Principles that Help Make Online Courses Successful

Beverley McGuire has taught online courses for 10 years, and she’s been a student in them for five. From those experiences, she’s learned a few things about making online courses effective. She’s also conversant with current research and collaborates with colleagues. From that knowledge and those experiences, she identifies five key design and delivery principles for online courses. She teaches religious study courses, but her principles are broadly applicable.


If you asked students to tell you what makes a course hard, what would they say? Would their answers be the same as yours? Would it be a problem if they weren’t?

Assignments They Don’t Like

Students aren’t all that excited about most of their assignments. Given the chance not to write papers, not to take exams, or not to complete group projects, most students would happily take advantage of the opportunity. But those are all assignments they’re used to, ones about which they feel a certain degree of comfort. How about an assignment you know they’re going to dislike—such as having them memorize and recite a poem?

Group Membership: Stay Together or Form New Groups?

For faculty members requiring group work, one of the key logistical questions involves how long group membership should stay the same. Membership can shift after every meeting, or groups can be stable, with the same members meeting together multiple times across a content unit or a grading period or for an entire course.

Holding Students Responsible for What Happens in Groups

Many teachers avoid using group work because they fear what happens when students work together—some group members don’t contribute, others contribute too much, there’s no in-depth exploration of issues, some members don’t deliver, others don’t show up, group meetings are more social events than work sessions, disagreements get personal, and so goes the list. When problems like these emerge, the students who care register complaints with the teacher. The question then is, who’s responsible for fixing what’s going wrong in the group?

Using Student Evaluations to Improve Teaching

Student evaluations can be used to improve teaching, and here’s an excellent resource to inform those efforts. Author Guy Boysen writes, “The purpose of this teacher-ready review is to provide a comprehensive, empirically-based guide for the use of student evaluations to improve teaching” (p. 273). His premise is that if teachers are going to base improvement decisions on evaluation data, then they need to be using “scientifically justifiable practices” (p. 27). Specifically, they need to a) use reliable and valid forms, b) have an adequate sample of students, c) analyze the responses systematically, and d) make the results part of an ongoing professional development effort.

Entitled: Is That How Your Students Feel?

“Prevalent among university faculty is the perception that a large number of today’s students possess an outsized sense of entitlement” (Luckett, Trocchia, Noel, & Marlin, 2017, p. 96). But what exactly does entitlement mean in the academic realm? High grades without much in the way of effort? A demanding attitude toward teachers? Views of education as a commodity, something they’ve paid for and believe they should have their way?