Setting Expectations for Online Students

A photo of a man reading a tablet device at a table with a cup of coffee.

Building community online is a lot like relationship building in any other context. There needs to be a sense of trust, some mutual sharing, and healthy boundaries for interaction.

To create this type of atmosphere in your course, you will need to set clear expectations from the start and provide a way for students to interact and get to know each other a little bit before the real work of learning begins. This also gives you the opportunity as an educator to demonstrate your consideration for the students, as well as your enthusiasm about the course topic.

A document outlining expectations is a good addition to the beginning of course materials. In addition to university policies, you will want to add information on your own policies for your course. This should ideally contain information on both what you expect from students and what the students can expect from you. In her book, Effective Online Teaching, Tina Stavredes shares a “faculty expectation template.” Some of the ideas included are:

  • Describe your teaching style: Let learners know how you will engage in the course. For example, will you participate on all discussion boards or only some? How often will you post announcements?
  • Describe the course environment. This can be not only where different things are in the course, but also the way that you want students to feel about the course and/or how you feel about the course. Click here to learn more about how to describe the course environment to students.
  • Describe time to complete weekly activities. Giving an estimate of how long you think it should take students to complete the activities in the course can help them monitor their work and potentially alert them if they will need assistance.
  • Preplanned extended time away from the course. Consider what situations you consider a true emergency, how far in advance you need notification for non-emergency situations, etc.

Here are some examples of how you could word these statements:

Teaching Style and Course Environment - This semester we will be working together to learn about how to create instruction for the adult user, and we will be experimenting with ways to plan for implementing these programs in a library setting. I look forward to sharing my knowledge with you as well as learning from each of you, since I know that you will bring experience and insight into our discussions and activities. I would describe my teaching style as constructivist with connectivist aspects. Constructivism is a learning theory that has been around for some time, and its basic premise is that learner’s “construct” knowledge through experiences and interaction with a community of learners. Connectivism is a somewhat newer learning theory that has followed the emergence of the Internet as a prominent feature of our lives. George Siemens is the foremost explorer of this concept, and its basic theory is that we learn through feeding information into networks as well as getting new information from networks in a cyclical fashion. The main needs for the learner in this theory are being connected to a network and being able to filter information in a manner that makes it valuable. Both theories are very learner-centered, and you will see that much of this course is structured around what you the learners can bring to the table. So, this semester I hope that we will be doing a lot of “networking” and sharing of information, ideas, insights, experiences, and creating new knowledge as a learning community.

Structure and Time to Complete Activities - This course is designed with modules that focus on course content, learning activities, quizzes, and readings. Each module is approximately 2 - 3 weeks in length. This course will require approximately 10 hours of attention per week, so please allocate your time appropriately.

Preplanned Extended Time Away - If you know that you will be required to miss an assignment due date, you must inform me as soon as possible to make arrangements. In extenuating circumstances, it may be possible to make alternate arrangements, but you must contact me before the due date of the assignment. If you provide less than 24-hours’ notice of a problem, it is possible that there may not be much that can be done. College level work requires you to plan to complete tasks in a timely manner. Failing to be prepared at least 24 hours ahead of a due date may reflect a time management problem. Please plan to complete all the assignments on time.

In addition to these ideas, consider adding some short statements giving a broad outline of where responsibilities in the course lie. For example:

As the instructor in this course, I am responsible for:

  • providing course materials that will assist and enhance your achievement of the stated course goals,
  • providing timely and helpful feedback within the stated guidelines, and
  • assisting in maintaining a positive learning environment for everyone.

As a student in this course, you are responsible for:

  • reading and completing all requirements of the course in a timely manner,
  • working to remain attentive and engaged in the course and interact with your fellow students, and
  • assisting in maintaining a positive learning environment for everyone.

Setting these types of clear expectations and responsibilities at the beginning of the course sets the stage for positive experiences 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.

Stavredes, T. (2011). Effective Online Teaching: Foundations and Strategies for Student Success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.