Tips & Tricks

Developing online course materials can offer faculty many rewards but it can also present some challenges as you learn to present material in this alternative instructional format. Here are some snippets of advice gathered from your SRJC colleagues who teach online.


  • Provide clear deadlines throughout the course to keep students on task.
  • Test your materials before making them live. You can create a CATE student account for yourself will allow you to test what the students view.
  • Check external links regularly. Check all pages to ensure they print out properly within regular margins.
  • A companion CDROM can be provided in the bookstore or at the Library Reserve desk. This is a good method to provide students with material and examples that might be too large for online delivery.
  • Expect and plan for technical problems such as students who cannot access their e-mail glitch when trying to complete a timed exam. Be flexible and have a backup plan.
  • Be mindful of how many times you require a student to enter passwords in the different levels of your course materials. It can be tiresome for students to enter passwords for every new page they view.
  • For long readings that students may want to print out provide a pdf version.
  • Maintain a consistent informational structure and page layout for all lesson pages. This gives students a sense of place.
  • Revise course materials based on feedback to make material clearer and keep your material current.
  • Be clear up front about your expectations. When are things due? What are students supposed to do?

Time Management

  • CATE offers a thorough End of Semester Maintenance Checklist to guide you when updating the dates and settings in the CATE pages of your class. Set up a similar system to track what items need to be changed each semester if you use personal Webpages as well.
  • Outlook e-mail program - use the Rules Wizard to set your e-mail so that class e-mails go directly to specific folders.
  • Find a way to automate the repetitive answers you must give for student questions. There are programs available that allow you to write a generic answer to a question that is repeated often. This allows you to quickly send out a personalized response. Another method is to develop a system to save answers to questions you receive in a word processing file so that you can copy from the file when you get the questions again. This is also good for saving grading comments to use again. FAQ's posted are also good ways to answer general questions. Another suggestion is to use the AutoCorrect tools in Word to create standard comments that can be inserted into an assignment.
  • Prevent e-mail overload by having students send all class material-related questions to a message list. This allows additional learning opportunities as other students help to answer the questions. If students send e-mail instead of using the Message List then don't answer it, instead redirect them to send the question to the list. This will train them to send to the Message List first.
  • If you know you have a full class put an announcement on the Section Page stating that you will not be adding students. This will help reduce the number of e-mails you receive requesting to be added to the class.
  • I use the CATE gradebook to have grades automatically flow in from the CATE tests module; it also allows you to manually input grades.
  • If teaching several sections of the same course in CATE you can create core components of Lessons that can be used by all sections but have section-specific communications and gradebooks. Another time saving option for teaching multiple sections is to create separate CATE Section pages but have all students use one Roster and Gradebook.

Student Preparedness/Learning Styles

  • We all have different ways of learning and processing information and this doesn't change just because the course is online. Some of us still want a hard copy to make notes on and highlight, so offering pertinent Web pages as pdf files can be helpful. Auditory learners may find it helpful to have instructions as sound files – keep 'em short, though. Finally, don't be afraid to inject a little humor. Of course, a little can go a long way.
  • Assess student preparedness for online learning at the start. CATE offers some pages for students: What you need, and what you need to know, to take an online class and Online preparedness quiz.
  • Instructors can use various online resources to help students acquire and assess the skills they will need for the particular online class they are taking (e.g., technology, Internet research, etc.). In addition, there are several sites to help students identify their learning styles/preferences and what they can do to maximize their learning.

Building Community

  • Be personal with the students. Don't be so mechanized that there is no personal contact. I personally telephone all my students before an online class begins, I send e-mails out to students weekly as reminders for deadlines, and I grade the activities individually with personal comments about their work.
  • At the Face-to-Face Meeting I take a digital group photo and put it up on the class Web site.
  • Have students submit introductions to a message List as a way to create community.
  • Building an online community of learners should begin the first week of class. The instructor should not dominate the discussion, but can reply to student messages with words of encouragement, thanks, and follow-up questions.
  • Students receive at least weekly feedback in my class, but usually more often than that. I regularly check responses in to the discussion boards, as well as any assignments, etc.


