Course Orientation Using Tech: Getting Students Ready to Learn and Excel in Your Course

Posted September 13, 2021

By Bob DuBois and Ciara Kidder

In our experience, students benefit when they have the opportunity to be oriented to a new course. A well-designed onboarding or START HERE module is not only consistent with evidence-based standards for online learning (e.g., the Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric), but it is wise practice in all of on-campus courses too. A robust course orientation affords us critical opportunities to:

  • describe the ultimate learning goals of the course and their purpose and relevance,
  • outline the carefully constructed learning path - lined with helpful materials, technologies, activities, interactions, and assessments - that our students will traverse to successfully accomplish these goals,
  • begin the critical work of building a positive learning community, rich with timely and supportive opportunities for faculty-to-student, student-to-student, and student-curriculum interactions,
  • convince students that there is an active, caring, reliable, competent, and accessible learning facilitator in the course (and within the institution) eager to help them learn and excel,
  • ensure that students are prepared and ready to learn, stay motivated, and be productive across the course, and
  • inspire curiosity about the relevance of the course right from the start.
A notepad with a word "Hello" on it on top of another notepad that has the alphabet on it, various pens laying throughout

We are always looking for ways to improve the start of our courses and over time have found several technologies to be helpful, including, for example, annotation tools like and discussion tools like Flipgrid. Today, we are going to walk you thought why we employ these tools right from the start in our courses.

Annotation tools like allow students to collaboratively annotate documents, articles, websites, and other media. The use of collaborative notes in a class offers students a collection of perspectives, ideas, questions, answers, and resources that are more comprehensive than their individual notes might be. The platform has both a free option and an institutional paid option. The free option works great in most settings and uses a browser plug-in or similar feature to add annotations to the web. This option allows you to set up private groups for different courses or sections (or even small groups of students within large courses) to manage students’ contributions and keep their comments private. In some cases, you can use the free option right over your LMS to have students annotate content pages. The paid version has additional benefits of being able to embed into your LMS and does not require students to sign-up for a free account. The package also allows you to add your own documents such as PDF chapters of open-source texts, journal articles, and more. Perusall is another collaborative annotation type platform that is freely available for instructors to assign readings, videos, podcasts, etc., require engagement, and includes elements for grading. A low-tech option for collaborative annotation is also available by having students use comments in a cloud-based shared file such as Google Docs or Office365.

At the start of a course, the use of a collaborative annotation platform to annotate the course syllabus gets students engaged right away. First, this activity reinforces the habit of reading a course syllabus closely by requiring students to make some contribution by, for example, asking questions, explaining something within the text, or providing links, by awarding low-stakes points to the activity. Second, it allows students to begin to make connections in the class. With collaborative annotation, students can see each other’s contributions and respond to them, offering discussion opportunities that spontaneously occur based on student’s needs and interests rather than contrived discussion boards. Students also get a meaningful connection to the instructor by posing questions and getting a response from the instructor. This helps build rapport with the knowledge that the instructor welcomes questions and is there to help the student learn. At the beginning of a class, these interactions serve as informal way to build the class community, particularly in a fully online course. A third benefit is that by reviewing the contributions that students make to the annotations, the instructor gets to see which aspects of the syllabus are somewhat unclear right away. Sometime when presenting syllabi in the classroom or leaving students to review it on their own, students don’t know what questions they have in the moment, or don’t want to ask them. Using an annotation assignment requires students to think about the content more than a surface level skim they might usually take. Finally, if collaborative annotation is integrated throughout your course, annotation of the syllabus is a low-stakes, relatively simple way to get students oriented to an activity and technology they will use throughout in the semester. This also allows the instructor to identify and smooth out any kinks in the process or troubleshoot problems students are having in completing the task. Again, this occurs in a low-stakes environment to relieve the pressure that technical problems can have on activities worth more points.

