Managing Your Online Class

Following is a list of items that should be done as you prepare for and teach your online class. Click on each title to reveal details about each step.

Several Weeks Before Class Begins

  1. Review Best Practices and Expectations for Online Teaching
  2. If you work with a Learning Designer, add them to your Canvas course
    See "How do I add users to a course?" for details.
  3. Merge Course Sections, if applicable
    Visit Canvas Tips: Merging Courses for help.
  4. Import Content From Another Canvas Course (if applicable)
    • See How do I import content from another Canvas course? for help.
    • NOTE: If you want to adjust the due dates associated with the course events and assignments, be sure to click the "Adjust events and due dates" checkbox. If your course has an Orientation, your beginning date is one week prior to the official start date of your course. You must have a start date in the empty course shell you are importing into in order for this to work.
    • NOTE: Unless you have selected the "delay posting" feature for an announcement in a previous offering, the date won't carry over to an imported course. Instead, it will make all announcements visible to students (and then you will need to go into each announcement and manually check the "delay posting" box and assign a date).
    • See How do I adjust events and due dates in a course import? for help.
  5. Update Course Settings in Canvas
  6. Update Navigation Structure
    If necessary, update the navigational structure by following the University Task Force Recommendations for course navigation. Note that we use these recommendations because research has shown that consistent and limited navigation reduces student confusion.
  7. Set your Personal Notifications
    You can set notifications in Canvas to be sent to your email or your cell phone number. You can choose to be notified "right away," in a "daily summary," in a "weekly summary," or "not at all." Keep in mind that these settings are global, so they apply to all of your courses and cannot be set by course. You are not able to set preferences for your students, but you can recommend that they do so themselves.

    The following are recommendations for notification settings for optimal teaching.

    • Discussion and Discussion Posts - set to "Daily Summary."
    • Conversations - Set to "Right Away" so you don’t miss anything. This is Canvas’ version of email, but is doesn’t work exactly like mail. It is more like a group text.
    • All Submissions - If you want to see when students are submitting assignments and quizzes in real time, set this to "Right Away."
    • Submission Comment - If a student responds to a comment that you make while grading, you may want to be notified of that "Right Away."
    • See How do I set my Canvas notification preferences?
  8. Update Syllabus
    • The Syllabus in Canvas does not need to contain all of the elements you have in your complete syllabus. Many of our faculty use the Canvas syllabus as a course schedule rather than a traditional syllabus with policies, grading, textbooks etc. To do this, add a short overview of the course and then link to an online version of the full syllabus.
    • Include a note in the Canvas syllabus that students are responsible for the info in BOTH syllabi.
    • See How do I edit the Syllabus description in a course? and Example of the Recommended Syllabus Format for help.
  9. Double-Check/Update Course Calendar
    • When you import from one Canvas course to another Canvas course, you can set up the dates upon import by clicking the "Adjust events and due dates" checkbox. It is important to verify that the dates imported correctly.
    • As you add/change due dates to assignments, quizzes, etc., the Calendar will be built automatically.
    • Add additional events/assignments to the calendar (reminders to start a lesson/reading, semester notices, SRTE dates, etc.).
    • Remove extraneous dates as necessary. Keep in mind that if you have more than one course, you will see those dates, too. Make sure you don’t delete a Calendar entry from a different course. See How do I filter the Calendar view by course? to avoid this problem.
    • See What is the Calendar for instructors and How to add an event to a course calendar for help.
  10. Review Modules Page in Canvas
    Review all module pages to make sure everything came over correctly.
  11. Reactivate Library Reserves
    If applicable, use the Reserve Reactivation Request Form to reactivate course e-Reserves.
  12. Hide Select Class Materials From Student View (optional)
    Some faculty like to lock Module items to automatically be hidden until a certain date. Your dates should have updated when you imported your previous course section, but it's a good idea to check to make sure this happened.
  13. Review Assignments Page
  14. Review Course Content
    Update the syllabus and instructor information page, fix broken hyperlinks, update outdated information and images, etc.
  15. Send Students a Welcome Letter Prior to the Start Date (via LionPath)
    • Visit Emailing Your Class Roster in LionPATH in the Knowledge Base for detailed instructions on using the LionPath Faculty Center for emailing students.

      NOTE: We suggest that instructors send a class welcome letter to the class at least once per week through the first week or two of class in order to catch any late adds.
      The welcome letter should include the following information:

      • The URL/location of the course
      • The URL/location of the syllabus
      • How to login (typically using their Penn State Access Account user ID and password)
      • What materials they need to purchase and where they can get them
      • Who to contact if they need technical assistance (Resident instruction students should contact the ITS Help Desk and World Campus students should contact the Outreach Help Desk)
  16. Sample Welcome Letter
    Add link to Sample letter here

One Week Before the Class Starts (a.k.a. "Orientation Week")

A standard practice for online courses is to give students an "orientation week"-access to the class one week before it officially begins. This practice enables distance learners to try out their Penn State Access Accounts and familiarize themselves with the class environment so that they will be comfortable and ready to learn on the first day of class.

