“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”


The path to exceeding your online students’ expectations begins before your course has even started.

I have received dozens of emails from students that came into Week 1 of my online courses expecting the worst.  Thankfully, almost all of them were pleasantly surprised and wished that they hadn’t wasted their time worrying.

This got me thinking.  Why let your online students sit around and think the worst?  Give them your best right away so they can see that they are in good hands before class even begins.  Make it clear that you take your job, and their learning, seriously in Week 0 so that they are comfortable and excited in Week 1.  This beats stressed and apprehensive every time.

You will be hearing from a lot of my students in this post.  I don’t share their words because I need my back patted.  I want you to see that these tactics clearly have an impact.

3 Fears to Confront Before Your Online Course Begins:

I want every one of my students to feel inspired, empowered, and engaged in my online courses.  I have found that it is much easier to do this if I confront these three significant obstacles before the semester begins.

Some of Your Online Students are Expecting the Worst from Your Course:

To put it bluntly, a lot of online courses suckSo do a lot of onsite classes, but that’s a story for another day.  Many of your students will have had a bad experience in an online course.  The bar for your course may be set tragically low.

Sadly, this is what many students have come to expect with their online courses:

“When I came into this course I thought that I wouldn’t learn very much because it was online.  Online classes can be a little scary because you really don’t know what to expect, but I felt different in this class because you explained everything in detail right away.  This was not my first online class, but it felt like this was the ultimate experience I would wish for any student taking an online class to have.  I wish other instructors would use this as an example for their classes.”

Don’t let your students think that they are heading into a run of the mill “bad” online course.  I am sure that your course rocks.  Help your students overcome this fear by showing them that things are going to be different right out of the gate.

Some of Your Online Students are Expecting the Worst from You:

Online teachers start at a disadvantage.  Some of your students expect you to be an obstacle in front of them rather than a guide at their side.  These students have heard the horror stories about online teachers that are almost entirely invisible in their courses.   85% (or more) of the student complaints that I hear revolve around online teachers that don’t keep up with grading, don’t respond to email, don’t offer feedback, etc.  This is why I always say that the best ABILITY of any online teacher is AVAILABILITY:

Let your students know that you are different by proving it to them early and often.

Set the tone as early as possible.  Show your students that you will be available.  Give them several ways to communicate with you, and beg them to use them.  The students will notice, and respond, very quickly.

As you can see here, tiny things can (and will) leave a big impact on your students:

“Along with keeping learning exciting, the amount of communication was impressive! I have one online instructor that hasn’t graded my last 7 assignments, and I haven’t received a reply to an email I sent to them in Week 3.  They haven’t been the only instructor I’ve had that is like that. I have to say it was extremely refreshing to be able to stay in touch constantly and always have you available for any questions! This has been my favorite class of all time, and I have to say, I will miss it!”

 “I absolutely loved watching your welcome video! I’ve taken several online classes and haven’t seen a teacher actually make a video with them explaining everything. I’m so excited to start your class! :)”

Some of Your Online Students are Expecting the Worst from Themselves:

Students, like the rest of us, are often their own worst critics.  Don’t let the anxiety build for a week before your online course starts.  Show your students that they are capable of succeeding in your course in week 0 so they can be motivated to start learning in week 1.

You cannot guarantee that your students will succeed, but you can boost their confidence by showing them that:

  • Your online course design and structure will minimize confusion
  • You have provided ample resources to help them succeed
  • You will be an active participant in the course if they have questions or need help

Getting students to look at your course differently is good, but the best thing you can try to do in Week 0 is to get your students to see themselves differently:

 “Good morning! You have no Idea how wonderful and encouraging it was to receive your welcome email this morning.  I’ve been a nervous wreck!  Now, I cannot wait for class to start.  I’m convinced I’ll learn lots and have some fun along the way! Thanks for being a great instructor, already!”

Hopefully, now you see why it is important to nip these concerns in the bud BEFORE your online course starts.  Let’s take a look at some of the best ways to connect in Week 0.

7 Things to Share with Your Online Students in Week 0:

Here are some of the things I will use the week before classes begin to get my students comfortable and excited about the upcoming semester:

1.  Online Course Welcome Video:

I have Launch Pads at the beginning of every week in my online courses, so I like to call this video my “Welcome to _____ (insert course name) Launch Pad”.  This video should be a short introduction to the course that answers the questions that your online students are already themselves:

  • What’s in it for me?  Why should this course matter to me?
  • Why should I care about this topic?  How does it fit into my educational or career goals?
  • Are you the kind of teacher that I will know, like, and trust?
  • Do you care about me and my success?

2.  The Course Syllabus:

The syllabus is like a sword.  It can save your students, or it can crush them.  It is all in how you wield it.

My online students know how much I care about them as students (and human beings), but it is harder to build that relationship when the first thing they receive from me is a sterile syllabus.

Does your syllabus sound like you wrote it?  Or, does it sound like a divorce lawyer wrote it?  Make sure your syllabus is as warm and inviting as it is readable.  Here are a few tips to consider.

Quick tips for making the syllabus more inviting:

  • Add a table of contents with links to different parts of the document so that your students can find things when they need them
  • Add short videos to the syllabus to infuse it with your personality and soften the edges when needed
  • Add some images and white space to make it easier to read

If you have no power over what your syllabus looks like it is even more important that you make videos to show your students who you are right out of the gate.  If all they have is a dry syllabus to focus on for a week before classes start then you are already starting to lose at least some of them.

I will write several posts in the future about crafting an epic syllabus.  This is a very important topic to me.  I would love to hear any cool things you have tried that have improved your syllabus?