Talking bubbles superimposed on one another symbolizing a conversation

Flipgrid, a free multimedia collaboration tool, offers an engaging and creative way to build course community and demonstrate instructor presence in start-of-course introductions, as well as continuing discussions and collaborations across the course. For example, rich, multimedia introductions afford students the opportunity to introduce themselves, describe their program of study and career goals, discuss why they are taking the class and what they hope to learn, and share how their previous experiences might offer them unique insights on what we are going to learn together. To make things especially fun and interesting, you might also encourage students to share their pets, family, friends, favorite stuff, or favorite places (and perhaps even offer a low-stakes bonus for being especially creative and fun). Of course, instructors should participate in the introductory discussions and comment on the introductions of others. In some cases, that might mean distributing your time across the first several weeks to respond to each student in a meaningful way. To promote rich, back-and-forth discussions, you can also require meaningful welcome to class comments on the introductions of other learners and (as appropriate) courtesy comments back to those who respond to your introduction with questions. It is especially helpful from the instructor perspective that Flipgrid offers a customizable rubric feature, and you can pin or spark especially provocative videos and select videos for a class mix tape. The introductions grid also serves as a helpful resource to refresh your memory on students before any one-on-one discussions. It’s great to reflect again on their major, career expectations and dreams, and relevant experiences and it helps to show that you are making efforts to address each students’ unique needs and perspectives. Plus, if you want to focus on inclusion right from the start, you can model sharing your pronouns and require students to do the same.

It’s rare that we use one-and-done technologies. Flipgrid, like, can be used across a course. For example, you might:

  • publish brief videos to update students as they embark on new learning modules,
  • create a Q&A grid for as-needed back-and-forth discussions,
  • create a water cooler grid for more personal chat and sharing,
  • use grids for online gallery walks, jigsaw classroom activities, or other student engagement techniques, and
  • use grids to promote critical thinking discussions.

Over the years, Flipgrid has expanded its features and, as a result, offered more possibilities for the classroom. For example, Flipgrid now offers a Discovery Library with over 35,000 discussion starters from curators across the world, including museums, the media, and more. Flipgrid also offers a robust whiteboard feature that could even be used for online lecture videos. Flipgrid is available as a web tool and as an iOS and Android app. To help students excel in Flipgrid, you are urged to demonstrate how to join a grid, post a video topic, and post comments. Students should be encouraged to have fun and play with some of the many features available, including:

  • uploading your own video,
  • applying filters (including some that can be used by especially shy students),
  • adding text, stickers, photographs, and URLs,
  • using a frame, and
  • sharing via a whiteboard.
A computer screen with videos pulled up
In conclusion, our teaching philosophies hinge especially on helping students get off to a great start. A robust, fun, and positive course orientation can help make sure all students are prepared to learn and succeed. Ultimately, the technology we share works for us because they align with our learning outcomes and goals. We want our students to collaborate and think critically in meaningful ways and and Flipgrid support those endeavors. However, don’t just take our word for it, try it out for yourself and capture feedback to guide how and if you use technology. But regardless, do invest serious time to thinking about how you help your students get on (and stay on) your course’s learning train.


Dr. Bob DuBois is the Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies and a teaching professor in psychology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK). Bob also teaches psychology as an adjunct online professor at Spokane Community College in Washington. Prior to joining UTK, Bob taught psychology full-time at Waukesha County Technical College in Wisconsin. Bob earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 2012. He has also earned master’s degrees in counseling psychology and industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Texas at Tyler and Western Kentucky University at Bowling Green, respectively. Before teaching psychology full-time, Bob worked as a consultant in industrial/organizational psychology in military and commercial settings.

Dr. Ciara Kidder is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Marian University in Wisconsin, where she has taught for the past 5 years. Prior to teaching at Marian, Ciara earned a Ph.D. in Psychology with an emphasis in Social Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Texas at El Paso in 2016. She earned her MA in Experimental Psychology at the same institution in 2014, and graduated with a BS in Psychology from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania in 2010. Ciara is the founder and editor of The Novice Professor blog which bring together authors from various institutions and different teaching experience to share ideas, thoughts, and research about teaching. She loves teaching online, open educational resources, creating infographics, Taylor Swift, coffee, her family, and being a Ravenclaw.