  1. Publish your class so students are able to see and interact with your course
    See "How do I publish a course?" for details
  2. Provide Formal Orientation Materials
    Formal orientation materials help students orient themselves to the class and the class environment.
    EXAMPLE: Most College of EMS online courses include a Class Orientation lesson that students complete before beginning the class. 
  3. Post a "Welcome" Announcement
    Canvas Announcements are a great way to communicate with all of your students at once. Students can see course announcements by clicking on the Canvas navigational area called "Announcements." The announcements will appear on the "Course Activity Stream" page as well. As faculty, you have the ability to create delayed or scheduled announcements to appear on particular dates. Announcements can be transferred from semester to semester.
    NOTE: There are a few things we recommend that you mention in your welcome message:
    • Tell your students to begin the class by reviewing the syllabus and working through your class orientation materials...and provide directions for accessing those materials!
    • Remind them of the official class start date.

    See the following links for help.

  4. Example Welcome Announcement

    Hello and Welcome to GEOG 472!

    This class will officially begin on Monday, May 16, 2016.

    Meanwhile, feel free to familiarize yourself with the material in our class orientation. You'll find the course itself at: Click on the Orientation link to get started. A link to each lesson of this course website can also be found in the corresponding module for that lesson here in Canvas.

    We'll use Canvas for all the things you've used ANGEL for previously - grades, assessments, assignment submission, course communications, and the calendar. Make sure you read our syllabus (link to syllabus) thoroughly for information about the course grading structure, late policies, and our schedule.

    Rather than emailing questions directly to me, I encourage you to post any question that you would ask in a traditional class to the General Questions and Discussion forum. Asking questions on our forums can benefit all students in that everyone will see the discussions and answers regarding class questions.

    For questions that are more personal in nature, please contact me through the course e-mail system in Canvas.

    See you soon!

    - Joe Smith, class instructor

First Week of the Semester

Most courses begin by asking students to post a self-introduction to a class discussion forum as a way to break the ice and begin to build a sense of community. This is also a great way for the instructor to get a feel for who the students are and what experiences they bring to the class.

  1. Make your own "personal introduction" post to the class to get the ball rolling. In your post, tell students what information you would like them to include in their own introductions.
  2. Review the personal introductions that your students post to the class discussion forum and respond to each student, or to the entire class in a single note, as a way of welcome.
  3. Summarize the postings for your class by posting a note to the appropriate discussion forum or sending an e-mail to all students to share what you've learned about the class and addressing their class expectations (e.g., "Several of you stated that you hoped to learn more about XYZ in this class. While we won't be covering XYZ specifically, we will address the more general issue of...")
  4. Contact students who have not yet accessed your Canvas site. In Canvas, you can easily see who has and has not accessed your class via Analytics. If a student hasn't accessed the class yet, there may be a problem that needs your attention.

NOTE: When using Canvas to send an e-mail to students who haven't accessed your class yet, you will want to send a copy to their Internet (non-Canvas) e-mail address using LionPath!

3rd Week of the Semester

  1. Undergraduate Courses - Submit Week 3 Early Progress Reports. Early Progress Reports are formal e-mail alerts sent from instructors early in the semester to all students. Instructors typically use a tool called Starfish to initiate these reports. You will receive an email from Starfish when it is time to complete the reports. Please note that the email does not come from Penn State, so it might look like spam but it really isn't.
  2. Graduate Courses - Send an e-mail notice to low-performing students. It is an important retention strategy to notify students who are off to a bad start in your class! Send them a private e-mail through Canvas Conversations and LionPath notifying them of their current grades and offering them strategies for improvement.

7th Week of the Semester

  1. Undergraduate Courses - Submit Week 7 Progress Reports. These progress reports are similar to the ones you completed during week 3. See Starfish for more details. You will receive an email from Starfish when it is time to complete the reports. Please note that the email does not come from Penn State, so it might look like spam but it really isn't.
  2. Graduate Courses - Send an e-mail notice to low-performing students. It is an important retention strategy to notify students who are off to a bad start in your class! Send them a private e-mail through Canvas Conversations and LionPath notifying them of their current grades and offering them strategies for improvement.


How often you check the class is an individual decision, but you should let your students know up front how often they can expect to hear from you. Checking in at least once each business day and once over the weekend is a good rule of thumb. Many faculty strive to read and respond to all e-mail conversations and discussion forums within 24 hours. To expedite your communications with students, make sure that your Canvas notifications are set up properly. Please refer to Preparing Your Online Class for a list of our recommendations.

