By Joan Thormann and Isa Zimmerman, authors, The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Designing and Teaching Online Courses

Because of COVID-19 school closures, almost all teachers are required to teach online. This will most likely last until the end of the year and into the fall semester. Moving to an online teaching environment can be challenging but it can also be rewarding. In this blog we share two strategies to help you engage your students and also to continue to build community in online courses. These strategies are based on research and twenty years of teaching online. They are suggested for your use and adaptation to your teaching practice.

Students Share Assignments

Develop assignments so that each student can post something that relates to the topic being addressed. You can either assign subtopics for each student, let students choose from a list, or have students develop their own subtopic. The assignments submitted should be different for each student.

Have students post their assignments publicly on a specified date. Require that each student read and publicly comment on at least two of their classmates’ postings. The student who posted must respond to all of his or her classmates’ comments and questions. The teacher should provide guidelines for this interactive activity. To ensure that students comply with these and all other required work, a point system should be established—ideally from the beginning of the course, or as soon as possible. This allows students to track their progress throughout the course.

This assignment has multiple advantages. Students learn from and interact with each other. The assignment engages students and helps to build community. In addition, the quality of the assignments is higher because students do not want to appear inadequate to their peers. After students have interacted, the teacher needs to make comments and ask questions.


For a class dealing with special education an assignment could be:

Select a disability area, conduct research about the particular area of disability and write a paper.

Read at least five articles and/or consult several books and using APA cite them in your paper. The paper should be between 1200 to 2000 words.

For an English literature class in which students are reading David Copperfield an assignment could be:

Analyze one of the characters, describing how Dickens uses setting, dress and dialog to bring the character ‘to life.’ What else could Dickens have written to make the character more real?

Write a paper that is between 1000 to 2000 words. Include quotes of setting, dress and dialog from the text to support your analysis.

For a history class studying the American Civil War an assignment could be:

Select an individual who was alive during the years of the Civil War. This person could be a soldier or officer on either side, a slave, an abolitionist, etc. Conduct research about him or her using at least five resources.

Write a paper that is between 1000 to 2000 words. Describe the individual’s background, role, action(s) taken and impact. Include some context to provide an understanding of this person’s participation. Use information from your five resources and cite them using APA format.

The length of the papers for each of the above assignments is relatively short. Adjust the length to meet your needs and student capabilities. However, there are reasons for short student assignments in this context: the papers should be completed and submitted in one to three weeks; once posted, students are required to read and comment on at least two papers; and once posted, students are required to respond to others’ comments about their own papers. If the papers are too long, the assignment requiring students to interact becomes burdensome.

If the assignment is spread over a few weeks, it is advisable to require students to post benchmark assignments such as an outline, an annotated list of their resources, or a first draft. A first draft may be shared with the teacher and one or two classmates who are asked to give constructive and substantive feedback.

Another recommendation is for teachers to construct a way for students to select their subtopic so there is as little redundancy of subtopics in the class as possible. In case there are limited subtopics as in the special education example above, limit the number of students who can select each subtopic or allow students to collaborate and submit one paper.


In order to help students feel comfortable “speaking up in class,” the teacher should take the time to have an individual video conference with each student toward the beginning of the class.

So that students know what to expect during the video conference, we recommend that prior to the conference that you share a few simple questions for students to answer during the session. The following questions provide a sample of what could be used for an English literature course.

  1. Who is your favorite author? Why?
  2. Why are you taking this English literature course?
  3. Do you have a question about the course you want to ask me?

During the video conference, which should take about 15 minutes, the teacher should listen carefully and ask follow-up questions based on what the student says. The teacher should also maintain a positive and welcoming attitude.

If the class is small it is best to meet one-on-one. For a large class you can meet with small groups of four or five. We have found these video conferences productive. During the remainder of the course students participate more fully and know that they can ask the teacher questions and turn to her for support.

Using these two strategies and many others described in greater detail in our book The Complete Step-by-Step Guide to Designing and Teaching Online Courses leads to a rewarding experience for both teacher and student. We have found that testing one technique at a time and then refining it works well.

Featured image by Juraj Varga on Pixabay