Supporting eLearners

Getting started with online instruction

This document is part of a larger collection of documents on online instruction from the Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring's Instructional Resources KnowledgeBase. See more online instruction documents from that collection.

About online courses
Designing online courses
Teaching online courses

Supporting students in online courses

Instructors set out to support their students to the best of their ability throughout the duration of a course. For online instructors, this need to support eLearners is even greater, as the online environment significantly affects the learner experience, especially in terms of interactions between instructors and students. Furthermore, each student’s individual learning background, skills, and motivations can either minimize or increase the impact of the online environment on their learning experience. Online instructors who recognize which student skills and motivations can help with the learning process will be better equipped to support their eLearners.

Why is it important?

The impact the online environment can have on eLearners is due to two main factors: the requirement of technology and the physical separation of instructor and students. The first factor means that students must be proficient with technology in order to access course materials and communicate with others. The second factor—the physical separation—means that students have increased autonomy over their learning process, and, with that, increased responsibility and need for self-discipline. They might also have increased anxiety regarding the learning process. All of these elements require heightened attention to support online learners.

How to put it into practice?

Instructors face both challenges and opportunities when it comes to supporting eLearners. Although they must take into account the same technological and physical factors of the online environment that impact the learning experience for students, instructors have the opportunity to counteract those challenges for students through a variety of support structures and strategies:

In an online course, learner supports have three main goals:

  1. Acquaint students with the online learning experience.
  2. Address obstacles that interfere with learner success.
  3. Provide contact information or links to people or services that can help the learner.

Here are a few specific examples of support for learners:

  • student orientation
  • welcome letter
  • course organization and rhythm


Student orientation

A well-designed student orientation can help fulfill the first aim of support for learners by including one or more of the following:

  • Introduction
  • Course Overview
  • Instructor biography and contact information
  • Syllabus (downloadable copy)
  • Schedule
  • Assignment & assessment rubrics
  • Technology requirements, training, and support information
  • Student support services information
  • Community-building activities
  • Read more about how to support students with a orientation module and syllabus.

Welcome letter

The welcome letter provides a brief introduction to the course, covering important navigation instructions, necessary prerequisite knowledge, and pertinent information regarding the online environment, among other things. It introduces the instructor(s) to the students and is usually sent out via email. A welcome letter typically includes these items:

  • Name of the course
  • Instructor name and contact information
  • Course description (in-depth)
  • Format (e.g., fully online or blended)
  • Organization & structure
  • Important dates (including start and end dates)
  • Estimated weekly time commitment
  • Textbooks or required resources
  • Course technology (including technical requirements)
  • Tips for success and/or next steps
  • How to access the course
  • Support & troubleshooting (technical assistance)
  • Read more about how creating a welcome message or video sets the tone for inclusive learning in your course.

Course organization and rhythm

Course content and materials are only effective if students can follow along. Thoughtfully organizing your course in an intuitive and navigable way helps to minimize the mental energy students expend finding what they need to be successful, thereby allowing students to focus on the learning activities themselves. Therefore, it is important to organize the course, Canvas site, and other online components so they are easy to navigate.

A course map and rhythm documents are useful planning tools, even if they will not necessarily appear in the course. Within Canvas, Modules can group a given topic’s materials, activities, and assessments. A clearly defined schedule can show when and how quickly they should proceed through each module. Read about how to organization a course and develop a course rhythm to help students focus on learning.

How students learn

There are seven research-based principles as to how students learn that should inform the support of eLearners. These principles were originally developed by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in 2010.

The following table provides instructional strategies for each principle.

Principles and examples
Principle Examples of Instructional Strategies
Principle 1: Students’ prior knowledge can help or hinder learning. Collect data about students and use it to design instruction; for example, have students assess their own prior knowledge through a survey, quiz, or poll.
Principle 2: How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.
  • Be explicit about the course learning goals, objectives, and expectations.
  • Have students create a concept map or complete a sorting activity to demonstrate how they are organizing knowledge.
Principle 3: Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.
  • Connect the material to students’ interests.
  • Provide authentic activities that have relevance to students’ academic or professional work.
  • Provide opportunities for early success.
  • Provide flexibility.
Principle 4: To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned.
  • Enlist a teaching assistant to deconstruct tasks.
  • Give students opportunities to apply skills and knowledge in diverse contexts.
  • Provide practice opportunities to increase fluency.
  • Provide prompts for relevant knowledge.
Principle 5: Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning.
  • Target the appropriate level of challenge.
  • Be explicit about goals.
  • Use a rubric to communicate performance criteria.
  • Build scaffolding into assignments.
  • Look for patterns of errors in student work.
  • Incorporate peer feedback.
  • Require students to specify how they used feedback.
Principle 6: Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.
  • Use multiple and diverse examples.
  • Model inclusive language.
  • Establish and reinforce ground rules.
  • Use the syllabus and first unit of content to establish the course climate.
  • Address tensions early. Facilitate active listening.
Principle 7: To become self-directed learners, students must assess, evaluate, plan, monitor, and adjust as needed.
  • Be more explicit than you think is necessary.
  • Give early performance-based assessments.
  • Make planning a central goal of the assignment.
  • Provide activities that require students to reflect.
  • Help students set realistic expectations.

Reference: Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching.

See Also:

Keywords:support, needs, students, online, scaffold, orientation, welcome, letter, principle, example,   Doc ID:121287
Owner:Karen S.Group:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
Created:2022-09-13 13:20 CDTUpdated:2023-04-20 12:25 CDT
Sites:Center for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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