Tips for Designing and Moderating Large-Enrollment Online Courses

Last updated on: May 9, 2022

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Online learning has gone through significant shifts since the onset on the COVID-19 pandemic. According to U.S. Department of Education data, “enrollments at degree-granting higher education institutions declined 5.0% for Fall 2019 compared to 2012. But, with the swift move from on-ground to online courses across the U.S. because of the pandemic, we still saw that “the number of national institutions offering distance courses increased by 9.8%.

See tips faculty can use to more effectively moderate large-enrollment online courses.

While we’ve been reminded that the future is uncertain and unpredictable, we can still count on online learning to evolve with industry trends and the needs of learners. Online enrollment is expected to continue to rise, and with that, we can expect the demand for courses to increase as well. To accommodate this need, your university may choose to offer large-enrollment course sections of 80-100 students. For course faculty and instructors, this can present certain challenges around setting and reinforcing expectations, effective communication, and providing timely grades and feedback. 

Fortunately, course developers and learning designers have been testing high-enrollment design and moderation strategies to address these challenges. Let’s take a look at several easy-to-apply strategies faculty and instructors can use to better design and moderate large-enrollment online courses. 

Reinforcing expectations

Timing is everything

Use the tools at your fingertips, such as your learning management system (LMS). One of the main expectations in the online learning environment is that students adhere to established due dates and guidelines for assignment submissions. Using the LMS calendar tool, you can create due date reminders a few days before assignments are due that give students an extra push. You can also send reminders using the Announcements tool. Many LMSs allow you to pre-draft and schedule a timed release for announcements. Check your calendar settings!

Model the best

Rubrics are essential for communicating what you expect an excellent submission to look like, but simple text boxes can be less than compelling. Why not share some exemplary student submissions that “show, don’t tell” what you are looking for with submissions? This can be done for smaller activities, like discussion posts, or more complex writing assignments with multiple parts. Make sure you ask for the student’s permission to share their work and check with your institution for any other privacy considerations.

FAQS just for you

Are there questions you feel you’ve answered 1,000 times? Teaching in the online environment, there are likely similar questions that arise in each session. Make a list of those questions and provide the answers for your students. This will cut down on the number and frequency of individual student emails you might receive and help guide them to the answers on their own. Students can also post questions in a Course Q&A forum so all students benefit from the answers. If a student has a personal question or issue, recommend that they contact you privately.

Effective communication & interactions

Ask for help

It never hurts to ask! Depending on your enrollment numbers, up to three Teaching Assistants (TAs) might be appropriate. Be sure to put in the time early to identify highly qualified TAs who have a firm grasp of the content. You’ll also want to make sure they are familiar with your pedagogy and what success looks like in your courses. Planning ahead will give you time to interview for the right fit.

Group summaries

For large courses, you can adapt a “think-pair-share” discussion approach that promotes peer-peer engagement and collaboration. For example, students bring their own ideas to a small group discussion of a specific topic, collaboratively write a summary, an assigned group leader posts the summary for the larger class, and the rest of the class and instructor respond throughout the week. Group leaders can rotate as well to spread out the extra work and responsibilities.

It’s in the rubric

Use a peer-review activity for a first draft of a written assignment. Students assess each other using the same rubric you will use to grade the final draft. This takes some of the grading pressure off you and encourages students to thoughtfully identify and apply rubric criteria. You can also incorporate a self-reflective opportunity after completing the peer review, for example, ask students how the peer review changed their approach to writing the final draft.

Timely grades/feedback

Ask for help, again

It never hurts to ask (again)! TAs can help moderate discussion forums by scanning and summarizing each weekly thread or responding to the small group summaries. If you prefer not to have or do not have access to a TA, you can set aside a specific amount of time for grading each student’s work. You will put in equal time for each student and manage your own time effectively. Before trying this timed approach, assess where you put in the most effort when grading and make sure everything is set up before “punching the clock.”

Right/Wrong + why

Incorporate the occasional auto-graded quiz in your online course. This should not be the only means of assessment, but these quizzes can be effective for knowledge checks that have objectively right or wrong answers. Including detailed auto-released correct and incorrect feedback will help students self-identify knowledge gaps.

Ping me

Many LMSs allow you to draft and auto-release targeted messages to students who miss an assignment or don’t get a certain grade on a quiz. This is an intervention technique that will inform you of where students might be struggling without having to grade every single assignment or activity. You can also anticipate student struggles and needs by creating study notes that help students focus on the most important aspects of the content that week.

Wrap up & resources

Many of these design and moderation strategies overlap thematically, for example, peer review encourages peer-to-peer interaction and can also reduce the grading load. These strategies also largely revolve around instructor time management and anticipating student needs. Ask your students for their feedback on what did and did not work well, as this can help guide future iterations of your courses.

The moderation strategies shared in this post were adapted and borrowed from some of the resources listed below. Be sure to check out the following for more tips and ideas from faculty:

To learn more about other common online teaching challenges, like how to incorporate more media (videos, graphics, interactives, etc.) into the online classroom, visit our Resources page.

Dolly Lemke

Learning Designer
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