  1. Monitor the Class Discussions. You can have all discussions forwarded to your email by Subscribing to a Discussion. We recommend that you do this for each discussion.
  2. Monitor and respond to all email conversations.


Once a week (preferably on the same day each week) we recommend that you:

  1. Post an Announcement telling students what you will be covering that week and reminding them of any due dates.

    Example 1: Check out these great weekly announcement examples:

  2. Update your class calendar with any new or revised due dates.
  3. Grade all assignments. Students appreciate timely feedback on their assignments and will let you know if they feel they are waiting too long! How long it takes to grade assignments and send meaningful feedback to students depends, of course, on the nature of the assignment. However, students may not be able to proceed in your course until they get your feedback on how they are doing. Most faculty strive to grade their assignments within one week of an assignment due date. If you anticipate that it will take longer than a week to return student work, it is best to inform them in advance when their grades and feedback will be available. Doing so will forestall a lot of questions from students and calls to the main office! It is also best to grade assignments in sequence (i.e., assignment 1, then assignment 2, and so on) so students can apply the feedback from one assignment to the subsequent assignments.
  4. Summarize discussion forum conversations, since it can be hard for students to wrap up a discussion and/or cull out the important points before moving on to other discussions!

    Example: Instructor Kay Shattuck provided this great summary of one of her class discussions (PDF) (Word document).

  5. Consider holding online office hours.
    Giving your students a chance to communicate with you in real-time can help build strong relationships and motivate students to fully engage in the class. A few popular options for conducting live office hours with geographically dispersed students are Adobe Connect (web conferencing), Zoom, and Big Blue Button in Canvas. Just let your students know when and how to join your office hours!
    • To use Adobe Connect:
    • To use Zoom visit Penn State's Zoom Pilot Page or register for a free Zoom account.
    • To set up a session using Big Blue Button:
      • Click on the Conferences tab while logged in to your course section
      • Click on the New Conference Button in the upper right-hand corner
      • Fill in the appropriate information for the session (Name, Type, Duration, Options, and Description)
      • Click the Update button
      • For more information, read What are Conferences for Instructors


Gather mid-semester feedback from your students. Administering a mid-semester evaluation is a great way to see how your class is going from a student perspective. There are several options for gathering this information.

About Two Weeks Before the Semester Ends

Encourage your students to complete the online SRTE.
Research has shown that the biggest influence on whether a student completes an end-of-class survey is the instructor! So a note from you encouraging your students to complete the survey and assuring them that the information will be kept confidential and used to improve the class is essential for a high response rate. See Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness for more information.

Example 1:

"I hope that you will be able to find about 15 minutes to complete the SRTE, our class evaluation survey. We rely upon your anonymous feedback to guide our continuing efforts to make this class worth the time and money you (and in many cases, your employers) invest. Whether your feelings about the class are positive, negative, or mixed, please take a few minutes to let us know. A link to the SRTE can be found on your Canvas module page."

Example 2:

"One sure sign that the end of the semester is upon us is that the SRTE opens tomorrow (Student Rating of Teacher's Effectiveness). I realize that given this is a 400-level course, most of you should be familiar with the process, but in case this is news to anyone, I'll share:

The SRTE is anonymous, so you should feel confident in voicing your honest opinions about this class (good, bad and indifferent!). Yes, you link to it from Canvas, but it's stored on a different server.

We really don't get the results for a long time after the class is over. Many students seem apprehensive (usually only in the case of an impending negative review) that it could somehow influence their grade in the course. This is impossible because your grades will be long-since submitted before I ever see the results. And, those results are aggregated into one big report for the entire class.

They matter! Really they do! We try very hard to make sure our students are having meaningful and pleasant experiences in each course they take. This feedback mechanism is your way to let us know what we're doing right and what we could be doing better. I've often tweaked the structure of assignments or presentation of material based on feedback I've gotten in SRTEs. I hope you'll take some time to give thoughtful and specific answers to the open-ended questions, especially. The SRTE will be open April 20-May 3 for this course." - Brandi Robinson

Last Day of the Class (and soon after)

  1. Post an end-of-class announcement to wrap-up to the class. Include a final request to complete the SRTE!

  2. Handle any deferred grade requests (see Senate Policy 48-40)

  3. Remind students to download/print their work, if they desire. If the class utilizes an e-portfolio, recommend that students download a copy of their e-portfolio, especially if this is their last class in the program.

  4. Post final grades on LionPATH within 2 days of the end of the class, per University policy.

  5. Review and revise your course materials while everything is still fresh in your mind. Will there be a different instructor the next time the course is offered? If so, it is a good to meet with that individual now, while thoughts are fresh.