Your  Account:

Pre-Semester Instruction Checklist

This semester may present some unique challenges and opportunities for faculty. In order to support faculty we have created this checklist to help you view your course in the framework of distance-learning during a difficult time. This checklist is a companion to the guide, Establishing Student Expectations in a Virtual Learning Environmenta collaborative effort of Academic Senate, the Dean of Students Office, the Office of Inclusive Excellence, IITS, and the Faculty Center. 

The Dean of Students also offers resources for working with students in a virtual environment. 

  • Develop clear communication practices.

    This guide to Communicating with Students: Guidance and Templates is good starting point.  

    Useful Tip #1: Communicate Early 

    Email students prior to the first class. Some students have questions about when the class will begin, when the online resources will be available, and if they have to do anything before the first class. The uncertainty can add to their anxiety. This communication should address:

    • General welcoming message.
    • When the class meets for the first time?
    • When they will have access to the course website?
    • Will you expect them to do anything prior to the first meeting or website being open? 
    • Any special considerations about the availability or acquisition of course materials.
    • If you are contacting students on the waitlist, what is your advice for them?




    Useful Tip #2: Establish an instructional communication plan

    It is important to establish communication protocols early in your class. This checklist of questions will help inform the initial email to students.

    • What primary method communication do you intend to use with students?
    • What applications or sources are students expected to check and how often? Do not assume students know to check their campus email at all, let alone with a certain frequency. 
    • What alternate methods can students use to contact you? While you do not want to overwhelm students with options, it is recommended that you have multiple ways students can contact you. 
    • How long after a student sends you a message should they expect a reply?
    • How long after that should a student contact you if they do not receive a reply?
    • Have you modeled how students should contact you if they do not receive a reply? Think about helping socialize them into writing a polite follow up inquiry as they may need to in their career.
    • How often will you be making announcements/communicating with the entire class? 
    • Have you communicated/modeled how students should correspond with you? This can include basic etiquette or encouraging them to look for information such as due dates etc in a specific location before asking.
    • Have you communicated why students should reach out and your willingness to help? Oftentimes we assume students know why they should reach out to faculty. However, we have a number of first-generation students and others with non-traditional educational experiences. It can be helpful to encourage them to reach out for help or tell them when they can reach out for guidance. For example, tell them they do not have to wait until they are lost, or they can contact you to ask questions about concepts they understand but would like to expand their knowledge .



  • Set clear and attainable expectations for student success.

    Take time to explain how your course is designed to meet your learning outcomes:

    Student data from fall 2020 showed that students commented that they felt “they were teaching themselves” and that they were doing “busy work”. Some of this might have to do with the fact that students did not understand the learning-centered approach of virtual learning or did not understand how assignments were scaffolding or building toward important skills and knowledge in the course. Given that most students are less familiar with virtual learning, take the time to be explicit and explain to them elements of your course contribute to their learning.

    Useful Tip # 1: 

    Create a video that walks students through, not only where to find assignments, but also tells them what techniques you would use to succeed if you were a student in your own class. You can remind them that while this is not the only way to succeed, seeing your suggestions will help them focus on a relatable strategy. Additionally, it will also subtly tell them what elements of your course are important for success (e.g. focusing on keywords in the text). 

    Useful tip # 2:

    In addition to providing support and resources, take the time to teach them about and promote  a growth mindset so they see struggle as natural. This will help build resilience and help-seeking behavior and make it more likely that students utilize resources such as office hours or campus learning centers. See how it has been implemented in the CSU system along with a video to introduce the topic and classroom activities 


  • Review your course with an equity-minded lens.

    Faculty at CSUSM do a good job considering these issues and teaching to our student population. However, the distance-learning mode presents unique challenges and opportunities to support all of our students.

    Useful Tip: Incorporate SDSU guide to equity Source: SDSU Center for Teaching & Learning 

    Not all students have computers, internet, and quiet workspaces.  Covid-19 means that some students are caring for family-members, homeschooling children, out of work, or working demanding hours.  This is hard for us; it is hard for them, too.

    Help your students succeed by offering alternatives

    • Discussion boards or recorded presentations are pretty good alternatives for students who can't participate in real-time discussions
    • Essays or alternative problem sets might substitute for timed, multiple choice exams for students with weak internet, schedule conflicts, or who are living in another time-zone.


    Be transparent

    • Tell students what they need to do to be successful in your class: Remind them how to approach readings or homework, take and organize notes, and prepare for exams


    Be intrusive and flexible

    • Data reveal that the vast majority of students are more successful in in-person classes than in virtual classrooms, but most students do better in virtual classrooms that have at least some real-time component. Your students will do better if you have at least some synchronous, video-conferencing activities and requirements.

    • Being intrusive means contacting students who have missed assignments or real-time sessions - don't wait for them to get far behind. Ask students if they need help, and encourage them to ask what they need. SDSU is trying to make support services and equipment available for students.

    • Being flexible means reducing penalties for late work. Consider telling them that they have to ask for extensions, but that you will grant them if they do ask.  This may help them get better at asking for what they need.



