Courses


As an instructor new to the online environment, I carefully reviewed the syllabus and the requirements for the course discussions and assignments and incorporated the following ideas from Myers-Wylie, Mangieri & Hardy: a “what you need to know” document that includes policies about late work, formatting, source citations, grading and feedback, and the dangers of plagiarism; a separate “assignments at a glance” calendar that details due dates and submission instructions; a “frequently asked questions” thread in the discussion forum; detailed scoring rubrics for each assignment, and example assignments. As is typical in the online environment, my course was equipped with areas for announcements and discussions and a grade book with a place to post comments for individual students. I used all these formats to communicate with students about course requirements and provide detailed feedback.

From the beginning, some students submitted their assignments without reading any of my sage advice. About a third missed the deadline for the first assignment. Several assignments were missing key components, and some exhibited major formatting flaws. There was a flurry of questions in the discussion forum about the due date and format—answers to which could be found in the numerous documents I had posted. Student frustration mounted when I referred them to existing documents. Indeed, the instant gratification associated with the Internet has “trained students to expect help when they require it—on their schedule” (Creasman, 2012).

I provided feedback by electronically editing each assignment and returning the marked-up documents. I was discouraged when I noticed that students continued to make the same errors on subsequent assignments—proof that they had not incorporated my previous feedback. Had they even seen it? It occurred to me that I would need to find more innovative ways to communicate my expectations.

I have been able to raise expectations and improve the quality of work in my course by implementing the following practices.

Set a tone of “no excuses.” According to McKeachie (1994), when students know what to expect, they can be more productive. In addition to introducing themselves at the start of the course, I ask students to answer the following questions: (1) How will you make time for this course? and (2) What is your “plan b” for computer and/or Internet issues? When students answer these questions they are forced to think about potential issues and solutions before the class begins. Reading about how other students tackle these problems is also helpful.

Introduce another voice. Students listen to other students. During the first week of class, I post an announcement that summarizes advice collected from previous students from the preceding class. As a rule, this advice encourages students to keep up with the readings, follow instructions, work hard, and meet deadlines. Seasoned students will also advise new students to pay attention to the examples and rubrics. This advice is especially helpful to students who are fearful or easily discouraged (McKeachie, 1994). Students will have the opportunity to provide their own advice at the end of the course.

Force engagement with the information. Online students are pragmatic. They need a reason to seek information, especially information that might not directly relate to an assignment that carries a grade. I created an online scavenger hunt quiz based on the course logistics information and awarded extra credit points based on the quiz score. The quiz consists of 12 multiple-choice questions covering the topics of late work, due dates, grading, feedback, plagiarism, formatting, and the course textbook. Students are permitted to take the quiz as many times as they wish during the first week of class. Because my course is asynchronous, most students take advantage of the extra-credit opportunity and therefore become engaged and familiar with the information within the first week when it is convenient for them. Although the extra-credit points are minimal (six points out of 1,000 course points), most students like starting the course with a few extra points in the grade book.

Force engagement with feedback. Research supports corrective feedback as one of the most powerful ways of enhancing student achievement (Angelo & Cross, 1993; Marzano, Pickering & Pollock, 2001; McKeachie, 1994). But it is not the giving of feedback that helps students learn, but the acting on feedback (Chappuis, 2012). I provide feedback to students by electronically editing their individual documents and placing them in a special feedback thread in the discussion forum. One of my biggest disappointments was providing detailed feedback to students and having them make the same mistakes on subsequent assignments. I was spending hours providing feedback, but many students were not learning from my feedback. In fact, I was not even sure that they had found my feedback. To ensure that students find and open their marked-up assignments, I now include a feedback code on the second major assignment. The code consists of the student’s initials and a few numbers (for example, MR456). Students reply to me with their feedback code for a few extra credit points on their next assignment. Most students take advantage of this extra credit opportunity, therefore assuring me that they know where to find their marked-up papers.

Force engagement with peers. Most online courses require weekly discussion postings with responses to classmates. Indeed, “the best online instruction allows for students’ learning to be forged more through interaction with each other and less through instructor lecture” (Creasman, 2012). To encourage participation and ensure that students don’t tune out after they have submitted their minimum number of required postings, I require students to review their classmates’ comments and submit a revised, polished version of their original post. The revised version is posted at the end of the week and is the version that is graded. In addition to commenting on content, I ask peers to provide advice on spelling, grammar, and conventions. I also comment on student forum postings throughout the week. According to Bullen (1998), instructors need to allow adequate time for follow-up discussion and comments. McKeachie (1994) agrees; more comments and more specific comments lead to greater learning. Because the feedback for the discussion forum refers to the draft post, it occurs during and not after the learning, and therefore often improves the quality of assignments that are submitted at the end of the week (Chappuis, 2012).

Provide student exemplars. My course is project-based, and although the course syllabus describes the expectations and provides criteria for the projects, seeing an example of a well-done project will help, direct, and inspire students in their own projects. Kerr (2009) agrees and feels that exemplars support student success and contribute to the development of the learning community. The first time I taught the course, I created my own exemplars. Now that I have taught the course several times, I share actual student examples (with names removed) as exemplar projects.