  • Clearly spell out communication policies, expectations, and responsibilities for both students and instructors in the syllabus. For example, explain how quickly students should expect a reply to their e-mail (two working days) or where students should look for help before e-mailing (FAQ).
  • Using the “Message List” feature has been a great way to facilitate class discussion on particular topics or questions. It provides a participatory learning environment allowing students the opportunity to formulate opinions and seek clarification from classmates or the instructor.
  • We may want to include links to Web sites that can help instructors learn how to facilitate online discussions.
  • Office Hours - Offer a variety of options (chat, instant message, phone, office).
  • The CATE Chat Room module is useful for conducting online office hours or meeting with students who want immediate responses to questions or problems they are having.
  • The CCC Confer Office Hours is a free option for faculty of the California Community Colleges faculty to provide synchronous communication and collaboration using the latest Web conferencing technology. It is also a good method to provide a synchronous orientation at the beginning of class.
  • Schedule Chat Room Office Hours for the evening, if possible, because students usually take classes or work during the day.
  • I use “Instant Messaging” as an effective communications tool to build community in my online class.
  • One way to facilitate participation on the “Message List” is to have a required number of posts. Be clear about how you will be grading participation and always respond promptly.
  • Use the CATE Web Groups module to divided the class into several small groups to allow students to interact and work on group projects.
  • Designate a place in your Web site for announcements. Make this portion of the page stand out by giving it a different colored background or heading.

Starting the Class

  • Instructor visibility can be enhanced by including a biography with a picture. Another approach is to put a different photo up as part of each week's lesson. I use humorous photos of myself in settings related to that week's topic.
  • The first week's assignment needs to be something fairly simple. I usually have a quiz the first week that includes questions about the syllabus, class Web site and procedures.
  • Use the “Check-In Reminder” feature of the CATE Students module to send a canned e-mail to all registered students to remind them to complete the Check-In Form found on the class Section page. Approximately one week before class begins, an e-mail is sent to all students who have provided e-mail addresses regarding the login as well as where to access the course materials. In that e-mail my phone number is also included so students can phone me if they are having difficulties.
  • At the beginning of class, I send out several welcome e-mails to the entire class urging them to get involved.
  • At the end of the class description in the Schedule of Classes include the instructor's e-mail address or phone number telling students to send a message to get information on how to get started. Then have a "canned" message with step-by-step procedures that can be pasted into a reply message to the student.
  • The Schedule of Classes instructs students to visit the “Class Home Page” (the Web address is provided) for detailed information. The home page explains the start date and the date when check-in begins (usually a few days before SRJC starts classes).
  • The first assignment is for the student to post an introduction/brief biography. This allows me to monitor who has been able to login and if they are able to post to the discussion area. The check-in procedure after receiving their e-mail address is to have them post an “Introduction” in the discussion area.
  • I make phone calls to students before class begins to introduce myself or to give instructions on getting started have improved my check-in rate.
  • Students are called by a student worker in our department and asked to send the instructor an e-mail.
  • I personally telephone each on of my students beginning one week prior to class. I ask them to send me an e-mail. Then I know that they are computer proficient, and I send them an e-mail with the instructions for access.
  • If they have not checked-in two weeks after the class has begun, I consider them 'lost lambs' and I will drop them from class. In our course materials we state that if we do not hear from a student for three weeks, we consider that they have dropped.
  • Include step-by-step procedures as part of the course or section information in CATE. I use CATE – on the homepage for the class section I indicate which steps they need to take to start the class.
  • I have a page that has an online welcome letter, a list of materials they need to buy, and a link to the class Web site. Once they visit the class Web site they are asked to complete a form that verifies they are enrolled in the class, and then asks them to create a username and password they will use to turn in homework or check grades. Finally they fill out a "greeting" assignment which allows them to post their introduction to a Web page. Filling out the greeting form also adds them to my online gradebook, and adds their e-mail address to our class message list.
  • Online students are invited to a non-mandatory, face-to-face orientation to learn how to get started online in the course software. Students are notified of these orientation times on the Section page at CATE.
  • I know some instructors require a first-time, face-to-face meeting, but this defeats the purpose of online and may prevent students who live a great distance from the college from attending or even signing up for a class.
  • Provide an "Orientation," "How This Class Works," or "Strategies for Success" page. This page describes how to navigate and use all tools necessary for success in the class.
  • Have clear instructions. Be consistent. Then nag, nag, nag until they get online.
  • I keep checking lookup to find drops and new adds. I also use the “Drops” button in the “CATE Students” module.
  • I consider my class fairly fast paced, so if a student has not turned in two assignments, they're lost. Depending on what their excuse is, and how savvy they are, I may let them stay in class, but they're put on notice about late work.