  • Ensure accessibility for all students and accommodate student needs.

    There are three aspects of accessibility that are key here – accessibility for students with physical impairments that may create challenges for reading/seeing/hearing digital files and content, accessibility for students with psychological and/or learning differences that require certain accommodations such as extra time to process materials or additional exam time, and accessibility for students with limited access to computers or stable internet service.

    Taking the following steps will ensure an accessible virtual learning environment:

    • Ensure that there is an alternative format available ie, transcript for audio or closed captioning on media
    • Provide approved accommodations for students who present accommodation letters from the Disability Support Services office
    • Confirm that content is mobile-friendly
    • Consider variation in students’ access to computers and stable internet service


    Useful tip: At the start of the semester students will send you their paperwork from DSS. While we are busy, it is helpful to students to send a quick note that acknowledges you have received the paperwork. Additionally, you may consider including discussions of how their accommodations will be implemented into the course. Be empathetic that these concerns can cause anxiety for students, so even reassuring them that you will work out the details two weeks before the exam will reassure them that they will not have to scramble.

    Resources for creating an accessible online classroom environment:

  • Check your security settings for video conferencing.

    Useful tips: It is important that both and your students have the most up-to-date version of Zoom and that you are updating regularly throughout the semester. This link will help you and students upgrade. It is important before beginning the semester to reacquaint yourself with Zoom security settings as many new features have been added to improve security and ease of use. Many issues that caused concern early in the process (we heard horror stories) have been addressed. If you need help, please feel free to contact the IDS team for one-on-one help.

  • Remember that you may have students new to campus in your courses.

    This semester is going to be especially unusual/challenging to students who are in their first semester at CSUSM. Literature shows that sense of belonging and student engagement are predictors of both basic success measures (graduation, retention, equity gaps) as well as post-graduation success. 

    Useful Tip: This spring CSUSM is planning on accepting 300 new transfer students. Additionally, many students that were new in the fall may have not had the time to familiarize themselves with campus resources or technology. So it would be helpful to treat this semester similarly to the fall and do not assume knowledge. Offer explanation, help, and resources with this in mind.

  • Set boundaries to protect your time and mental health.

    Useful tip This semester is a difficult time for our students and many faculty want to go above and beyond to help them succeed. Some faculty are spending 10-15 additional hours per week to help students. While supporting students is important and ultimately time present per week is up to individual faculty. Dr Betina Scott shared some tips on how to manage these issues.


    • Dedicated time to discuss the syllabus at varying points during the course, and dedicate time during the first class session to review assignments and answer questions.
    • When students ask to meet about assignments on the syllabus, ask them to identify the section and page of the syllabus. This ensures they have read it, and provides a record to remind you to make changes, if necessary. 

    Office Hours:

    • Set time increments for office hours so that students are coming prepared with the questions, and share this information with students. 20 minute blocks should be ample time to discuss any issues about assignments, grades or questions about the content, and allows for you to share your time with all students.


    • Start class with 5-minute recap of the last session.
    • Build in time after a break to recap the first part of the class. 
    • Create a “parking lot” in the class for students to post questions or topics they want to cover. These can be things that come up in the lecture, or questions about assignments. This allows you to address questions to several students at a time. 
      • Parking lots can be done using a Google Doc, Padlet or other outside website, or you could use the chat feature in Zoom.  
    • PowerPoints are uploaded immediately after class.


    Campus Resources:

  • Reflect on students’ experiences in fall courses.

    We heard many concerns from students. Much of that feedback has been incorporated into the content above (communications, DSS etc). However this section has suggestions based on feedback students provided in the fall student survey. 

    • Please do not change the format of your course once it is published in the catalog. Students reported that some instructors switched from synchronous to asynchronous during the semester, or vice versa. Once the format for the course is chosen, it’s important to stick with it as students build the remainder of their schedules with those expectations. 
    • Assignments should ideally be posted at the beginning of the course with due dates. Students should be given at least several weeks notice so they can accurately plan their time. It is difficult for students to follow faculty’s instructions to “stay organized” when assignments aren’t posted with enough lead time. Several students cited examples of being given an assignment days before it was due.
    • Be clear with instructions. Remember students are taking several courses that may be organized and presented differently. Therefore it is important to explain expectations and assignments in a clear, concise, and parsimonious way. Consider making short videos to explain assignments. Also consider providing a single checklist, calendar, or sheet with all due dates. Provide multiple links or reminders about weekly work. 
    • Students expressed platform fatigue from having to learn so many different programs. One student told me that every platform has a learning curve and that time spent learning those platforms was time they were not spending on the substantive parts of the class. While faculty have the freedom to innovate and introduce new tools, please be mindful of the cumulative effect of this. If you are using multiple applications or technological tools, consider introducing the tool early and giving a low-stakes assignment the week before you intended to use it in the course. This gives students time to try it out and time to work out technological issues without penalty. 
    • Consider using Cougar Courses as the central hub for your class. Even if you are using a different system for your course, having a “home base” in Cougar Courses helps students stay organized and minimizes cognitive load.