Provide opportunities for student-to-teacher feedback. Halfway through the course, I ask students to provide me with feedback about how I might improve the course. I ask three questions: What should I start doing? What should I stop doing? What should I continue doing? (Angelo & Cross, 1993). I allow about a week for students to respond, then summarize the results and share with students via the discussion forum. At the end of the course, I ask students the same three questions and one additional question: What advice do you have for future students in this course? The mid-course and end-of-course feedback has helped me shape the course and make subtle changes. As the result of student feedback, I have simplified my late work policy and created an area in the discussion forum for students to share project ideas. I share students’ advice for future students and believe it is one of the first steps in setting high expectations for the incoming class.

Taken together, implementing the practices described above has helped to improve the quality of the work submitted by students in my classes by setting high expectations from the first day of class and maintaining high expectations throughout the course. By raising the tide, I have lifted all boats!

Angelo, T.A., & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chappuis, J. (2012). “How am I doing?” Educational Leadership, 70(1), 36–41.

Creasman, P. (2012). Considerations in online course design. IDEA Paper No. 52. Manhattan: Kansas State University, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development.

Duncan, H. (2005). On-line education for practicing professionals: A case study. Canadian Journal of Education, 28(4), 874–896.

Kerr, C. (2009). Asynchronous online learning communities. Ontario Action Researcher, 10(2), 1–20.

Marzano, R.J., Pickering, D.J., & Pollock, J.E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

McKeachie, W.J. (1994). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company.

Myers-Wylie, D., Mangieri, J., & Hardy, D. (2009). The in’s and out’s of online instruction: Transitioning from brick and mortar to online teaching. Denver, CO: Outskirts Press, Inc.

Marie A. Revak is a faculty member at Jones International University. Previously, she taught at the United States Air Force Academy where she was twice given the Math Department Instructor of the Year award.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 13.5 (2013): 1-2. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

Photo by MorgueFile user HotBlack.

  • Laura S

    Thanks for the ideas. I too have experienced the same frustrations with my online students that you describe.
    Question about that "feedback code" you use. Can you explain more about how that works, what the codes mean, etc. Do you put this code in the feedback you give them so they have to review the feedback to find it? Is the code just random numbers or does each number code mean something specific?

    • Marie Revak

      Laura, the feedback codes are random. For example AB123 or CD234. Each student has a different code and I use Word's reviewer toolbar to place the codes on their papers. They reply to me with their codes for the extra credit points.

  • Linda Aragoni

    Adult online students have a host of potential problems—from the baby sitter didn't show up to an unexpected business trip to Singapore—that the typical college age students don't. I like to ask students to discuss in the first week to 10 days of class what problems they suspect they might encounter getting assignments done on time and what options they can use if they actually encounter one of their problems. I get a far better understanding of my students than with traditional icebreaker activities, and students collaborate and bond as they work to plan options for dealing with life problems.

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  • Tom Chekel

    Don't forget to include "somebody stole my backpack" to the dog ate my homework excuses! I found your post to be excellent and about as real as it gets. Great suggestions that I can immediately use. Thanks very much.

  • joe aloha

    Thanks for the information, however, I have the persona of Eeyore and mostly see the glass not as half empty but totally spilt on the floor. I am also a full tenured professor and during my stay at my current teaching institution have been awarded every teaching, service and scholarship recognition and award available for our faculty, including student awarded recognition. I have received national awards for teaching and service.
    To give a little more perspective, I run a community legal clinic for law school students and an Internal Revenue Service grant funded Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC). I am licensed to practice law and accountancy and have continued to do so for all of the time I have been a teacher. I say these things in my classes, online, face to face, flipped, blended and hybrid to remind students that almost all of them will have to go to work after they leave college and that employers will have a much different set of expectations that professors. I tell my students that my past and current experiences also include being an employer and engaging in business acceleration project. Based on my ongoing business and community experiences I have established that I can relate to the employers dilemma and lament that “we cannot find qualified employees.” So I comment from the employers perspective and echo their questions to me at local Chamber of Commerce meetings, “Joe, what are you guys in those ivory towers teaching these kids these days?” Perhaps they should also question, “how are you guys teaching these kids?” Employers are old school and want profitable results, assessment is the business bottom line. There are no excuses for nonproductivity. Perhaps in general it is really a disconnect between for profit businesses and not-for-profit institutions of higher education and education in general. We serve different missions, thus expect different results.
    So, a forward looking twist on some of the points that were raised and yes its all about getting and KEEPING a job, after all why are you doing all these neat new things?
    “Set a tone of “no excuses.” ….answer the following questions: (1) How will you make time for this JOB? and (2) What is your “plan b” for personal and family issues? As an employer I am amazed at how often in the interview process recent graduates seeking a job will say things like, “ I need to take a week off next month to go to my friend’s wedding in another state or I have a trip to Europe schedule for this November (the interview is in August).” Even Pepsico CEO, Indra Nooyi reminded us that wecan’t have it all.
    “Introduce another voice.´ Students better listen to employers or have a good relationship with their parents because the perspective of the employer will not make sense to them until the pass the age of 30 and these online graduates will still be doing things online from their parent’s basement. Not all of them can be Mark Zuckerberg.
    “Provide opportunities for student-to-teacher feedback” Do bosses really care, and if you were to start to behave this way what will the boss think of you? Remember like higher education, employment or just a job is not a right (getting and keeping a job even in a “right to work” state is an earned right, rights in the most of the world are earned by following the rules, have you ever tried to make a case for discrimination, it's not as easy as one things it should be, again business versus academics). What are we preparing our students for? We better check with them and their parents.


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  • Lynae

    One of the best articles I have ever read on Faculty Focus, thank you Marie! Would you be willing to share the late work policy that you mentioned?