The Comfort of Routines Online

I take great comfort that every Wednesday morning, without fail, the garbage collectors (or sanitation engineers/waste management professionals) whisk my bins away. The collectors remove evidence of my clumsiness (the time when I dropped and spilled multiple family-size bottles of shampoo, reminiscent of Kevin’s chilli incident from The Office), my frustration (the numerous piles of crumpled recycled paper documenting brainstorming sessions gone awry), and moments of indulgence (the too-many empty cans of Jalapeño-flavour Pringles). This weekly routine offers me the opportunity to start fresh every Wednesday with an empty waste or recycling bin. How do I offer my learners structures and routines and the opportunity to start fresh every week in the online learning environment?

When teaching face-to-face, it’s easy to overlook structures that are familiar and inherent.  For example, every week at a set time and place, students know to enter through the classroom doors and take a seat (Lim, 2003). In an art-history undergraduate course setting, most learners expect to see images and to take notes associated with those images. Readings and writing assignments are the norm. In-person weekly routines such as me scurrying into the room ten minutes before class, jabbing the light panel, grabbing the HDMI cord, patting my pockets for the presentation clicker, and fumbling with the lapel mic establish consistency for my students. My learners know I will spend the first fifteen minutes of class checking in: How is everyone doing? How was the workload last week? Were there any problems locating and comprehending the readings? Students expect a ten-minute break at the top of the hour, and they know I will dedicate the final portion of our face-to-face time reviewing tasks for the upcoming week and presenting the agenda for the following meeting. In online teaching, the structure can become unclear and routines less intuitive for both the instructor and learners.

Articulating Reason and Value

I like to provide my learners with a bird’s-eye view of the course, be it face-to-face or online, at the beginning of the semester. In the syllabus, I insert colour-coded monthly calendars, such as the one shown below. [Note: The calendar has been simplified for this post.]

  • Yellow = Assessment Due Dates
  • Green = Asynchronous Materials Available
  • Blue = Synchronous Webinars
  • Orange = Feedback Available

May 2020 Calendar

The calendar shows that assessments are due on Sundays, new content released on Mondays, live webinars held on Thursdays, and feedback posted on Saturdays. This overview structures my learner’s semester and also establishes my routine for grading, content creation, and reflection. The calendar holds the instructor and learners accountable and reinforces course expectations. During office hours, several students showed me how they printed and posted the calendar on their walls because it helped them stay organized throughout the semester. Structures and routines enhance the flexibility and versatility of the online learning environment.

However, learners may not understand the how and why of the course’s structures and routines. Years ago, a student asked me: Why are assignments due before class? Are the answers being taken up in class, or are the assignments being graded during class time? When I became a course instructor, I shifted many assignment deadlines to Sunday evenings because most students work and attend several other classes during the week. My teaching assistant(s) and I were not going to start grading on the weekend, so why not give our learners a couple of extra days to create an excellent submission rather than one haphazardly thrown together?

Some of the structures and routines that we incorporate are mindless and historical. Kathy Lund Dean and Charles J. Fornaciari (2014) ask: “To what performance-based end are the careful structures we build into courses?” (p. 36). Dean and Fornaciari refer to the example of margins and spacing rules. I recall a conversation when a student asked: Why do we double-space our assignments when the feedback is now typed in the margins instead of handwritten in-between the text? Double-spacing the text does not contribute to the student’s performance. In the following semester, I removed the double-spacing rule from my assignment prompts because the structure adds no value to the learning outcomes. As a bonus, single-spaced text reduces the amount of time that the TA and I spend scrolling through the document. The reasons behind the course’s structures and routines may be apparent to the designer (the instructor), but the logic and its value are not always evident to the students. Articulate the reasons and value of the structures and routines to the learners and be open to suggestions.

Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan (2019) suggest that structure functions as a principle of inclusive teaching. As mentioned in last week’s post, our learners bear multiple identities and experiences. Structures and routines establish the course’s culture and provide tools for navigation. For example, my routine Monday-morning announcements welcome students to a new week and congratulate them on the work completed. The announcement lists links and resources for the week, as well as reminders for upcoming assessments. Flower Darby (2019; 2020) recommends scheduling weekly strategic and highly visible appearances online, such as responding to questions in the discussion forum, posting short videos to clarify misconceptions, and holding office hours according to a schedule or by appointment. I found it useful to create a FAQ page where I compile anticipated and received questions and answers. “Put yourself in your students’ shoes” (Darby & Lang, 2019, p. 127), and help online learners start each week fresh through the comfort of routines.

Works Cited

Darby, F. (2019). How to be a better online teacher advice guide. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Darby, F. (2020). 5 low-tech, time-saving ways to teach online during Covid-19. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Darby, F. & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. Jossey-Bass.

Dean, K. L. & Fornaciari, C. J. (2014). Creating masterpieces: How course structures and routines enable student performance. Journal of Management Education, 38(1), 10–42.

Lim, J. (2003). Essentials: Structure and routine in online courses. Journal of Adventist Education. Reposted on Out on a Lim: Reflection of Learning at a Distance.

Sathy, V. & Hogan, K. A. (2019). Want to reach all of your students? Here’s how to make your teaching more inclusive advice guide. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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