Increasing Student Preparation for Online Classes

While maintaining energy and engagement may be some of the most important parts of ensuring the successful delivery of online classes, this is particularly difficult if few students have prepared in advance for the class. Particularly for discussion-focused classes, ensuring that students take steps to engage with the material in advance of the class can go a long way to avoiding situations where the conversations remaining very superficial in nature.

Framing: Explain the role of any pre-reading material

Highlighting the role of any pre-reading material in the overall class structure can go a long way in getting students on board. Helping to illustrate how the various class components complement and build on one another can go a long way to getting students on-board: it is a lot easier to get student-buy-in when students understand the role the pre-reading material and how it is important for the class. 

Ensuring that classes reference and build on the readings, without duplicating them

One of the key reasons that students skip preparing is that they can’t see the benefit of undertaking the preparation. The dangers are at the extremes on connections made in class to the material.

  • Excessive repetition: If the class is largely a duplicate of the content already read, then there is arguably little incentive for students to prepare in advance.
  • Little to no connections with prior material: Likewise, if there is hardly any connection between the preparation material and class content, there is likewise little reasons for students to prepare in advance.

The key thing with integrating class content with preparation material is striking the balance of connections: sufficient connections such that the class can build on the pre-readings, however not so much that the class is just a repeat of preparation readings. 

Post questions in advance to focus student attention

One way of increasing engagement with the material is to consider posting questions for students to consider when engaging with the reading material. While this is routinely included in syllabi, it can be useful to also re-post the questions to the course wall, helping to ensure that students who are not actively checking the syllabi are still reminded of the questions that they should be considering when going through the reading material. 

Add mini-exercises to submit

Another way of helping to ensure that students connect with the material in advance is to assign mini-exercises (potentially as part of async content). Assigning the material as required in advance goes further than just suggesting the questions for consideration, and ensures that students have engaged with the material.

Including min-exercises as pass/fail may be a good approach with mini-exercises, positioning the activities as ‘learning activities’ (and in turn avoiding the constant examination that students can sometimes feel), while also keeping the grading process manageable. 

Consider making participation a component of the grade

A standard way of increasing participation is to tie a component of the class grade to participation. The knowledge that they will need to speak in advance can help ensure that they prepare to be able to talk. 

Although this can help participation, it is also worth noting some potential tradeoffs associated with including participation as part of the formal evaluation:

  1. It can encourage students to speak when they have very little to say – potentially repeating prior students or adding very little to the conversation
  2. It can result in frustration, with students feeling that they are unable to participate in the discussion. This tendency may be particularly true in on-line classes – given that only a limited number of students are discussed on-screen at once (on Zoom, up to 49).


It can always be a challenge getting participation in classes – this doesn’t change when teaching online, although, with the ability to turn off their webcams, the ability to gain involvement may be even higher. By considering ways of ensuring students to prepare in advance, getting participation may be higher. 

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