Five Strategies to Improve Online Course Design (and Learning!)

student-centered learning

“Teaching is not something you can go into the forest and do by yourself” (Ralph W. Tyler, educator, 1902 – 1994).

It’s the end of another semester–time to reflect upon the successes and not-so-good outcomes of my course and make plans for improvements. So far, my student comments and feedback have been very positive. They seemed to really enjoy the flexibility of the course, small group interactions and yes, even small group projects (they had one), being able to view other students’ work, and grow in their use of technology in the classroom.

Many of them were able to transfer what they were learning in my class to their own classrooms, making this course especially relevant and authentic. But, as teachers, we always know there is room for improvement. So . . . what would I do differently?

Here are five strategies I will use to improve my course for next semester:

1. Provide Research to Validate Course Structure

Of course, I know that it’s almost impossible to make all students happy or expect everyone to absolutely love the way my course is structured. One student told me he did not see the purpose of viewing and rating other students’ work. I can understand that statement and realize I should have included more information in the syllabus about the structure of the course (student-centered learning) and why it is set up that way. I should have included links to research about active and collaborative learning and why it is so effective.

For a great article on the effectiveness of student-centered learning, read Felder & Brent (1996).

2. Use Technology Tools for Consistent Contact

In looking back at the course, I also feel I should have included more opportunities for live interaction with me and the rest of the students. I want to begin, sustain, and complete the course with consistent contact.

Therefore, next semester, I’m going to require all students join me in an Adobe Connect meeting during the first week, simply as a way to introduce themselves and tell me why they are pursuing a degree in educational technology.

I will set up multiple meetings and times, so that all students have an opportunity to attend. Not only will this set the stage for a more personal and collaborative course experience, but it will also provide technology training on how to participate in a web meeting and use teleconferencing tools.

I will also require students add me to their Google chat list and conduct a live chat with me during the first week. I will show them how they can use Google chat to send me a text message if I’m not online (I use Google Voice to create a separate number, so I don’t have to give out my personal cell phone number). This tool provides an excellent way to contact me for quick questions so students can move on. I am always trying to figure out better ways to communicate with students, reducing the amount of email I receive.

3. Redesign Course Syllabus

I plan on improving the structure and comprehensibility of my course syllabus. I just finished reading (and will be reading this one again and again) Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Education by Kathleen F. Gabriel.

Although this book focuses on undergraduates and face-to-face courses, it can easily be applied to graduate and online courses.

I believe that many of our graduate students come to our courses unprepared in various areas–technology expertise, returning to school after many years, workplace challenges, family conflicts, and other areas. Appendix A of this book includes a syllabus outline from “Starting the Semester on the Right Foot: 40 Concrete Ideas to Take Into the Classroom Tomorrow.”

I also plan on creating a narrated video of the syllabus, to provide an introduction and explanation for additional support.

4. Use Course Data To Identify At-Risk Students

I will consistently and regularly check student statistics and data, to identify which students might be at-risk from the get-go. Students who do not interact or check course content are at a higher risk of failing the course. I need to be right on top of these data and contact these students right away.

This is another benefit of having students add me to their Google Chat contact list–I should be easily able to contact them back! If they are not online, then I will send them emails. If they do not respond to those, I will call them.

We are doing our students a disservice if we do not at least TRY to follow up and contact those who are not attending class or struggling with assignments.

5. Consistently Ask for Student Feedback

Sometimes lessons go wrong or plans for learning just don’t work out. Make this an advantage. Immediately poll your students to find out how you could make the lesson better. Listen to their ideas and adjust as needed. Teaching and learning is always a work in progress.

Of course, as teachers, we can only do so much. But helping our students learn how to learn and modeling life-long learning can be one of our most important lessons.


Bellows, N. (2003). Starting the semester on the right foot: 40 concrete ideas to take into the classroom tomorrow. Teaching and Learning News Newsletter, 13(1), 6 – 7.

Felder, R. M., & Brent, R. (1996). Navigating the bumpy road to student-centered Instruction. College Teaching, 44(2), 43–47.

Gabriel, K. F. (2008). Teaching unprepared students: Strategies for promoting success and retention in higher education. Sterling VA: Stylus Pub Llc.

4 thoughts on “Five Strategies to Improve Online Course Design (and Learning!)

  1. A great list, Barbara. Question – how often do you update your course to include new content? In our field, it seems that new technologies, legislation and theories regularly influence our field. Any standard process for doing this? Thanks again for a great list…


  2. Thanks for the good insights. It gives me something to reflect on as I consider moving into the online teaching field.


  3. Barbara,
    All of your suggestions and strategies for having an interactive and successful online class are amazing. The school district I work for is beginning a 1:1 initiative this upcoming school year and I need to begin thinking about incorporating features of an online class into my classroom.
    I really like the section about using course data to identify at-risk students. Do you use a specific program that will show you students activity on your website? I also really like the Google Chat idea. How did you go about setting up a “secret” phone number so that students don’t get your actual personal phone number?
    You have offered some great suggestions that I definitely plan on using!
    Thank you,
    Lindsey Dickinson


    • We use Moodle for our LMS, which includes an amazing set of data tools that can provide all sorts of information about student access to the course site, as well as provide automatic messages if assignments have not been completed. It’s essential you use the rich and comprehensive data provided by online access to identify students at risk (and student who are doing very well!)

      Use Google Voice to create a number that is assigned to a cell phone number. Students call text and call you on this number without having your personal or business cell number.

      Sounds like you have an exciting opportunity ahead of you!


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