For those of us who continue to teach asynchronous online courses during the 2021-2022 academic year, it’s worth considering how we motivate our students. Reasonably well-developed and presented online syllabi, assignment prompts, and modules that present course-related materials each week do not necessarily ensure student engagement and success. Indeed, many undergrads still have difficulty making the leap from traditional face-to-face courses to asynchronous online courses and often need assistance with that transition.
Without much additional work, however, professors can provide that assistance through concise, single-page reminders via email, text, and shared at the top of each online course module. These written cues feature helpful prompts and encouraging calls to action, providing yet another way to guide students through their coursework. Besides helping students navigate asynchronous online courses more easily, weekly guidelines can also help foster engagement, learning, and success. Here are several reasons we might consider augmenting our online syllabi, assignment packets, and course modules in an asynchronous setting with supplementary communications.
1) Weekly guidelines provide additional support to students
Since we are not together with our students in the same room for asynchronous online courses, our students benefit from extra contact. For those who need a gentle push accomplishing course-related tasks, supporting communications each week help them remember what is expected and encourage them to take action to the end. Pared down messages provide convenient prompts about work for the week, course projects, and related deadlines. At the same time, weekly guidelines reduce the potential information overload that can affect students when they wade through full-length online syllabi, assignments packets, or course modules. Subtle calls to action from us help students keep their asynchronous online coursework in mind and moving forward.
2) Weekly guidelines summarize information from online course modules
Routine, supportive communication every seven days can likewise help minimize the potential for student uncertainty, but take care to avoid dense language which can intimidate and discourage some students. Keep weekly guidelines concise instead. Aim to provide straightforward, supportive communication that helps students avoid potential confusion. Tell them, “Here is what you need to read, watch, and discuss for this week. Here is what to submit online. This is the due date.” As instructors, we should do everything necessary to simplify the process and enable already overtaxed students to move forward with confidence in asynchronous online courses.
3) Weekly guidelines remind students of course policies and expectations
Twenty-first century college students have a great deal on their plates. Besides schoolwork, many juggle jobs, family commitments, and the like. Covid-19 has added to those stressors, making it even easier to let things slide, especially in asynchronous online courses. But succinct weekly reminders help our students avoid that slippery slope. These guidelines sent via email, text, or posted to the LMS can encourage students to remain mindful of key course information and policies while referring them to the syllabus or other relevant course documents should they need to review key information. Weekly guidelines also provide convenient reminders to students to avoid letting themselves fall through the cracks and invite them to seek help from us should they need it.
4) Weekly guidelines help foster civil interaction
While online asynchronous instruction has become more typical since March 2020, we nevertheless still ask our students to make a huge leap into uncharted waters, however, many are still frustrated and fearful, while others may become disrespectful due to the anxieties that loom over them. Weekly guidelines provide a handy space in which to model the civility we hope for from students with our own polite decorum and kindness. Think of the reminders you compose, send, text, and post each week as teachable moments that can help prepare students for collegial working lives after graduation. The same is true for any replies to email queries from our students.
5) Weekly guidelines remind students of the employability skills they cultivate
Besides specific course subject matter, weekly reminders can be used to remind students of the real-world skills they practice implicitly, which will serve them well after graduation. In particular, when an online asynchronous course features a strong collaborative element, students have the potential to cultivate collegiality, agency, effective planning and organization, time management, intellectual openness, and mental agility, among many other positive habits. The opportunity to acquire expertise in these areas will empower students once they enter the globalized digital economy after graduation. When students are made aware that their activities each week have direct relevance to their lives beyond college, they tend to engage more effectively. This buy-in is critical for student success in an asynchronous online environment.
6) Weekly guidelines should be concise and formatted consistently
A brief, routine format is most helpful for weekly reminders shared with students. Start with the week, semester, and effective dates. Follow with a friendly greeting and focusing statement. Include upcoming due date reminders highlighted in yellow or pink. In two or three short paragraphs, outline tasks for the next seven days. Besides your instructor email, include helpdesk contact information for students who need technical assistance uploading work to the LMS. Wind down by reminding students of steps they can take to ensure their own success. Conclude with a gentle reminder about course policies, expectations, and the real-world skills students cultivate beyond the specific course focus. Close with good wishes for students’ continued well-being. Finally, check your guidelines for accessibility compliance before sending via email, text, and posting to your LMS. An example of what a weekly guideline might look like is available here.
The approach suggested here has evolved since March 2020 to assist students, foster their engagement, and ensure their success in asynchronous online courses. Based on numerous comments from my recent student course evaluations, this approach has helped many during an otherwise challenging time. Concise weekly guidelines, when used to compliment online syllabi, assignment packets, and course modules set up in the LMS, can be extremely useful to students when it comes to navigating an asynchronous online course with greater success. Supplementary communications like these might also benefit students in synchronous online, hybrid, and HyFlex courses, as well as traditional face-to-face courses.
Stokes Schwartz is an academic specialist at Michigan State University where he teaches various courses on Scandinavian crime fiction, social problem dramas, horror cinema, contemporary global cinema, and film noir among others through the Center for Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities. His research interests include how instructors can better integrate Chinese international students into large enrollment courses, how instructors might foster improved student engagement and success within a general education context, and the implicit cultivation of 21st century employability skills among undergraduates through course related activities.
Dede, Christopher J. and John Richards, The 60-Year Curriculum: New Models for Lifelong Learning in the Digital Economy. New York and London: Routledge, 2020.
Johnson, Joshua. Interview with Carolyn Lukensmeyer, David Plazas, and Justine Lee. “Can You Stay Civil by Keeping Quiet?” 1A, National Public Radio, WKAR, November 21, 2017.
Jones, Brett D. “Motivating Students to Engage in Learning: The MUSIC Model of Academic Motivation.” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 21(2):272-285.