What should I do the first week(s) to help students succeed in my online class?


The first weeks of class are important for building an online community and setting expectations for how the community will treat each other and the content under study. Your students are looking for answers to these questions, among others: Is this a class where listening to and engage with other students’ ideas is critical? What am I actually held accountable for and supported to do? Will I be expected to memorize material or think critically— and what does that look like in this discipline and in an online environment? Remember that even for face-to-face classes, some students may be unable to attend for the first weeks of classes, so preparing online, asynchronous activities will be important.


Build an Interactive and Social Foundation

Welcome students. Welcoming students to the class lays a foundation for students’ developing sense of belonging. Sending out a welcome email prior to the first class can enhance students’ motivation and positive attitudes toward the instructor and the course (Legg & Wilson, 2009). Consider delivering this introductory email in conjunction with a welcome and/or orientation video to the course (ideas for welcome videos) or a survey gauging their experiences (example survey). Share as much about yourself as you would like your students to share with you. For more ideas, see our Teaching Presence page.

Use icebreakers that work for you. There are a variety of asynchronous and synchronous icebreakers that work to foster community and establish social presence in the class. Spread a couple choice ones out over the first few weeks and choose ones that work for your personality, teaching style, and comfort with technology. Some of these icebreakers can actually be mini-assignments that scaffold the skills you want students to demonstrate later in the term (see next section).

Here are two examples:

  • In a synchronous session, tell students they have 2-3 minutes to talk with someone in the class and brainstorm a list of things they have in common. The pair with the longest list of things in common is the winner. Randomly assign students to breakout zooms and with a time limit of 2-3 minutes set in advance. Read about more icebreakers that work well on Zoom, or share your favorite one with the CTL at ctl@umass.edu.
  • On an asynchronous discussion forum, have students post a timeline or other graphic representation about themselves (e.g., 5 events in their life that led them to UMass or to this class; a meme or image that represents an effective online college course). Read about a time capsule activity and other community building icebreakers.

Create classroom norms for online participation. Establish or co-create participation norms that all students agree upon in the first few weeks. Discuss with students how certain social identities (e.g., women in STEM, transgender students) can be unintentionally marginalized during group work as a justification for creating norms around respectful and inclusive communication (Oakley, Felder, Brent, & Elhajj, 2004). Use breakout rooms so students can meet other students and hear different perspectives, particularly in the first weeks of class. Ask students to refer back to the agreed-upon norms when conflict arises.

Orient Students to the Course

Students may not be familiar with how you organize your course on Blackboard or Moodle. Orient them to the organization of your course through a video (see our Keep Teaching page on making videos students want to watch), ask them to complete a syllabus quiz or annotate the syllabus, or have them explore Moodle or Blackboard through a scavenger hunt combined with key mini-assignments that have them practice key habits and skills important for success (see next section). In addition, restrict visibility of modules or aspects of the LMS that are not immediately relevant to reduce confusion; you can release//unveil parts of your course as it is relevant (Biro, 2011). See Moodle documentation on controlling access to activities and Blackboard documentation on hiding content and hiding course menu items. 

Use Low-Stakes Assignments to Practice Essential Online Learning Skills

In the first weeks of class, provide students with low stakes, low-stress opportunities to practice using the Blackboard or Moodle features and other technology that you expect them to use throughout the course (Darby, 2019). See our Flexible Course (Re)Design assessment module to flesh out the details of assignments, assessments, and feedback mechanisms.

Here are some skills you might want students to demonstrate and ideas for how they might practice those skills:

  • Discussion Posting. If your end goal is to foster student-student dialogue on discussion boards or in synchronous sessions, the first weeks should have them discuss something fun or low-stakes (e.g., their welcome video) and respond thoughtfully to each other. If you want them to pose good discussion questions by the end of the term, then you might ask them to suggest a question about a neutral topic that they think will lead to an engaging discussion. In both cases, debrief with the students what makes a thoughtful, engaging, and respectful discussion contribution, and use that to ease into a low-stakes, content-based discussion. See our Keep Teaching page on integrating various discussion formats into your course for examples of types of discussions and tips for implementation.
  • Video Recording. If students will do video presentations at the end of the term, have them post an introductory video about themselves the first week for a few points. You can give students some ideas to spark creativity and interest, such as questions to answer or ways to use images and locations to convey meaning.
  • Communicating with Instructor. We all have preferred ways for students to reach out to us and TAs; email, LMS messages, or through discussion boards. Have students send you a message in that preferred way in the first weeks, perhaps with a response to something on the syllabus or something about themselves. Respond in the timeframe they can expect to receive your responses throughout the semester.
  • Submitting Assignments in Correct Format. Perhaps you prefer PDFs over Google documents, will expect students to take pictures of their problem sets and upload, or it makes your life easier if students submitted work follows a file naming convention. Craft a simple assignment in which points are awarded for the method of submission, not the content. Use the content of these assignments to get to know your students, have some fun, or gauge how they are feeling about the course.

It is recommended to give students who do not demonstrate expected skills the opportunity to re-do these low stakes mini-assignments for full credit. Clarify your assignment re-do policy going forward if re-dos are not generally allowed. Frame this in a student-centered way; for example, emphasizing that you want them to be successful in this course and don’t want them to lose points later in the term for small things.

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at ctl@umass.edu.

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Biro, S. (2011, August 9). Get your online course off to a good start [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/get-your-online-course-off-to-a-good-start/


Darby, F. (2019, April 17). How to be a better online teacher. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from



Legg, A. M., & Wilson, J. H. (2009). E-mail from professor enhances student motivation and attitudes. Teaching of Psychology, 36(3), 205-211. https://doi.org/10.1080/00986280902960034


Oakley, B., Felder, R. M., Brent, R., & Elhajj, I. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student-Centered Learning, 2(1), pp. 9-34.