Helping Students Learn Online: Advice from FSU Faculty

This message to all faculty, deans, directors, and department heads has been approved by Dr. Sally McRorie, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.

This summer, many students are taking fully online classes all semester for the first time. Getting acclimated is a process: They need to figure out how the course is structured, how it’s organized on Canvas, how to use new tech tools, what our expectations are for their participation and their work, what time commitment is necessary to succeed, and how to balance competing demands and deadlines. And they are doing all of this in the context of a pandemic, economic uncertainty, living in a place they may not have expected to live, and missing their friends and their campus experience. If we want them to learn at all this summer, we’ll need to help them learn how to learn effectively online. This is especially crucial for our younger students, in their first and second years.

This week, we’re sharing advice from FSU faculty who do an extraordinary job of setting their students up to succeed. By establishing routines and communicating clear expectations, by helping students meet deadlines and become more self-regulated learners, these exceptional faculty create positive conditions for learning, so that their students can focus on mastering important material and developing their thinking, rather than expending their cognitive bandwidth on navigating the new online environment.

Leah Hollingsworth, who is teaching College Algebra in Summer A & C, shared this advice:

I’m going to be corny and recommend the Three C’s : Clarity, Consistency, and Compassion.

Providing clear descriptions, emails, instructions, and feedback is essential to helping the students when your interaction is limited. I can’t count how many times I’ve written instructions for something and think it’s ultra-clear what students are supposed to do, yet inevitably a student will come back with a valid question. When you think you’ve written clear communication, go back and try again to write it with even more detail and description.

Providing consistent expectations and deadlines helps build the structure that students, especially freshmen, need in order to be successful. If they can build a routine around your expectations, the more likely they are to not miss a deadline. If you have weekly assignments, make them due at the same day/time so students know and can plan for their assignments. Be consistent with the small details in addition to the large details and students will have a better chance of understanding your expectations.

It is imperative to be compassionate with students during this pandemic. Some of them have home situations that we, as stable faculty, cannot even fathom. That’s not to say to be a pushover. But instead of jumping to conclusions about students’ actions (or lack of action), show them you’re listening and you care what they are going through and dealing with. You might be the only person from FSU they have contact with during this challenging time, and what you do can either create a learning opportunity or leave students in a state of despair.

Brittany Kraft, who is teaching Biological Science II in Summer A, had this advice to share:

In the spring, I created a remote learning plan for students in addition to the syllabus, and it was met with a lot of positive student feedback, so I continued using a similar plan for the summer. A remote learning plan can provide specific details about how the class will operate, particularly if it is asynchronous. You can explain how to access Kaltura videos, when assignments will be available, and how students should plan to complete work in the class. Posting this early and referring back to it can help reduce confusion for students and help their transition into the online format.

In a similar vein, establishing a consistent schedule within the course site is critical. Students know what to expect when instructors inform them of when assignments, lesson videos, etc. will be posted, and then stick to that schedule. All of this can be detailed in the remote learning plan, which also provides a platform to communicate expectations to students. For example, I am using discussion boards in my course, and I made it clear what and how I expect students to communicate on the boards, in an effort to create a productive learning space for all students.

I use online activities to help students become better learners. For example, they are often unsure how to take useful notes, so I like to provide templates that help them do that during my lesson videos. They also complete “Lesson Check-In” quizzes, which are basically iClicker questions they answer during the lesson. We can take advantage of the fact that students can pause their videos (if the class is asynchronous), so that they can reflect and engage with the material a little more deeply than they might be able to in a typical FTF lecture class. At the end of lesson videos, I may also prompt students to go to a discussion board to answer a reflection question that I call an exit ticket. Writing those is useful for them, and reading them is useful for me. All of these opportunities help students develop better critical thinking skills and study habits for the course.

Finally, I also recommend providing extra communication and encouragement while remote. I normally try to not flood students’ inboxes with emails and announcements, but while remote, my students told me they really appreciated all of the extra check-ins I did. Towards the end of the semester, I posted daily “quick updates” with the status of grading and how the grade book was shoring up. This semester, I posted a welcome announcement, and then a second announcement on the first “day” of class with step-by-step instructions on how to complete the tasks I expected of them. Providing extra details helps students feel less confused about the structure of the course, and also cuts back on the number of emails and questions I receive!

Thank you to both Leah and Brittany for sharing their experiences! If you’ve developed effective strategies you’d like to share with your colleagues, please email us at Good luck in the second week!