Check-In Process

  • I give a deadline for them to complete the check-in process on the “Section” (syllabus) page.
  • The student must complete the CATE Check-In Form where they give an e-mail address. I then accept or reject the check-in. When accepted the student automatically receives a confirmation they're checked in, they get the URL for the class Web pages. When rejected, I e-mail the student with the reason, etc.
  • I open the check-in process early on – the Friday before the semester starts or maybe even a week. Students appreciate setting up the class set up before their other classes begin, and they can focus better. They can also get a good idea if the class is right for them - they have time to drop and add a different class during the first week of school.
  • I use the CATE check-in process for most of my traditional classes, too. This creates a class message list for me; I can display homework and class work for students who missed class, and I can also create student-to-student communication by providing a bulletin board. The students seem to appreciate it.
  • Once they check-in to the class through the CATE “Check-In” page and I activate them, they receive an e-mail message directing them to a "Syllabus" page, which explains how to use the site, class message list, check grades, etc. I usually find that students need to be prompted again to read this page. My first e-mail to the class again directs them to read the “Syllabus” page thoroughly.

Submitting Assignments & Testing

  • Text Documents or files of many types can be uploaded by students using the “CATE In-Box” module without fear of computer viruses from e-mail attachments.
  • When using the “CATE In-Box” feature to allow students to upload files directly onto the CATE server you must clearly define what files types you are able to open (for example: extensions such as .doc or .rtf but not .wps)

Online Testing Strategies

  • Provide a range of types of assessment: multiple choice, essays, projects/presentations. CATE Test & Exercises Quick Guide
  • Include many short quizzes with automated responses to give students a chance to practice what they are learning.
  • Be careful about using the automatic grading option for short answer questions due to inconsistencies or problems with spelling, spacing, abbreviations, etc.
  • I use “Open Book Tests” as a way to prevent plagiarism. Another method is to set up proctored tests.
  • Let students know at the beginning of the course if you require them to come on campus for exams.
  • TurnitIn can be used to have students submit papers that will be checked for plagiarism. It is also a useful way to read papers online without having to worry about attachments and viruses.
  • I include definitions of academically inappropriate behavior on my syllabus as a way to start a dialog about plagiarism.
  • Put a time limit on the exam so students don't have enough time to look up the answers.
  • For multiple choice type questions I use large test banks so that each student gets his or her own set of questions on each exam.
  • You can monitor the use of online course materials. In the “Students” module CATE provides information about when students login, how long, and what pages they viewed. This allows you to determine if students are having problems with a particular concept or if someone has stopped participating.
  • Search for answers to exam questions using Google to ensure that each question is designed to minimize the possibility that answer can be found on the Internet. Put questions in the reverse, meaning that the keyword is not in the question, but in the answer.
  • Use antonymous surveys to get student feedback about the course and instruction at different times during the semester.

Online Student Retention

  • CATE had a HELP page on the subject of retention with many useful tips. CATE Enrollment and Retention Tips.
  • Four concepts of retention that are valuable are: 1) preparing students before they get there, 2) course design, 3) instructor visibility, and 4) creating learning communities.
  • Contact students with a personal greeting such as an e-mail, phone call (telephone numbers are all available on “LOOKUP”) or postcard/letter with tips on how they can be successful.
  • Mother hen students! Be visible. Provide students with information and reply personally to all messages.
  • Provide ways for students to know each other. Create a sense of community with the class; a face-to-face meeting was not necessary in order to accomplish this.
  • Keep It Simple!!! Don't use a lot of technology or fancy things that cause students to become frustrated or confused.
  • Make the class relevant. Keep notes on individual students so that you can reply with a personal comment that relates the class material to them in a way that they think is important.
  • Grade with feedback, not just points. Provide ways for students to pile up points quickly as it gets them vested in the class.
  • Keep in mind that students have lives so different from when we were in school; cut them some slack.
  • As an assignment, ask your students to provide you with tips for success that you can share with the next class.
  • Repeat instructions several times assuming that you never know what their life is like. Just like any other class, you can't "make" students read everything. Repetition of instructions on pages is helpful, but doesn't solve all the problems.