Preparing 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.

Want to see a full checklist at once? Use the condensed, printable version of this list for quick reference.

Several Weeks Before Class Begins

  1. Review Best Practices and Expectations for Online Teaching
  2. If you work with a Learning Designer, make sure they are added to every section of your course in Canvas. Add them if needed.
    See How do I add users to a course? for details.
  3. Merge Course Sections (if applicable)
    Visit Merging Courses in Canvas for help.
  4. Import Content From Another Canvas Course (if applicable)
    • See How do I import content from another Canvas course? for help.
    • NOTES:
      • 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.
      • 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).
      • Check/enable the correct Course Grading Scheme after copying as it does not always copy consistently.
    • 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 in Canvas
    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. Update Syllabus in Canvas
    • The Syllabus in Canvas does not need to contain all of the elements you have in your complete syllabus. Many 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 (from the College of EMS) for help.
  8. Double-Check/Update Course Calendar in Canvas
    • 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, and be sure to adjust for spring break, thanksgiving break, etc. as needed.
    • 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 Assignments for help.
  9. Review Gradebook
  10. Hide Select Class Materials From Student View in Canvas(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.
  11. Set your Personal Notifications in Canvas
    You can set notifications in Canvas to be sent to your email or your cell phone. 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 it doesn’t work exactly like a typical email. 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?
  12. Reactivate Library Reserves
    If applicable, use the Reserve Reactivation Request Form to reactivate course e-Reserves.
  13. Review Course Content
    Update your syllabus and instructor information page, fix broken hyperlinks, update outdated information and images, etc. If you use more than one website for your course (e.g., Canvas and also a site like Drupal or, make sure you check everywhere that is applicable.
  14. Send Students a Welcome Letter 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.
    • 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. Your welcome letter should include the following information>:
      • The URL/location of the course
      • The URL/location of the syllabus
      • How to log in (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)
    • Sample Welcome Letter

      Hello and Welcome to GEOG 472!

      This class will officially begin on Monday, May 16, 2020.

      Meanwhile, feel free to familiarize yourself with the material in our class orientation. You'll find the course itself at [insert link here]. 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 in Canvas. We will use Canvas for grades, assessments, assignment submissions, 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 email system in Canvas.

      See you soon!

      Joe Smith, class instructor

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

Standard practice for many online courses in the Dutton Institute 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 on a course web site and/or in Canvas.

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 email alerts sent from instructors early in the semester to all students. Instructors typically use Starfish (if available), the University advising tool, 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 email 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. If available, 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 email notice to low-performing students. Remember, it is an important retention strategy to notify students who are not performing well in the class.


How often you check the class is an individual decision, but you should let your students know upfront about how often they can expect to hear from you. Checking in at least once each business day and a few times 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. 

  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:

    Hi everyone,

    Nice work on the quizzes again this week. Over the next couple of days, I will be contacting people to see if I can add your responses to the exemplary work folder for last week & this week. Overall it has been exciting for me to see the depth that you are digging into the issues. There are no simple answers. In many cases, there are several "good" choices (or several bad choices), that's what makes it a dilemma. I enjoy reading your opinions. Remember, ethics is about understanding HOW you think about things (your thought processes), WHAT you think (your opinions), and WHY you think that. You are getting really good at identifying the important parts of the issue, but don't forget to fully articulate what is going on in your brain and follow the ethical argument all the way through to the end.

    One general piece of feedback... Last week we learned about some of the most unethical and destructive journalists in the business: Blair & Kelley, in particular. This week, all of the journalists in the case studies are GOOD journalists. The big take-away that crossed all of the situations is the PERCEPTION of bias. None of these journalists had complaints or reprimands about actual bias or other unethical practices. Instead, their editors were struggling to make decisions about what the public MIGHT think given certain salient facts.

    This week's assignment is a little different: a discussion board. It is required and graded, so please make sure you understand the expectations. There is a rubric posted online at [insert link here]. Don't wait until the last minute! A discussion is an ongoing process. You can receive up to five (5) points for QUALITY and up to five (5) points for QUANTITY for a total of 10 points.

    Purpose of the Discussion Board: to analyze course concepts as a class on a deeper level than in the readings or to use the readings to facilitate a deeper understanding.

