Starting the new school year (or semester): Herding cats.

Instructure Alumni
Instructure Alumni

Before I get to my beginning-of-semester MO, I'd like to acknowledge the blogs contributed thus far by  @kona ​,  @kmeeusen ​, and  @Chris_Hofer ​:

(A few more than) Five things I do to start the semester right!

5 Things I do to help students get off to a good start!

Five Things to Ensure a Healthy Start to the School Year

You simply can't lose by following their advice.

Now, on to my process.

I liken the period immediately preceding and following the first day of classes as a process of herding cats (a phrase I co-opted from a former colleague).

To set students' expectations and avoid surprises, I communicate early and often. Redundancy is better than scarcity.

  1. Two to three weeks before the first day of classes: Communicate! Using the list of currently-enrolled students, I send an external email to all enrolled students. The email thanks them for enrolling in the course, provides a link to the textbook information, a link to the school's Canvas orientation, a link to a self test for determining suitability for online learning, and a copy of the course syllabus. This email also tells students that the course will be available on the first day of classes and that I will let them know exactly when it becomes available. I then double-check enrollments daily and send the same email individually to new students as they enroll. Sometimes students receive this email and realize they aren't suited for online learning, or the course content isn't quite what they expected, or they signed up for the wrong class. Starting this process two to three weeks before the first day of classes gives them plenty of time to enroll in a different course.
  2. One day before the first day of classes: Communicate! I send an external email reminding students that the course will be available on Canvas the next day, the first day of classes.
  3. The morning of the first day of classes: Communicate! I send an external email informing students that the course is now available in Canvas ("Welcome to the Course!"). This is the email I promised them earlier. In this email, I provide the direct URL to the course home page, tell students that they should bookmark this link and use it to access the course in case the Portal is down (it happens, but Canvas is never down), and inform them that subsequent communications must be conducted with me through the Canvas Inbox. This email also includes a link to the first course announcement, which explains the specifics of the course navigation. At this time, I set an auto reply on my external email that tells students that if they have just sent a message to my external email address, they must resend it to me through the Canvas Inbox if they expect to receive a reply. As much as it pains me to ignore a message (it kills me! it keeps me up at night!), I absolutely stick to this policy, and students learn quickly that I am not kidding.
  4. Daily through the last day of the add-drop period: Communicate! I check for new enrollments, and as they occur, I send them a copy of the "Welcome to the Course!" email, and explain that they are receiving it as a newly-enrolled student in the course. Time is ticking, I tell them.
  5. The day before attendance verification is due, and daily as needed thereafter: Communicate! I check my Canvas course to see which students have not completed the attendance verification assignments (there are three, none of which contribute to the course grade, but all of which must be completed in order to unlock the course), and send them messages both in Canvas and via external email informing them that they must log into the class and complete the attendance verification assignments before I will verify their attendance in the course (this has implications for their financial aid). At this point, I enlist the help of our student support specialist in bringing these students into the fold. We have achieved cohesion--the process of herding cats is behind us--and we can all move forward in the course.

Did I say "communicate" enough times? :smileylaugh: