March 24, 2020

Keeping students on track in online courses

Learn six strategies in D2L to help your students stay focussed in an online course
Blissful student with flying papers
Leverage some key D2L functions to help your students focussed in online courses

Taking courses online can have enormous benefits for students at a distance or who are employed, as they can access the course from anywhere and work on it as their schedule permits. The downside is that there typically are not regularly scheduled classes to help them keep pace with the course, and for the instructor to gauge students’ progress. Of course, the best way to support students in their learning is to get to know them, understand their schedules, and the challenges they may have in the course. Depending on the class size, this is not always feasible. Fortunately there are some course design strategies that can help keep students on track. Here are a few suggestions for leveraging the functionality in D2L and designing your course to enhance student experience. 

1. Calendar tool 

The calendar can provide a visual display of course milestones, such as assignment due dates, synchronous sessions and discussion board posts. You will most likely include this information on your syllabus, but having a calendar view is a familiar format that students (and instructors!) can print off and have handy next to their computer to plan for upcoming tasks.

2. Weekly modules

I organize the course content (readings, discussion board posts, assignments, synchronous sessions and so on) into weekly modules. Each week, there may be more than one main concept, and some of the concepts extend more than one week depending on their emphasis in the course. This provides clarity when students look at the course structure. They can determine their progress in the course and can plan ahead for assignments.

3. Weekly email

Most of the tools and features in an online course are available when a student accesses the course — a pull technology. When students are busy, this might not happen as frequently as it should. Emails are a push technology in that they are sent out to students without them having to initiate an action. I like to send an email to all students on Monday morning, reminding them of the week’s activities. It is also a chance to build rapport with students and offer general feedback and encouragement or in other words, it is a way to build teaching presence in the course. Sometimes students respond with a request for clarification about the week ahead, which can prevent problems before they happen.

4. Weekly checklists

Checklists are a feature in D2L that students can use to keep track of their to-do list for the week. They are non-graded, and in my experience less than half of the class uses them. However, some students report that the checklists are very helpful. If you set up checklists for your students, you must be careful to include all activities, otherwise students could miss something in the course.

5. Cumulative assignments

Cumulative assignments are larger projects that are split into parts and submitted over time. Students receive feedback on early drafts of their work, allowing them to improve before the final submission. For example, a research paper could consist of a proposal, an annotated bibliography and outline, and a final paper. Each stage is graded, providing incentive for students to complete the work. In this example, the proposal might be worth 5%, the annotated bibliography and outline could be 10%, and the paper worth 20% of the final grade in the course. This approach does place additional workload on the instructor though, so you need to make sure it is feasible for your class size.

6. Practice quizzes

D2L allows you to set up automatically graded exams with multiple choice and true/false questions. Another strategy to keep students on track is to set up practice quizzes in the course that allow students to gauge their learning in the course and identify areas for further study. You can also provide detailed feedback on both right and wrong answers. Since the feedback is immediate, practice quizzes can be more helpful than in-class quizzes where students receive a grade a week or two after they have written it.

While it can be easy for some students to fall behind in an online course, a thoughtful design that leverages some of the best functionality of D2L can help them keep pace. For more D2L resources, visit