eCoaching Tip 80  Course Beginnings Checklist and Ways of “Being There” for Your Students

August 24 2010

eCoaching Tip 80  Course Beginnings Checklist and Ways of “Being There” for Your Students

Is it really August already and time for course beginnings?

The library of ecoaching tips has a number of tips on course beginnings, but it’s sometimes more convenient to see a quick summary.  So here it is. The first part of this tip is a seven-item checklist about pre and first week preparations; the second part is a refresher tip about the ways of “being there” for our students. We know from research that faculty presence — social, teaching and cognitive — presence is key to learning and to satisfaction with that learning. See if you can score a seven (7) on this checklist.

Seven-Item Checklist for Course Beginnings  (Adapted from Tip #62)

  1. Students want to get to know you, about your background and your history. Do you have a “rich” faculty bio with pictures? ____

Have you incorporated ways to make yourself a known three-dimensional person to your students? Students love stories about their faculty, especially stories that show what you do when you are a friend, a colleague, an expert, or family member.  Sharing a picture of how you spend your vacation time or just some of your down time can encourage them to do similar sharing. Having a standard formal faculty photo in your Faculty Information section is important, but students enjoy a balance of the formal with a relaxed picture as well. This conveys your role as a course expert, but with a personal social presence.

Note: To create your profile in BB under the “Faculty” content area, instructors should go to control panel>staff information> “+ profile”.

  1. Have you used the Announcement tool to welcome your students?____

Students see the Announcements first when they enter their Blackboard or Moodle “online classroom.” This is a great place to post a course welcome and remind them of their first set of course actions. Some of these first actions will be to review the course schedule, the course syllabus and post a getting acquainted message.  A critical student responsibility is for them to acquire course textbooks by the start of the preweek, so if they have not done this for some reason, this is a good reminder to get them asap.  In BB, you can ensure that students all receive your announcement by checking the box “Email this announcement to all course users.”

You may also want to check out the possibility of posting an announcement with an audio greeting. Hearing your voice creates a sense of real presence. More personality comes through. A tip sheet on how to create a Voice Announcement is at

Note: To use the voice tools in your course, you do need to have completed the voice tools training. For info on how to do this, go to the Ed Tech training site.

  1. Have you created a “Getting Acquainted” thread in your “Pre-Week and Introductions” forum?____

Not only do students want to know you; they also want to know something about their fellow students and to share a little about themselves. Getting acquainted posts are a great beginning to building trust and a learning community.  Knowing more about your students helps you create spaces for profiles in your own head when learners post something personal or memorable about themselves.  In your posting directions, you might suggest that they share something simple, such as a “personal favorite” type of technology, place, or beverage, or a personal best or personal worst. I find something as simple as a picture invaluable in creating a space in my head for each student.

  1. The fourth item has to do with your own course presence schedule. Have you made time and plans to “be” at your course every day for the first two weeks? ____

Your teaching and social presence is always important, but it is critical in the first few days of a course.  In real estate it is location, location, location. In online learning it is presence, presence and more presence. Ways of being present with three types of presence — social, teaching and cognitive — are in the latter part of this tip.

  1. The fifth checklist item involves your syllabus. Is your syllabus complete with weekly schedules, assignments and required resources? _____

As you know, online students are super-sensitive to requirements, schedules and communication processes. Check to be sure that your course requirements are clear.  It can be helpful to state your expectations as to how many hours a week that you expect learners to devote to course assignments and requirements. A range of hours such as 4 to 6 or 6 to 8 hours is fine.  If you plan on holding synchronous sessions, a backup plan for time conflicts is a must. Archiving sessions, holding duplicate sessions, or making synchronous sessions optional are ways to handle the likelihood of schedule conflicts.

Also, be sure to have your requirements and readings clearly laid out for each week of your course.  Online learners are always hoping for good, clear statements as to “What is next?” and “What else should I be working on now?”

  1. The sixth item on the checklist suggests a discussion forum or an assignment focusing on the course performance goals. Do you have this ready? ____

As you know from other tips, adults who are juggling work and learning find it very helpful to personalize and customize a course to their professional needs and goals. Yet students don’t always mentally process the stated performance goals and knowledge objectives of a course. Here are two strategies that can help students connect more personally to the stated course performance goals.

  • Include an assignment in the first week that asks the learners to review the performance goals for the course, and then apply these performance goals to their own professional and personal goals. Doing this requires your students to mentally process the goals for their own purposes. Their statements also shed light on what each learner already knows and the contexts in which they might be using the course knowledge and skills.
  • Another useful strategy is to identify an important news item relevant to the course content and create a discussion forum for students to comment on that news item. This immediately creates a shared content experience where students connect with the relevancy of the course content. More about this technique of “story referencing” is in the tip about personalizing learning:Tip 60 (#2 Fall 2008) Personalizing Learning Content so that Students Grow with the Course Experiences
  1. If this is a course that I have taught before, and I have logically done a lot of cutting and pasting, have I checked to make certain that all urls, dates and time references are current? ____

Given the ease of cutting and pasting and our time crunches, it is tempting not to take the time to do a final check and review of dates, times, references, and urls to make certain that they all apply to this fall semester of 2010.  Broken links, 404 errors, course outline dates from 2006 and references to spring break in fall courses is the digital equivalent of bringing in curling-edged yellowed notes to a face-to-face gathering. It suggests recycling without attention, rather than professional updating and currency.  Even the artist Rodin recycled the design of sculptured arms, hands, feet, etc., so we are in good company when we recycle our courses.  It is just important that we do it with care.