3.  Online Course Navigation Video(s):

Building an organized online course shell is not enough.  Teach your students the best way to use it.  Use walkthroughs and screenshots to show them the well-groomed path to the front door that you have made for them.  Don’t let them climb in the back window.

There are so many great tools (my favorite is Camtasia) that allow us to show our students what to do rather than just tell them.

Here is an example of how I walk the students through a part of a course that used to lead to a lot of confusion (and frantic emails):

4.  Information on How to Be a Successful Student:

The easiest way to show your students that you care about their success is to help them succeed.  Here are some of the things that I try to get my students to think about before they dive into the content:

  • How to make school a priority
  • Managing procrastination and distraction
  • Time management skills
  • Study Skills and Test Prep tips

I used to curate information for my students, but now I share this information in a workshop that I invite the students to attend.  I use these videos (and the worksheets that accompany them) for online students that cannot attend in person:

5.  A Letter From a Former Student

I hate to break it to you, but your students are talking about you behind your back.  You can talk about your online course until you are blue in the face, but they are much more interested in what your former students have to say.

I love having students write a letter to future students.  It helps them reflect on the course while helping future students know what to expect.  Making your past students famous also shows your students that you care about what they have to say and you value their feedback.

Here is a great example of what a student submitted.  I now share this with every online microbiology student in Week 0:

Dear Future Student,

Get ready to learn!  Your life will not be the same after taking this Microbiology class.  You will view yourself and the world around you differently.

If you are wondering if you can make it through this course, you can! I was very skeptical about taking an online biology course. Dr. O makes it SO easy to learn. He gives you all the resources you need to be successful, and he does in a positive, fun way.  I promise that it is a really fun course!

There is a lot to do in this class, and at first, it is overwhelming, but by breaking it down, it is very doable. Don’t be discouraged!

A few tips to make the class manageable:

There is a lot of cool stuff to learn, so don’t wait, dive right on in and get after it!

Get your lab kit ASAP and start your labs.  Look ahead at your lab assignments as some need to sit for two weeks.  Again, very manageable.

All your labs are in baggies marked with the name of the lab on them.  Keep them organized!

This class is set up to help you succeed.  You have to be willing to do the work.  Do a little bit every day.  It helps break it up, and instead of memorizing, you can retain and learn the material.

Grab some popcorn and watch the lecture videos for each of the chapters.  It will help you tremendously by giving you a visual and mimicking a live lecture.

6.  Feedback From Past Students:

Maybe it is my business background, but I view testimonials as a super powerful tool.  Think about how you shop on Amazon.  Do you put more stock in what the seller has to say (product description), or what other buyers have said (ratings and reviews)?  I personally look at the Amazon ratings before I even look at the price.

Students won’t trust you when you tell them that the course will be enjoyable, manageable, etc.  You are supposed to say that.  They are far more likely to believe what their fellow students have to say.

Here is an example of how I use student testimonials in Week 0.  These were especially important because students had expressed some concern about a major change I had made to the format of the course:

I also wanted to share some feedback that I received from the first group of students to go through this new course format last summer.  If you don’t believe me when I tell you that you can crush this course, listen to what your fellow students have to say 🙂

“I’ve had a lot of great teachers, but Dr. O’Neill is by far the best teacher I’ve ever had. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to take biology, but from the first day when I saw how the course was setup, I knew I would like the class. He went above and beyond providing resources for us to learn the material in different ways. It’s very obvious that not only does he know what he’s talking about, but he’s passionate about it too. He was very active almost if not every day with giving us feedback and encouragement. My only regret is that I took this as an 8-week class instead of 16. I enjoyed the class so much that I’m actually a little sad that it’s over already. In the future, I would consider taking a class that I had no interest in other than the fact that he was teaching it. I really can’t say enough good things about his teaching style. He inspired me, and I think if every teacher was as passionate as he is, we’d see a lot more success in the education system.”


“Dr. O’Neill is an excellent instructor. He is by far one of the best instructors I have had through all my college courses. Dr. O made learning the material easy through his multiple resources on material and through his videos that he personally made himself. Dr. O put forth so much effort for a class that he really didn’t need to, and that is what makes him exceptional. Dr. O is a gentleman that I would love to sit down and have a cup of coffee with and pick his brain for hours. I would highly recommend Dr. O for any class related to biology or anatomy.”

Reading quotes like these from former students instantly gives me a level of credibility that it would usually take weeks to earn.  Students enter the class much more confident that I can help them succeed.  Give it a try!

7.  Share Something that Humanizes Your Online Course:

A written bio works fine, but I like my personality (and my “family-first” mentality) to permeate my courses.  I like to shatter any myths that I am a stuffy professorial type right away.  I will gladly make myself look a little silly to help my students let their guard down and be real with me.

Here is a great example.  Before they watch this video, I am just another teacher.  After they click play, I become a real human being that they can connect with:

Final Thoughts:

Building bridges in Week 0 will not have an impact on all of your online students, but, it will have a huge impact on some of them.

Notice that  I haven’t asked them to do anything, and I haven’t had them look at any course content.  Week 0 is all about meeting students where they are and helping them feel capable and prepared for the learning journey that awaits them.

What can you do to REACH your students in Week 0 so you can TEACH them in Week 1?

Stay tuned to say how I build on the Week 0 momentum as I transition into Week 1 and beyond.

I want to hear from you.  Feel free to:

  • Leave a comment below.  I will personally reply to each one
  • Tag me @GrowGrayMatter on Twitter or LinkedIn to move the discussion to my favorite social media channels
  • Send me a message through the contact form on the bottom of the About page

Crush it!

Dr. O


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