5 Things I Wish More Online Professors Knew

I’m rapidly approaching the end of my second year of grad school. Over the past 8 quarters and 13 classes, I have experienced a wide range of teaching styles and witnessed varying levels of pedagogical awareness. Because I teach some short online courses in my position at my library, I’ve been taking notes about the student experience. Here are the top five things I wish more professors knew that would help online students, at least from my perspective.

1. Help Us Work Ahead

In addition to taking 1-2 courses each quarter, I work full time as a staff trainer at my library and try to keep up volunteer commitments. Many of my fellow students are juggling even more than I am: working multiple jobs, taking a full load of classes, raising children. Coming home after a long day of deeply engaging in library work and opening my laptop to jump into homework can feel impossible sometimes.

Instead, I prefer to do most of my new knowledge acquisition on the weekends. I’ve found that I retain information from readings and videos best when I haven’t already been thinking hard for 8 hours that day. If we’re given our readings on Monday and the week ends on Sunday, we don’t have time to do this. I know this isn’t always possible, but please consider providing the bulk of our readings and work on Friday the week before. That allows those who work M-F a chance to work ahead and digest the information before diving into the discussion boards and activities.

Similarly, review your syllabus before releasing it each term. Things definitely shift and change as a class progresses, but I’ve had many weeks where I read ahead based on what the syllabus lists only to have a completely different set of assignments given on Monday. I’m sure you can imagine my motivation levels after realizing it.

2. Be Clear About Expectations

I’ve spent many an hour agonizing to understand some small details in an article or resource when, in the end, the goal was just to understand the basic surface-level information. When professors are clear about learning goals in advance, this frustration and ensuing burnout can be avoided.

In her book “Small Teaching Online,” Flower Darby (2019) suggests the following:

“At the beginning of each online module or unit, provide a short, written description that introduces that module’s content, describes what students are doing, and explains why they are doing it. I like to open each module with a two- to three-sentence overview of the module, an explanation of how module content and activities will help students succeed in the class (or help them achieve academic and career goals, become better employees, better citizens – think big!), and a list of four to six learning goals or objectives for that module that align with the course learning objectives” (p 14).

Professors who have provided this information have helped me to contextualize why I’m learning what I’m learning and how it fits in with larger course goals. By the way, not making this clear in the hopes that some will go above and beyond is not differentiation. Instead, focus on other ways you can motivate students to participate deeply.

3. Engage With Us

A few of my professors have created video check-ins for the class every week. In these check-ins, they’d connect ideas from other weeks to what we’re currently discussing. They’d also call back to interesting topics that came up on the discussion boards the past week. Typically, these have been short, under 10 minute “talking head” videos—no need to worry about editing out your umms or being fully scripted. This may be separate from a longer, recorded lecture that gets reused from year to year.

I have found these videos immensely helpful. They put a face to the professor’s name, making me less nervous about reaching out with questions or topics I’d like to discuss. They also make me aware that the professor is reading the discussion boards. I’ve had some classes where there was no acknowledgement of the work we’re doing there, including no grade until the end of the quarter. I’d have no idea if I was saying things that made sense or were in the direction that we were supposed to be growing. With these videos, the professor can address any misconceptions or direct the class to a particularly interesting conversation that we may have otherwise missed.

4. Give Us Feedback

On a similar note, give us thoughtful feedback. Heck, give us any feedback at all before the deadline to drop a class without losing all of our money. I’ve had some friends have no indication that they weren’t doing well prior to when the withdrawal period had passed, and then they were suddenly hit with failing grades.

Whether a student does poorly or well on an assignment, please give some indication of what they did do well and how they can grow. I’ve had far too many assignments where I received “Excellent” on a lengthy paper, but nothing else. I’d love to hear how I can improve. As someone who would love to publish work someday, I know there are always ways to improve.

5. We Don’t Have All the Context

Remember that we don’t have all the contextual knowledge for the information you’re conveying. I’ve had many professors provide a PowerPoint presentation with no narration or presenter notes. PowerPoints, while extremely useful, are a presentation aid; and they do not give a full picture of the information itself. While moving from one concept to another may make sense to you, please consider those of us who are working on getting a handle on this topic for the first time! Here’s a recent example: my professor assigned reading this presentation as homework. Take a look at that, then check out the recording of that presentation that I later found on YouTube. It makes so much more sense with the contextual information! Note: no hard feelings against this professor in particular; it’s the only time he did this! It’s just the one I had on hand.

Finally, two bonus thoughts: take a course and notice your own frustrations, and read Flower Darby’s book. Thank you to those professors who have realized the above, and thank you to those who are always reflecting on and improving their courses. I have learned a lot in the past few years! Students, what do YOU wish your professors knew?

Kerri is an online MSI LIS student at Drexel University. In addition to her studies, she is the Learning & Development Consultant for her library district. She spends a lot of time thinking about learning and how best to share information. She has almost certainly broken all of these rules herself while instructing in the past, but she’ll try to do better. She tweets occasionally at @klmillik.

Photo by Lara Far on Unsplash

6 replies

  1. Excellent suggestions for both professors and students. As a professor who taught online for 5 years, all your suggestions are valid.

    I’d add that it’s important to send feedback to the professor. Sometimes professors don’t know what they’ve missed or if students didn’t get their points. On the other hand, there are profs who aren’t as engaged in their teaching as they should be.

    Your comment about readings and the syllabi are particularly important. I’d hope the professor supplied all the assignments and reading lists up front. There’s no excuse for surprising students!


    • Great point! I did have a professor start recording lectures instead of just providing the PowerPoint after evaluation surveys, and it made the world of difference. I completely believe that most of the above problems are just a lack of awareness on the professor’s part; it’s rare that they just can’t be bothered.

      I’ve had a number of courses list the readings on the syllabi, but if they’re not available through the library and they’re not being uploaded until Monday (when professors consider it the new week), then it’s not terribly helpful! I have to wonder if they’re trying to keep us from getting overwhelmed, but it’s counterproductive. Add to that all the times that the syllabi has been wrong and I’ve done extra work, and I struggle to trust some of them now.


  2. Preparing my classes for upcoming term and found this very helpful. I do most of these things..but not all. So glad to have your useful observations. Our numeric course evaluations don’t provide insightful feedback.


    • I’m glad you found this useful! It’s impossible for professors to know every perspective. I hear your frustration with numeric / likert scale format evaluations, too!


  3. These were really useful points; thank you for writing this! As a professor with years of teaching experience (online and f2f) I can say that I struggle with point 3 quite a bit. I used to do “wrapups” of weekly conversations in the discussion forum, but discovered that hardly anybody read the wrapups, whether I put them at the end of the week or the beginning of the next week. So I stopped doing that. The short additional-video approach might work better. Hmmm.


    • I can’t vouch for every student, but I’m more likely to watch the video! Our LMS doesn’t differentiate between a professor comment vs a student comment in notifications, and after I discovered that conversations at the end of the week tend to steer off-topic, I stop reading every single response once the week is over. I hope the videos work out for you, and thank you for continuing to be a reflective teacher!


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