Being There for Your Students – Social, Teaching and Cognitive Presence

Presence or being there for your students is the most important best practice for an online course. This is Best Practice #1 in the set of Ten Best Practices. Three types of presence — social, teaching and cognitive — were identified by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer  (2000) in their community of inquiry model. The simplest description of what presence is can be captured in the phrase “being there.”  Research links presencemost closely to student satisfaction and a related belief that a course is effective. Here are descriptions of the three presences. Check to see if you are ready to “be there” for your students in these three ways.

Social Presence

One of the best ways to get an online course off on the right foot is to ensure the social presence of the instructor and all the learners. Social presence is “achieved in the community of inquiry model by faculty and students projecting their personal characteristics into the discussion so they become “real people” (Garrison, 2009). It is imperative that the trust building process is established at the social level so that content discussions can be open and substantive.

A good way of getting acquainted at the social level is through the getting acquainted posting of the first week.  As we have just suggested, this is done by sharing personal favorites such as drinks, food, ideas, pets, books, or movies in the pre and first week. This sharing of ourselves as three dimensional people of many interests encourages expressions of feelings, perspectives and general openness.

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence in an online course consists of at least two categories of teaching direction. The first category consists of all the course materials that you prepare before the course begins: the syllabus, concept introductions, discussions, assessment plans, and lists of required and recommended resources. Your students examine your plans for a course to determine how much work and learning they will be doing and how closely the course maps to what they particularly want to learn and to your particular area of expertise.

The second category of teaching presence consists of monitoring, mentoring, questioning, and shaping of the growing knowledge of particular learners in a course. We design and develop a course based on our assumptions of what students probably know and understand—the “mythical” student for design purposes. Then we customize our teaching presence and direction to the particular set of students that comprise the community of learners for any particular course.

In many tips we encourage the dialogue between learners and while this is essential for building a learning community, students really value hearing their faculty voice and their expert perspective on the dialogue that is occurring in the course forum.  This is why your “felt” presence on the course site on a daily basis is important.

Note:  Garrison (2009) further categorizes this teaching presence into the work of direct instruction of focusing and resolving any issues with individual students.  Research is still examining whether this is a separate construct.

Cognitive Presence

A good second question in the pre and first week of a course is to ask the student to identify and personalize their learning goals for the course. This question is an excellent companion question to the getting acquainted forum.  Asking the students to customize their learning goals helps expand the course focus to thinking and discussing personal learning goals. This question about customizing the course goals helps an instructor gain insights into the state of the learners’ knowledge, confidence, and experience with the content. This question also encourages relatedness and connections as learners discover shared and complementary experiences and goals. Cognitive presence is defined as the “extent to which the professor and the students are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained discourse (discussion) in a community of inquiry” (Garrison, 2008, p. 89). You add your cognitive presence by commenting and making observations about your learners’ goals and how they might be similar to, different or complementary to other learners’ goals.

We cultivate cognitive presence in a course by making space for students to express ideas and by dialogue that discerns patterns, connects ideas, and identifies relationships. Getting a sense of what students know and how they know it lays the foundation for the learning experiences that follow. Cognitive presence is essential to learning.

Adding Another Presence Question to Your Checklist

You may want to add this question to the checklist above.

  1. Have I completed my preparatory teaching presence with an effective syllabus that is clear, comprehensive and customizable? ____ This question reminds us to design a course that is complete, challenging, but also adaptable to particular students.


Course beginnings are always exciting, being full of hope, potential and vision. Bring your expertise and presence to this time.  If you can, share your stories of which of these ideas worked for you to me at

Selected References

Boettcher, J. (2006 – 2010) Teaching Online for the First Time – Ten Best Practices Retrieved August 23, 2010 from

E-Coaching Tip 21 (Fall 2006) Five Simple Reminders about Course Beginnings.Retrieved August 23, 2010 from

E-Coaching Tip 62 (Spring 2009) Tip 62 Course Beginnings- Launch with Confidence and a Holiday Picture!Retrieved August 23, 2010 from

E-Coaching tip 51 (Fall 2007) Tip 51 A Garden of Three Presences – Social Presence, Teaching Presence and Cognitive Presence. Retrieved August 23, 2010 from

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 1-19.  Retrieved August 23, 2010 from

Garrison, D. R. (2009). Collaborative Constructivism and Community Inquiry. Paper presented at the 25thAnnual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning.  August 7, 2009 Madison WI.

Garrison, D. R. & Vaughan, N. D. (2008). Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, Principles, and Guidelines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher