Engaging and Managing Your Class

Addressing Racism in the Classroom

The Importance of Addressing Racism in the Classroom - June 4, 2020

Earlier this year, some instructors approached the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) with a problem—students were sharing racist statements on class discussion boards and the instructors were not sure how to address it. CTL's Jennifer Ward, Ellen Watson, and Dr. Cathryn van Kessel from Secondary Education offer their experiences and suggestions to effectively address racism and incorporate EDI while teaching.

Teaching+ Podcast, Episode 14: Addressing Racism in the Classroom - March 27, 2020 

In this episode, Jennifer Ward and Ellen Watson from CTL and Dr. Cathryn van Kessel from Secondary Education talk about how instructors might promote community by addressing potentially harmful comments made by students (especially those related to the COVID 19 pandemic).

For information on Dr. van Kessel's work regarding this topic, visit https://tinyurl.com/grimeducatorpandemic

Coming Out of Crisis Mode: Bettering the Remote Learning Environment

Coming Out of Crisis Mode: Bettering the Remote Learning Environment - April 23, 2020

Vice Provost (Learning Initiatives) John Nychka explores remote teaching strategies to improve the learning experience.

Communicating with Students

Keeping in touch with students is vital during any changes to your class(es)—whether a viral outbreak like COVID-19, a planned absence on your part, or an issue impacting all or part of campus. You'll need to let students know about changes in schedules, classroom changes, assignments, procedures, and broader course expectations.

Communicate Early and Often

Early and frequent communication can ease student anxiety and save you dealing with individual questions. Let students know about changes or disruptions as early as possible, even if all the details aren't in place yet, and let them know when they can expect more specific information. Don't overload them with email but consider matching the frequency of your messages with that of changes in class activities and/or updates to the broader situation at hand. For example, if the campus closure is extended for two more days, what will students need to know related to your course?

If you have an eClass page set up for your course, you can use the announcements tool to quickly send an email to all students who are enrolled in the course. 

Adding Chats to eClass

Chats enable real-time conversations between instructors and students in a text-based environment similar to most instant messaging platforms but in a simpler fashion. The tool is a great, easy way to communicate with students at-a-distance. Learn more.

Set Expectations

Students need to know how you plan to communicate with them and how often. Let students know how often you expect them to check their email and how quickly they can expect your response. Students also need to know if you are using the eClass Forums tool as they may need to update their notification preferences.

Manage Your Communications Load

You will likely receive some individual requests for information which could be useful to all your students so consider keeping track of frequently asked questions and post these in a discussion forum for all students to access. This way, students know they might get a group reply in a day versus a personal reply within an hour. Also, consider creating an information page in eClass and then encourage students to check there first for answers before emailing you.

IST Course Communication Tools

IST's Deliver Online support page offers a range of communication tools for you to connect with your student base and keep them informed.

Drawing Students into Discussion

A good discussion can be difficult to foster—especially online; it starts with good questions. In this webinar, participants will engage in asynchronous discussion (using eClass forums) for one week on the topic of good questions in the classroom. This will be followed by a synchronous discussion about best practices in using discussion in online courses. Participants will experience online discussion forums from the student’s point of view and evaluate strategies to develop good discussions in their online courses. Watch here

How to Create a Remote Teaching and Learning Community


This video and presentation discusses strategies for creating an effective learning environment online. Strategies include creating an online presence, use of small group activities, group projects, and synchronous instruction. For a condensed 8-minute video version of this presentation click here.

Managing Large Classes in a Synchronous Environment

What is a large class online? How large is very large? Researchers have been reluctant to identify exact numbers, however, Elison-Bowers and colleagues at Boise State University in a paper entitled "Strategies for managing large online classes" (2011) named large classes as 60-149 students and any online class over 150 students as very large. That said, the nature of the content and the kinds of learning activities can impact whether the class feels large to instructors and students.

The good news is the quality of interactions in an online course are more important than the number of people in the course (Nagel & Kotze, 2009).

In large online classes, communication between instructors to students is especially important for the instructor to appear credible and capable. Consider adding a welcome to the course message telling students about how you got into your chosen field/area of study, what you value as an instructor, and something about yourself that's unique and human (but not too personal, of course). Further, a weekly message summarizing the key misconceptions about a topic or general feedback on progress in the course will go a long way to showing you care about your students' learning. Students need to know when you are online and available to answer questions. Do you have virtual office hours? Will you answer questions in the chat or by email? Do you have a frequently asked questions section of your eClass that you update each week?

If you are offering synchronous video conference classes, in Zoom for example, consider asking a colleague, TA, or someone in your life you trust to help. It is very challenging to teach, watch the chat coming in, watch for students' raising their hands, listen to student comments, or shift students into breakout rooms all at once, especially in a large online class. If you are leading a class alone, limit the chat to specific times and for a limited amount of time (say 2-3 minutes) when you and the students read the comments coming into the chat together, then you turn off the chat and respond to key questions.

Another key aspect of large online classes is the development of a community of learners who feel a sense that everyone belongs in the course (Hrastinski, 2008). Students are more motivated to participate when they feel safe in an online course environment (Sun, Rau, & Ma, 2014). In a large class online, the students can be divided into teams, groups, or clubs of 3-7 students who meet regularly online to talk about the content, solve practice problems, do cases, or study together. Some of these student to student interactions can be moderated by the instructor through breakout rooms in Zoom, discussion boards, wikis, google docs, or projects. However, students can also be asked to arrange times on their own, just as they would in a face-to-face class.

Elison-Bowers, P., Sand, J., Barlow, M.R., & Wing, T.J. (2011). Strategies for managing large online classes. The International Journal of Learning, 18(2), 57-66.

