In online courses, there are few cues from the environment to tell students what they’re supposed to do. So it’s especially important to make your expectations clear and explicit. In this article, we’ll discuss (a) the kinds of expectations you should make explicit and (b) where and how to communicate these expectations.

Types of Expectations to Set

Students will inevitably have several questions for you throughout your course. However, if you communicate certain expectations up front, you can cut down on the number of logistical questions students have and can instead focus on higher order content discussions. For example, instead of answering a dozen e-mails about how to submit a paper, you can spend that time on reviewing students’ rough drafts and providing feedback. Below are several questions you might want to think about and answer for students in advance through the syllabus or other course documentation.


Course Structure

  • Weekly routine: What do you expect students to do on a weekly basis?
  • Flexibility: How much flexibility will you allow in grading, assignment topics, and so on?
  • Attendance policies: What is your attendance policy (if any) for synchronous sessions?
  • Late policies: Will you accept late work? Up to what point? Will there be a penalty?
  • Academic integrity: What conventions do you expect students to follow?
  • Technical problems: What should students do if problems arise? Who should they contact?



  • Communication: How should students contact you? How quickly will you respond?
  • Feedback from students: How can students share feedback with you?
  • Student interactions: How do you expect students to interact (and not interact)?
  • Collaboration: What kinds of collaboration do you consider acceptable?

Class Meetings

  • Synchronous sessions: How should students join? How should they prepare?
  • Discussion board participation: How often do you expect students to post?
  • Discussion board evaluation: What criteria will you use to assess students’ contributions?


  • Readings: Where will students find them? How should they approach them?
  • Assignment goals: What knowledge and skills should students demonstrate?
  • Assignment directions: What exactly are students supposed to produce?
  • Assignment submission: How and where should students submit their work?

Grading and Feedback

  • Grading scheme: What is the relative weight of each graded assignment?
  • Performance criteria: What criteria will you use to assess student work?
  • Feedback: How will you provide feedback to students?

How and Where to Communicate Expectations

Your learning management system will have a number of locations where you can state or clarify your expectations. In fact, it’s wise to state expectations in multiple places. You can use module introductions, e-mails, written announcements, or descriptions of your course elements. But perhaps the most important place to communicate your high-level expectations is in the syllabus.


  • Much like a syllabus in a traditional course, you can use your online course syllabus to:
    • Provide basic course information (e.g., title, number, credits).
    • Describe the course in terms that get students excited about taking it.
    • Establish a friendly, welcoming course climate.
    • Identify your learning objectives.
    • Identify prerequisite knowledge and skills.
    • Describe readings and how to access them.
    • Explain graded and nongraded requirements.
    • Outline policies on attendance, participation, academic integrity, and so on.
    • Offer advice on how to approach readings, video lectures, discussion boards, and so on.
    • Point students to support resources such as technical help, tutoring, office hours, and so on.

Although setting expectations may seem like a dry or even heavy topic, clear expectations help create a good course structure and empower students to know how they can succeed in your class. Plus, you’ll save yourself time during the course if you decide on these logistical issues in advance. By posting about your expectations early and often, you will give yourself and your students a shared road map to success.