Managing Your Online Course Through Communication

A photo of a smart phone with a notification for a new email message.

Because of the nature of the online course, communication becomes especially important, and a clearly outlined communication plan can help improve student attitudes, as well as demonstrate thoughtful preparation. Additionally, establishing expectations early for how communication in the course will work can help alleviate student anxieties and relieve pressures on the instructor. For example, if students know that you prefer them to reach you by email, and that you normally respond within a set timeframe, then their expectations become more reasonable, and you can manage your time more effectively.

There are a variety of communication tools available within the online course, but before selecting a tool, consider the following:

  • How do you prefer students communicate questions to you? Email? Text? Phone call?
  • What type of writing style do you expect in the different areas of the course? Do you want formal discussion forum postings including citations? Is text-speak allowed in any area of the class? What about student emails to you? How should they compose these and is there are subject line you would like for them to use?
  • Will you be using the announcements tool regularly in the course? If so, what type of information can students expect to see there?
  • In general, what is your teaching style like? How can students expect to see you engaging in the course?

Answering these questions will help you put together a course communication plan for your syllabus that will set expectations from the beginning. Here is an example:

While I want to make myself as available as possible to each of you, I do have to place some limitations on when I can be contacted. I would prefer that most general questions go through the Q&A forum in the Discussion Board area. If you have a general question about the course or assignments, please post it there. Either I will answer it, or, one of your classmates will. This way we can all benefit from questions asked, and they can be answered in a venue that the whole class can see. You may also want to find someone in class to be a "buddy" with. This will give you at least one other person who you can email with questions.

I will normally be available during Office Hours Chat on Fridays from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. - these sessions are not required. It is possible that I may have to cancel these chats occasionally. If possible, I will try to post an announcement the day before when this happens. If you see that I am online via the Class Chat at a time other than office hours, you are free to contact me! If I'm online, that means that I'm available, and I will try to make myself available a couple of extra times a week if possible. Also, chat is just that - you don't have to have a question to contact me on the chat. It's perfectly acceptable (and encouraged!) for you to just pop in and say "hello!"

If you have a private question, please contact me via email, and I will respond within 24 hours on weekdays (usually sooner). Please do not expect a response over the weekend. Please use my phone number as a last resort - but, also, please use it if you need to!

Communicating tone within an online environment can be particularly challenging. Therefore, it is a good idea to make your netiquette – online etiquette – expectations clear to students per quality. Areas to consider are:

  • Tone and civility when communicating with both fellow students and the instructor in any format – electronic or telephone.
  • Stylistic concerns and requirements – e.g. standard English rather than “text speak” and spelling and grammar.
  • Sensitivity to cultural differences.

You can craft your own statement on netiquette, or you may wish to let students know that this is an important issue, and then have them review one of the many resources available on this topic, such as “The Core Rules of Netiquette.”

One of the most common student questions deals with a course’s feedback timeframe, that is, the turnaround time in which instructors provide grades and comments on assignments. A feedback timeframe is also one of the most common items instructors omit from the course syllabus because instructors typically want to avoid grading overload, which can create unrealistic expectations for students. Courses often have 25+ students per section, and when instructors teach multiple sections, the amount of grading can pile up quickly. However, it is possible for instructors to establish feedback timeframes that simultaneously benefit students’ learning and prevent grading overload.

The first step is to determine a purposeful feedback timeframe. According to this article, research reveals that “prompt feedback is a basic tenet of quality instruction.” “Feedback” includes “information or evaluation along with grades.” The research behind this principle found that for students to benefit from feedback, instructors should provide feedback within one week or less. This timeframe allows students to apply the feedback to upcoming work. However, often this timeframe is simply not possible, so the main consideration when determining an appropriate timeframe is that students receive feedback early enough to apply it to the next assignment. Thus, you will want to examine your course and set a realistic timeframe based upon the types of assignments and work being completed, just keep in mind that sooner is better than later. By establishing your course’s feedback timeframe, you can lower students’ anxiety, which can promote engagement and retention in the course, and lower your anxiety by decreasing the number of emails you receive from students asking when grades and feedback will be available.

Crafting a grading feedback statement includes stating a standard timeframe for returning grades and feedback. Additionally, include an explanation that if extraneous circumstances arise, you will post an announcement informing students when they can expect grading information. For example:

Grading Feedback

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.

This simple piece of information aligns your course to quality standards, helps relieve students’ anxiety, and keeps your inbox clean throughout the semester.


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

Graham, C., Cagiltay, K., Lim, B., Craner, J., and Duffy, T.M. (2001). Seven principles of effective teaching: A practical lens for evaluating online courses. Retrieved from