Hrastinski, S. (2008). What is online learner participation: A literature review. Computers and Education, 51, 1755-1765.

Nagel, L., & Kotze, T. (2009). Supersizing e-learning: What CoI survey reveals about teaching presence in a large online class. Internet and Higher Education, 13(1), 45-51.

Sun, N., Rau, P.P., & Ma, L. (2014). Understanding lurkers in online communities: A literature review. Computers in Human Behaviour, 38, 110-117

Managing the Students' Workload

How Much Work Should I Assign?

Think of your course as a job requiring a maximum of 8 hours of work per week. 

Determine how long tasks will take to ensure you are not overloading the students.

  • lecture: 1 hour 
  • reading a fairly straightforward 8000-word academic paper: 2 hours 
    100 wpm (words per minute) for an 'easy read', 70 wpm for a 'fairly straightforward read", 40 wpm for a 'dense of difficult read' (Chalmers, 1992). 
  • Questions based on reading: 1 hour
  • Textbook with 4000-words (difficult read): 2 hours
  • Group work: 2 hours 
You do not have to assign the maximum! 

Remember that students, particularly undergraduate students, are taking more than one course. If, for example, a student is taking 5 courses, that's 40 hours of work. Considering a high number of students work part-time, you can see how giving 8 hours of work each week could become overwhelming and unsustainable.

Further Information

The Most Common Questions for Teaching Online

The Most Common Questions for Teaching Online - April 30, 2020

CTL's Graeme Pate, Jennifer Ward & Josh Westlake answer some of the questions they've been asked most often since making the switch to remote learning.


Just as with face-to-face conversations, there are polite and impolite ways to engage in an online conversation. Here are some basic ground rules you may wish to share on your own eClass page.

An online discussion forum is a shared learning environment. You will engage more effectively if you do more than just read others' comments.

Be Patient
Read everything in the discussion thread before replying so that you don't repeat a point which has already been mentioned. Acknowledge the points made you agree with and suggest alternative suggestions for this you don't agree with.

Use Proper Writing Style
Write as if you were writing an assignment. Use correct spelling, grammatical construction and sentence structure just as you would do for any other scholarly and academic activity.

Cite Your Sources
If your contribution to the conversation includes the intellectual property of others they should be given proper attribution.

Avoid Emoticons and Text Shortcuts
Social networking and text messaging have spawned a boy of linguistic shortcuts (e.g., c u l8r, wbu?). These are not part of an academic dialogue and should be avoided.

These ground rules have been amended from "10 Basic Rules of Netiquette or Internet Etiquette" by Elizabeth Hartney, Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.

Third-Party Software

There are times you may wish to use third-party software to enhance your teaching and the students' learning. For example, you may want them to use Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to keep a particular topic active. Perhaps you want to use Google Docs to have students work collaboratively on a project. You may wish to use online polls for testing purposes ... and so on.

There are two types of third-party issues worth discussing--those being used only for engagement and those being used for assessment.

Third-party software for engagement

If you are not going to be assessing students using third-party software, it is suggested that:

  • students could create an email address other than their CCID in order to create an account with third-party software; This could be as simple as creating a new Google account used only for engaging with third-party software for university use.
  • students use this email address solely for use with the third-party software; Students should not use a current, personal email address.
  • Lecturers could create an email address (or account) for each student for the third-party software, provided the username/email address is random (i.e. other students can't easily guess another's email or account) and that students have the ability to change the password (and contact email). This can be helpful in some ways in that everything is set up for the students right away. However, it is time-consuming to set up and there is the issue of students requesting their login information when they forget it.

Third-party software for assessment

The guidance for using third-party software for assessment purposes is more stringent. The complete document can be read at https://sites.ualberta.ca/~eclass/kb-images/UploadJan132015-Online-Homework-System-Guidance-Instructors.pdf

There is also the interdepartmental correspondence about using third-party response/engagement systems (i.e., online polling software) used for grades. https://sites.ualberta.ca/~eclass/kb-images/UploadJan132015-3rd-party-student-response-for-grades.png

While you are encouraged to read the two documents above, the main points from them are listed below. 

  • If there is a cost involved, the instructors must provide a no cost alternative;
  • Students must be informed not to use their UofA gmail address or CCID but should use a non-identifying email address or account. I always recommend students create a new account to be used specifically and solely for creating accounts with 3rd party software for university/academic use.
  • Students must be made aware that they may 'either use the online homework system, the results of which will be used to determine a portion of the students' grades for the course, or the students may use a reasonably equivalent alternative or the recommended online homework system is optional and will not be used to determine any portion of the grade for the course'.
  • Instructors must investigate and research the third-party to ensure the manner in which the students' information is handled does not reflect poorly on the University. This includes determining the privacy policy of the third-party to determine how students' personal information may be disclosed to other parties and for what purpose.
Resources to Learn More

General Tips for Teaching Online:

  1. Tips and Tricks for Teaching in the Online Classroom: Jim Harrison and J. Diane Martonis (Faculty Focus)
  2. Selecting the Appropriate Communication Tools for Your Online Course: Rob Kelly (Faculty Focus)
  3. 8 Lessons Learned from Teaching Online: EDUCAUSE Research Library
  4. How To Be a Better Online Teacher: Flower Darby (Chronicle of Higher Education)
  5. Universal Design for Learning in Online Environments (eCampus Alberta)
  6. CTL 10 minute webinette: Breaking the Ice with Students on the First Day Using Basic Improv Games
  7. CTL 10 minute webinette: Lurking in Your Online Course
  8. CTL's Teaching+ Podcast: Engaging Students through Gamification
  9. Free Online Course on Gamification, presented by the University of Pennsylvania