Setting Expectations, Creating Spaces, Checking In


Every community has rules, and most of those rules are implicit. In a remote or online course, implicit is not enough. Demystifying the “hidden rules” of college is a best practice for creating more equitable outcomes among your students, too. You must be explicit about your expectations and intentions. That includes:

  • How you want students to address you

  • The structure of an email subject line

  • When you will respond to email (Don’t respond immediately to an email you received at 2 am!)

  • Discussion forum etiquette

  • Zoom etiquette

  • How long it will take you to grade student work and provide feedback

We also recommend adding the UCSC Introduction Module to your course, which provides students with detailed instructions about how to use Canvas, how to use the library, information about campus resources, and more.

But remember that your course is a community, and communities are stronger with transparency and equal participation. So make sure you provide your students with a rationale for rules; and, if possible, give them opportunities to contribute to the structure of the community (e.g., by asking them to set their own rules within groups, or by holding a discussion on rules in a discussion forum or during a Zoom session).

Your communication plan should also include activity and assessment instructions/prompts. To that end:

  • Include a rationale for assessments and activities

  • Relate assessments and activities to the weekly module, unit, course, and so on

  • Relate assessments and activities to learning outcomes (i.e., the knowledge and skills they’re developing)

  • Explain how assessments and activities will contribute to students’ success at UCSC and in their lives in the real world

  • Provide grading rubrics or guides, worked examples, and examples of previous student work (if available)


Communication in an online environment isn’t as easy as standing up in a classroom and talking. You have to make space for it to happen. But there are some simple and relatively low-tech things you can do to make it easy for students to communicate with you and with one another, both synchronously and asynchronously:

  • Include an open forum in your course where students can ask questions or engage in discussion about course content

  • Hold office hours by Zoom (Pro tip: Ask students to make appointments for office hours rather than holding open office hours.)

  • Use discussion forums to gauge what your students need to make progress

  • Use Google Docs or Hypothesis to allow students to collaboratively read and annotate written course materials, synchronously or asynchronously

  • Make use of Zoom polls and the chat to provide alternative ways for students to contribute to discussion during synchronous class meetings. Keep in mind that some students may not have a private place to study where they can speak out in class discussion.

  • If you hold synchronous sessions in Zoom, use breakout rooms to allow students to solve problems together in small groups

  • Provide a structure for students to form their own study groups

  • Set up Peer Review Groups in Canvas and schedule several Peer Review Discussion assignments

  • Link the Zoom directions to your course and encourage students to set up their own Zoom study or work sessions

Discussion Prompts

Meaningful discussion doesn’t happen spontaneously in a Canvas discussion forum, a Zoom breakout room, or a physical classroom. It relies on thought-provoking prompts that are aligned with desired learning outcomes and situational factors. Here are some ideas for discussion prompts:

  • Prompts that connect directly to the assigned reading

  • Prompts that require expansive response

  • Prompts that touch every student’s life experience

  • Prompts that require students to post scholarly content

  • Prompts that would be equally effective in an in-person class

  • Prompts that require students to ask one another additional questions

  • (For Zoom breakout rooms) Prompts that require students to produce something they can discuss with their classmates


Community and communication must be fostered in any environment. It’s up to you to model good communication and participation, to lead and guide discussions, to ask probing questions, to gently remind your students that a due date is looming.

Your students want to hear from you, and regular communications will support their engagement and learning. There are a few simple tips using tools built into Canvas that you can use strategically to reach students and encourage (or require) their participation in the course community. Be as consistent as possible with the day and time of your communication. Set up a regular pattern of once- or twice-a-week announcements that clarify expected tasks for each week.

If your course has a regular meeting schedule, then make sure to utilize this time to set up a consistent pattern of communication. Include this information in your syllabus.

Establishing Regular Communications

In an online or remote setting, it is important that you establish presence and routine through regular communications. At the beginning of each week, write to your students (or send them a video Announcement), communicating the purpose behind the week’s activities and assessments. Focus on the following:

  • Connect the week’s activities and assessments to your learning outcomes (e.g., “By engaging in this analysis, you will hone your research skills, which will be further applied in the next module”).

  • Reinforce the core objectives for your assignments again and again; students will perform better when they know what the goals are.

  • Bookend your week with activities that help students see the end at the beginning, and conversely see the beginning at the end.

These methods will help you to communicate regularly (with routine) with all students. You’re bound to have some students who are falling behind, and you’re most likely to know who they are if you are using frequent low-stakes assessments (quizzes, writing prompts). Take a look at student performance on assessments frequently and establish a baseline for when to do additional outreach. The research is clear, the earlier you do outreach to students who are falling behind, the more likely you are to make an impact on their performance.

Finally, this may seem like extra work, but it will be worth it. The investment of time that you put into writing announcements will be significant, but your students will be better oriented, and you’ll be able to use them in future iterations of the course, regardless of whether the modality is online or in-person. Take a long view.

Checklists for Time Management

For each module (unit) of your curriculum, consider creating a checklist that students can use to effectively manage their time and keep at pace. Checklists can be included as a standalone Page in Canvas, or can be communicated by you through an Announcement (text or video).

Participate in Student Learning

Model learning by participating in discussion forums. Don’t just respond to logistical questions or correct students. If a student makes an insightful comment, add a comment to recognize that insight and raise an additional issue for other students to respond to. Your students will learn to be better learners by following your lead.