Your Course Communication Strategy

Communicating is paramount in any course—this is especially true at a distance where even incidental contact is absent. Good communication correlates strongly with positive student feedback. The materials and content in your course could be entirely mute if students don’t know fully how you expect they interact with them.

You will want when and how you communicate with students to be authentic to you and your course. Much as you want the materials and activities of a course to align with your course objectives, you want how you communicate to align with you.

Decide what’s right for you…

Take a moment to consider what communication strategy is most authentic to you.

For now, think of this in general terms what is your “style” of communication? Are you a better listener or informer? Do you prefer one-on-one conversation or group-think? Can you be more often found waiting for others to pose questions or proactively providing answers?

Consider what you’ll need to communicate, to whom, how, and when.

As one example: I need to provide the instructions for lab and safety information to each section. The instructions need to be transparent because the sections will be at different places in the text. The safety information has to match the language in the safety manual. Students need to have received and comprehend this information at least a week before lab.

Consider what method you would follow to communicate with your students about these materials. Put another way: What would you like communication to look like in this course?

One method you may use for deciding on communication tools is the “SAMR” (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition) model.

Finally (and this is the step that’s easy to forget), look again at your workload and consider your teaching style. As an example, do you have final papers due in four different courses in the same week? You’ll want to make sure you have the capacity to be true to your own teaching. If you’re the sort of person who would like to do one-on-one conferences leading up to the final paper, that’s something to take into account.

In summary:

  • Consider what is authentic
  • Consider what is realistic
  • You may wish to use the SAMR model as a way of approaching this problem
  • But remember to keep your workload in mind

… then, match that to the tools available.

Return to the SAMR model or another means of reflecting on your decision as needed. Consider these options (and a few of their trade-offs) for communicating with students:


  • A "distribution list" will allow you to send a message to your entire class at once.
  • Familiar to you and to students.


  • One-on-one communication can get "noisy" and relies on the class list in SIS or Canvas (not Outlook).
  • Media limited.


  • Engage the whole class or specific groups of students.
  • Keep related things together.
  • Familiar in principle to students.
  • Less formal.


  • Requires regular/frequent interaction for best results.
  • Small learning curve in Canvas initially.
  • Task needs clarification.
  • Less formal.


  • Intuitive and in Canvas.
  • Alert the whole class or sections of students all at once.
  • Allows for rich media (video messages, images, etc.)
  • Students get notified.
  • Allows for student comments (optional).


  • Students can disable email notifications—but still see announcements when in Canvas.
  • Can get noisy with frequent use.

(E.g., Zoom or Teams)


  • Feels more like being in the classroom.
  • Sessions can be recorded for review (or those who miss).
  • Varying levels of interactive options (whiteboard, breakout groups, chat, polls, etc.)


  • Steeper learning curve the first time.
  • Relies on a good connection and technology.
  • Logistically, some students cannot make it to synchronous sessions.


  • Intuitive and familiar to students.
  • Easy to use.
  • Synchronous.
  • A "history" of the chat is available to the entire class making it good for Q&A-type sessions.


  • Synchronous.
  • Whole-class only. Cannot be limited to specific students.


  • Displays course due dates automatically
  • Can add other items (like reminders)


  • Requires "due dates"
  • Only the names of events appear directly on the calendar


  • Create blocks of time for students to sign up to meet one-on-one (e.g. office hours)
  • Can use a "feed" to add these blocks to Outlook


  • Required additional communication so students know how and to use them.

Finally, let students know.

Make the necessary preparations for your selected technologies and techniques. All the while, be sure to keep your course information updated. At the minimum, you will want to let students know which tools you’ll be using, for what, when, and how to get support if they need it.

Example: I will be posting twice-weekly announcements in Canvas to help you stay on task and remind you of upcoming due dates. I ask that you reply to these announcements with questions you may have so we can clarify any sticking points as a class. I will reply to announcement comments the next day at the latest. If you need any help with the announcements tool in Canvas, Canvas support can be reached through any of the contact methods in the syllabus.

It is a good idea to have a dedicated Communication Policies page or outlining this information in your syllabus to let students know how and when you will be communicating with them—and how, when, and what they should communicate with you!

An Online Core

What is an online core?

An online core is the center around which your course pivots between the face-to-face and distance environment. Even if you are teaching fully online, you are likely bringing a face-to-face course to the online environment. The purpose of the online core is enable all your learners to achieve full course citizenship regardless of how they are able to participate. There are three elements to the core: communication, content, and assessments.

Communication refers to the ways in which your learners will connect with you and with their fellow students.

Content is the “what” your class is trying to teach. It includes the ideas, skills, and knowledge your course is trying to convey to learners. Content also implies a medium: readings, videos, podcasts, etc.

Assessments refer to the summative – high-stakes, graded – and formative – lower stakes, informal – ways that you will know that students have achieved their learning outcomes.

At the core of the online core

Equivalence is central to the online core. With a course’s essential statement and objectives/learning outcomes in mind, all students should have an equivalent experience. For example, watching a lecture online that other students experienced face-to-face is an equivalent experience if you also build in a way for the online students to ask questions, get clarification, and interact with activities that the face-to-face students experienced, such as a think-pair-share. A core is about building citizenship in your class for all students. While not all students will access your course in the same way, they should have the ability to participate fully. Having multiple means for representing key course concepts means that students who aren’t able to attend or have poor internet connectivity will be able to have at least one way to access course content that is workable for them. From an instructor’s point of view, having multiple means to access content shifts the relationship with the student. Where before the student unable to attend may have seemed like an obstacle to surmount or a problem to solve, now they have become a full member of the class.

This seems really overwhelming… how can I make this manageable?

It is true that adding multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement to all course elements is a daunting (and probably foolish) task. Rather than tackling everything in your course, we recommend that you adopt a “plus-1” approach. Coined by Thomas Tobin and Kirsten Behling, the plus-1 approach encourages instructors to think of the “pinch points” or elements that will disproportionately inhibit the experience of learners in a course. Then add another means of representation, expression, or engagement to shore up those pinch points.

During this continued time of COVID and related precautions, we encourage you to adapt the plus-1 approach to think about all the learning environments your course will serve (face-to-face, mask-to-mask, online, synchronous online, etc.) and look for places where universal design can alleviate the sting of your pinch points.

For example, what would happen if students could not attend a synchronous online session? Perhaps you could add in a way for students to download and watch your video (multiple means of representation) and participate in the class discussion through Canvas (engagement).

How do I add a “plus-1” element?

One way to answer this question is to go to the National Center for Universal Design website which has examples for how to meet the benchmarks for representationexpression, and engagement. These can be useful in brainstorming ways that will work in your class to add universal design elements.

Another way to answer this question is to ask your colleagues and CATL for recommendations.

Types of cores

Not all cores will be the same. At one end of the spectrum will be courses where a face-to-face element is central to the experience of the class. First-year experience classes try to introduce students to the campus itself. Lab courses rely on manipulating specialized equipment. Ensembles build their sound on the blending of voices or instruments. The core for these courses will consider how to make the best use of the physically distant face-to-face environment; how to do as much work online to maximize the face-to-face time; and how to pivot online should we experience another shutdown like last Spring.

At the other end of the spectrum are those classes which do not necessarily require face-to-face interaction. For these classes, it will be important to move the course’s center of gravity to the online environment.

Many courses will fall somewhere in the middle between these two poles. Regardless of the listing in the schedule of classes, building your content, communication, and assessments online will give you maximum flexibility to deal with whatever comes our way this fall.