    Method for Discussion Board: interact with classmates and instructor by posting thoughtful discussion ideas in the discussion areas. There technically is no right or wrong answer for these assignments, but you must make your points based on factual evidence and in a clear and concise manner. This means with clear thesis statements, detailed explanations, apparent connection between concepts and behaviors, and strong organization.

    READ: Knowlton: Part II: 22 & 23

    WATCH: Part I of the PBS special series, News War, [insert link here]

    Please let me know if you have any questions or if you want to re-write your quiz.


    Example 2:

    Hello Everyone,

    I hope that you are all doing well and feeling more comfortable in the new Learning Management System (LMS).

    Please let me know if you have questions or concerns about it.

    Make sure that you did all of the items that were due last weekend:

    Week 1: August 23 - August 28

    - Read Syllabus
    - Find Course Content
    - Complete Academic Integrity Quiz
    - Read course email
    - Log in to the Adobe Connect online meeting space for the entire class (let your instructor know if you have any problems)
    - Read the Team Technology Video Project
    - Complete the Introduction Assignment

    Also, look at the other major assignments and make sure you are familiar with what is expected.

    Remember these items are due tomorrow (Sept 4) by 8 pm EST:

    Week 2: August 29 - September 4

    - Read Course Content: Introduction to IST
    - Apply for your Penn State Web Space
    - Complete the Practice Quiz
    - Complete Discussion Activity 1 for "Online Course Success"

    Here is a question someone asked:

    Q: Does the Practice Quiz count or should I study for it?

    A: No, it does not count at all. Don't study for it. It is only meant to help you try the quiz tool prior to the real thing.

    Looking toward next week, these are due by Sept 11 at 8 PM EST:

    Week 3: September 5 - September 11

    - Read Course Content: Introduction to Project Management
    - Complete Discussion Activity 2 for "Introduction to IST"
    - Complete Facebook Activity

    You should be starting to discuss your project with your team.

    Remember to add me to your Google docs with my Gmail account.

    Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns. Have a great weekend!


  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

    Great job everyone on the first discussion in our course! Already we saw fine examples of sharing of resources, of budding identification of DE topics you would like to investigate further, and of enriching collaboration to help everyone in the group move ahead.

    Several threads emerged over the week:

    - A definition of DE seems to be challenging to nail down, maybe because of the complexity of blended courses. While it might be hard to keep technology in any definition of DE as a component, not the center, we’re reminded that approaching DE as a multifaceted format of education allows us to address the “consequences” of the temporal and physical separation of the learner and the teaching resources system.
    - What's the relationship between learning, teaching, and responsibility? In week 2, you’re exploring some historical roots of DE. You’ll note its strong connection to adult education as it developed to provide access to education for those who did not have access to traditional educational opportunities – those “at the back door” as Wedemeyer would have said. Has the technology boom “opened” up DE to the point where basic notions of “adult learning principles” (go ahead and jump to pages 141-143 in our text) are no longer guiding principles? Lots we can discuss further there!
    - Who has/doesn’t have access to the digital world (Digital Divide) is still a concern. Originally DD was about not having a computer/Internet but it also concerns the limits of access because of skill level.
    - The growth of DE over the past decade is complicated by not new, but surely more visible challenges to traditional educational institutions to the point that they’re increasingly under scrutiny by governmental and accrediting bodies.
    - Some theories relating to interaction among components of DE were touches on. We’ll surely revisit that discussion!

    Enjoy reading/reflecting/discussing the history of DE now in unit 2.


  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 Zoom and Big Blue Button in Canvas. Just let your students know when and how to join your office hours! Note: Big Blue Button recordings only last for 2 weeks and students who are added to a course after a recording is created cannot access it.


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 Three Weeks Before the Semester Ends

Encourage your students to complete the online SEEQ (Student Educational Experience Questionnaire).
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. For more information, see Talking to Students about the SEEQ.

Example 1:

"Your feedback is important! Your responses help me understand what changes I can make to benefit learners."

Example 2:

"One sure sign that the end of the semester is upon us is that the SEEQ opens soon (Student Educational Experience Questionnaire). 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 SEEQ is anonymous, so you should feel confident in voicing your honest opinions about this class (good, bad and indifferent!).

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 SEEQ results. I hope you'll take some time to give thoughtful and specific answers to the open-ended questions, especially."

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 any work they want to keep

  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 good to meet with that individual now, while thoughts are fresh.