Orienting Students to Your Online Course

A photo of a person typing on a laptop at a table with a cup of tea and pieces of paper with notes.

Usually during the first-class meeting of a face-to-face class, the instructor will go over the syllabus and course policies and expectations with students. It is equally important to do this in an online course where the lack of face-to-face interaction can create uncertainty. In this in-depth article, we overview how to design and orient students to your online course at the beginning of the semester.

Add a Welcome Announcement

A welcome can help set the tone for the course and get students started in a productive manner. One best practice is to craft a welcome announcement that students will see upon entering the course. This allows you to provide a couple of other things that will help students get started:

  • Navigation information
  • Guidance to the Start Here area

While it may seem that having an item in your menu clearly labeled “Start Here” would make it self-evident where students should go first, often this is not the case. Sometimes students are so anxious about starting a course that they simply overlook things – this can especially be the case with younger learners or learners who are less tech savvy. However, this can even be a challenge for students who are familiar with online courses, since many times they are taking courses from several instructors at once, all of whom have a different layout for their online course.

You can also help students familiarize themselves with the course layout by providing a short, bulleted list explaining the menu structure, and then let them know that that the Start Here area of the course is where they should go next.

Ask Students to Introduce Themselves

Having students introduce themselves at the beginning of the class helps to create a sense of community and can be a great way to break the ice. Student introductions can be simple. The main thing to remember is to clearly explain what you want them to do. Here is an example of a basic student introduction prompt:

“For your introductory post, please provide the following information:

  • Tell us your name and, if you have a nickname, let us know what you like to go by.
  • Tell us what your major is or what areas of study you are interested in pursuing.
  • If you feel comfortable, tell us a little about where you are from and any hobbies that you enjoy.
  • Tell us what you hope to get out of this class and how you hope it will help you in your future college courses.

Once you have created your post, respond to at least two of your classmates. See if there are others who have the same interests as you or who have posted something that you find interesting. Let’s all talk a little as we get started!”

You can also start off the introductions in the course by posting your own introduction in the discussion forum, which models the type of post and information that you would like students to include in their own responses.

Cover Basic Organizational Elements

You will also want to cover some of the basic organizational elements of the course. Here are a few things to provide information on:

  • the structure and purpose of the course, along with any prerequisite information;
  • course and/or institutional policies;
  • grading feedback availability;
  • expectations for learner interaction with the course;
  • where students can obtain assistance; and
  • the accessibility of technologies used in the course.

Most of this information can easily be included in the course syllabus or added to the Start Here area.

Course Information

Many instructors place the course description from the university catalog in the syllabus for the course. Often prerequisite information for the course is included in this description. However, even if there are no prerequisites for the course, you will want to include that information for students to help clarify any misunderstandings early in the course. This is also an opportunity for you to include any additional prerequisites that you feel students need to be aware of upon starting the course. For example, you may want students to be familiar with writing style formatting guidelines, such as American Psychological Association (APA), that will be used when students turn in assignments. Clarifying this information now will help students identify early in the course whether there are areas in which they need to seek assistance.


Most syllabi include ADA and Academic Integrity policies for students. However, there may be other policies for the university, department, or your course of which students need to be made aware. For example, you will want to communicate your policy on accepting late work or what criteria is needed for students to take an incomplete for the course.

Grading Feedback

One of the most anxiety producing aspects of any course – both for students and instructors – is the question of when grades will be returned. To alleviate this situation, create a short statement explaining the typical turnaround time in which students can expect to receive feedback on their assignments. To be clear – the timeframe for when you return grades should be one that is reasonable for you and the work that you are assessing. The main thing to consider is that students receive feedback in advance of their next assignment, so that they can make corrections as needed. Here is a sample feedback statement:

“Except for the business plan, due at the end of the semester, I will attempt to return feedback on your assignments a week after the due date. If I determine that grading will take longer than a week, you will see an announcement from me in the course. Discussion posts will have grades posted a week after the module ends.”

Because we all know that sometimes life gets in the way and things do not proceed as intended, a good practice is to explain to students that you will communicate with them if you are unable to keep to your normal schedule. This will help relieve anxiety on their part and stem the flow of emails to your inbox.

Course Interaction Expectations

There can sometimes be some confusion on the part of students regarding how often you expect them to access the course shell and how much time they should expect to spend on course work. Including this information in the syllabus can help set expectations early and ensure that students have adequate information with which to plan their time. For example, you may want to create a statement that tells students that you want them to log into the course at three evenly spaced times during the week and check announcements each time they log in. Additionally, you may want to let them know whether the course is “self-paced,” if there are certain due dates throughout that must be met, or if they are expected to work at a similar pace with others only during group projects. It can also be helpful to clarify to students that even though they are not spending time in a classroom on a regular basis, they will still need to plan to spend an approximate number of hours each week working in the online course and on their own.

Addressing these aspects of the course can be especially helpful for students who are new to online learning and who may not realize how much time can be involved in taking an online course. Experienced online learners can also benefit from a better understanding of the time commitments that may be to your course.

Accessibility Information

You will want to provide information on or a link to the educational tool/software’s accessibility policy to students. This information is usually available from the manufacturer or developer site, and if you need assistance locating it you can always contact your instructional consultant for help. Placing this information in the syllabus makes it easier for students with disabilities to determine whether they will need assistance and, if so, request and obtain it early in the course.

Where to Get Help

You may want to add a special area on your course menu [link to our article, Organizing Your Online Course] where information on the types of assistance available can be found. In addition to information on where students can obtain technical and disability support from the university, include information on the types of student and academic support that are available:

  • Examples of student support services: advising, financial aid, counseling, registration, career services, etc.
  • Examples of academic support services: library, writing or math centers, tutoring, testing services, etc.

If you include this information in your course syllabus, you may want to suggest that students print it out and keep it handy.


Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.