Online Teaching & Learning

This guide was created in partnership with The Centre for Teaching and Learning & Library and Learning Services.

Principle 3

Communicate Clear Expectations: Make clear the intended learning outcomes and standards for performance; provide organization, structure and direction for where the course is going.

As we discussed in the previous section, design and development play a key role in your communication with students. It is incredibly important for students to have clear expectations of the learning outcomes, the course topics, the course assessments, and how the course will be conducted.

Communicate About the Mode of Technology

Before your course starts, a helpful practice would be to send out an email to students to let them know about the mode of technology that you will be using.  For many students, it may be the technology piece that is causing them anxiety (particularly if they haven't anticipated taking an online course).  

Keeping this in mind, respect the differences in technological comfort and keep the main content of your online course and your communication accessible for the least technologically savvy student. 

Students new to online learning may initially find this kind of learning disorienting without the physical classroom space and guidance from the physical presence of a teacher. Other students may initially misperceive learning online as “easier” than learning in a physical classroom space. However, students may find the workload in an online course heavier because they must cover course material on their own and type their discussion comments. 

There are a number of suggestions for how to help prepare students for online learning in that initial email (Poe & Stassen, n.d.):  

  • Clarify computer skills/terminology
  • Provide guidelines that detail the minimum technological requirements needed for the course (both in terms of hardware and technical expertise). 
  • At the beginning of the semester, provide a detailed worksheet with instructions on how to complete the technical tasks required for completing course work. For example, while it may be clear to you how to post a message for many students, such tasks are new. Also, while some students may be familiar with one online environment, do not assume that they are familiar with all online environments. Some examples of information to provide include: 
    • Where to find information online
    • How to post a message and homework assignments
    • How to access course readings and take online exams
  • Describe how to seek help immediately when having trouble
  • Explain online conventions for tone, such as using ALL CAPS for emphasis. Set rules for using abbreviations and emotions (or “smileys,” signals of emotions that look like faces on their sides). Provide students with a Student Guide to the Conventions of Online Communication.
  • If you are using a particular tool like The Virtual Classroom, provide a link to the Teaching with Technology website with information about how to access and use the tool.

Explain the differences in learning online versus learning in a traditional classroom:

  • Emphasize the amount of time needed for taking an online class and the importance of working independently. Because all class discussions are written, students must be prepared for the amount of time needed to type their comments. A 3-credit online course can easily require more than six hours of time, especially for students who type slowly. 
  • Emphasize the extensiveness of reading and writing in an online course. Because all class assignments are provided in written format with no opportunity for class questions, teachers detail class assignments thoroughly in online courses. Consequently, students must become careful readers in order to ensure that they understand the assignment. 
  • To help students understand the communication differences of learning online, provide a detailed worksheet with instructions on communication guidelines:

For example (an example of how to participate in a discussion board activity given by an instructor from the University of Massachusetts):


How much to post, and what makes a "good" post? These are hard questions to answer because discussions are organic, developing and evolving depending upon what is said by whom. . . In general, posting only once is not enough to really engage in a discussion. I am expecting probably 3-6 posts depending upon the amount of time I've allotted for the discussion and how in-depth your posts are. . . What I expect and hope to see is a dialogue evolving, with give and take, back and forth, questions asked and ideas explored like in a face-to-face class discussion. . . So as you post be cognizant that you are engaging in a discussion. Do not post long pages of responses--probably a couple of paragraphs at most, sometimes a sentence or two can be effective, especially if you're asking a question.
  • Post guidelines for participation on the course homepage.
  • Make sure you provide a clear, detailed course outline and topical outline. 
  • Make sure clear and detailed instructions are provided for each assignment. Even simple assignments like a journal need detailed explanations. 

For example, One instructor uses the following explanation for the weekly journal exercise. She posts this explanation in every unit to remind students weekly of the assignment: Your journal (click on the journal tab at the top of the screen to access) is the place for you to keep thinking about, wrestling with, exploring the issues we've discussed online. Feel free to add your own day-to-day observations about issues related to our course. Your journal is only read by me. I will never comment on your observations; I only check to see if you've completed the assignment. Length: 1-2 paragraphs Due: Every Friday by 11:59 pm (graded pass/fail, i.e., either you did it or not)

  • Set clear expectations in terms of student performance/activity. Help students understand expectations for the course and encourage them to ask questions (i.e. posting model assignment so that students have examples to follow)
  • Remind students frequently of course expectations (I.e. reminding students of upcoming assignments- you can actually set these reminders automatically in SLATE)
  • Explain the time-frame in which emails will be answered (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday only, or within 24 hours of receipt).
  • Emphasize courtesy to fellow students. Because students cannot see verbal or visual clues from other speakers, encourage them to be tactful in their responses or include parenthetical clues for humor (, that was a joke>) or emotion (<sigh>). 

  • For example: Our online discussions will be class discussions, meaning the same respect we would show each other in an actual classroom, we will also show in a virtual classroom. In fact, because the online environment is primarily a verbal environment where we communicate through writing, it lacks the physical and auditory clues that accompany face-to-face discussion, which may lead to more misunderstandings, particularly when a person is using humor. But being polite and respectful does not mean that you can't disagree or question each other's interpretations of our texts. But be sure to do so in a polite way, rather than "I think you're wrong and here's why" write instead, "Samir, I think you are saying Y [paraphrase what person wrote], but I wonder if there isn't another way to look at that same incident. The way I see it, X really happened . . ." etc.  

So how once you have the technology piece in place, how do you make those connections with your learners in the online context, to create the conditions for learning? 

Creating the Conditions for (Online) Learning

You can use the same instincts and skills that you have built in your face-to-face classroom experiences. You just need to translate it into an online context. 

Check-in with learners: Connect with your learners in multiple ways to get a sense of where your learners are at so that you can meet them where they're at. For instance, you might ask: How are you feeling today? What preconceptions, ideas, assumptions, and concerns do you have about the course? What expectations do you have for me as the instructor? What expectations do you have for yourself as a learner? What expectations do you have about the course itself (content, teaching and learning approaches, etc.)? 

Students come to any learning experiences with several unknowns. As the instructor, your role is to facilitate a climate for learning. How might you create a climate for learning? What are some of the considerations to be made in the online environment specifically?


If you are in a synchronous learning environment, here are some non-verbal behaviours that help to create a sense of immediacy and connection to your learners online


These verbal/written tools create a sense of connection to your learners online- whether you are conducting the learning in a synchronous or asynchronous environment.

Use gestures to communicate


Relax your body

Make eye contact

Use intonation and vocal expressions

Use personal examples

Ask questions or encourage student voices in discussion forums

Use student names

Check-in regularly

Create short videos and post weekly

Ask students how they feel about content and assignments

(Arbaugh, 2010; Baker, 2004; Falkowski, 2015; Gorham, 1988)

Arbaugh, J. (2010). Sage, guide, both, or even more? An examination of instructor activity in online MBA courses. Computers & Education, 55(3), 1234-1244. Retrieved from

Baker, J. (2004). An investigation of relationships among instructor immediacy and affective and cognitive learning in the online classroom. Internet & Higher Education, 7 (1), 1-13. Retrieved from

Falkowski, P.P. (2015). Creating immediacy in online learning. Adult Development & Aging News. Retrieved from

Gorham, 1988: Gorham, J. (1988). The relationship between verbal teaching immediacy behaviours and student learning. Communication Education, 37, (1), 40-53.