7 Strategies for a Successful Online Summer Session

Co-Authored by Michelle Dean, Assistant Professor, Special Education and Jaime Hannans, Assistant Professor, Nursing

Summer is almost here … Who’s teaching summer school?

Summer Reading

Summer session in 5 weeks – no problem. From the student perspective what better choice is there than to get some required courses out of the way over in 4-6 weeks instead of 16? The course had to be easier in the summer. Right?

Last summer, we taught 5-week condensed formatted courses usually taught during the regular semester. Although we taught different courses in different programs, we partnered through the Teaching and Learning Innovations Peer Review process using QOLT (Quality Online Learning and Teaching) pleasantly surprised to share commonalities in our planned approach to our online summer courses. The peer review process was new for us both, as well as teaching online in a compressed format.

When courses are in a compressed format, as summer and winter courses often are, the unit requirement doesn’t usually change. There are a number of questions related to the comparison of compressed courses to full semester courses that we discussed in preparing our courses: Is the rigor of the course equivocal? Are there differences in difficulty or success for students? Is the time commitment comparable? Is course delivery different? What is the ‘norm’ in summer session?

Lutes and Davies (2013) found students spent on average 17 minutes less per unit in an 8 week course in comparison to a similar course in a 16-week format. Some literature reports grades are comparable in compressed formats (Weimer, 2013), while other literature reports condensed formats result in higher grades, however, as a reflection of increased knowledge (Lutes and Davies, 2013). This leads to curiosity about learning in the compressed format. The compressed Compressed Bookssession offers students’ repetition of content, frequently visited, in an intense format to aide in higher learning, however, research indicates retention of knowledge after the course ends was found to be equal in either format (Lutes and Davies, 2013). There are also reported differences in course workload in the compressed format dependent upon the content or subject matter for the course and the instructor who teaches the course (Lutes and Davies, 2013; Weimer, 2013).

We both felt common concerns and pressures in the online format wondering if students perceive summer session in a compressed 4-6 week format is less demanding, or expect it to be easier, than during the regular term. Students enrolled in an online course for summer may not be prepared for the investment of time to be successful in the course, balancing life, work, and school as effectively. In addition, faculty may have to creatively rethink how to deliver content, schedule tests, and navigate group activities. In the blended or online format, this can take extensive time and planning.


We found the peer review process using QOLT to be supportive and effective in sharing new perspectives for approaching the changes we were making to our condensed summer online courses. From our experiences last summer, there are additional tips we have for faculty teaching condensed sessions this summer:

  1. Enrollment can drastically change within the first 10 days

Although this may seem like a short time frame, 25% of the class is over, while students are continuing to add and drop your section. Plan your group activities and critical assignments after this add/drop date. Any activities you have in the first 10 days ideally should be activities that a student could make up, and/or catch up on. You might think, “Too bad, they missed the content by adding late”. However, there may be students adding who are on a wait list to get into the class where a spot becomes available only when another student drops. Be flexible – with dramatic enrollment fluctuations, be willing to change the sequence of activities, and to make adjustments as needed.

  1. Be clear about your expectations from Day 1

Students need to know what your expectations are, how many hours you anticipate they will need to be present or working online, and what they need to do to be successful in your class. We suggest you look at your activities, assignments, and expectations to consider how you can encourage students to progress successfully. Advise students to ask for help early and quickly. Divide out larger projects into realistic smaller goals to meet the expected learning outcomes and produce deliverables of quality.

  1. Find ways to gain peer support

Often teaching online can be very lonely. Extensive time to plan and design the course can lead to frustration when you get multiple student inquiries to explain content or reiterate instructions. Reach out to other faculty teaching the same session for peer support. We felt this was crucial for both of us to share frustrations or successes, and learn from one another.

  1. Make use of available resources

Have someone else review your instructions for clarity. Utilize the resources available to your from the Teaching and Learning Innovations team in the FIT studio to help rethink the course design and delivery, or expand your own expertise. Consider participating in the peer review process using QOLT.

  1. Set students up to be accountable

The pace of a 5-week summer course can be overwhelming for students, especially students who thought summer school was going to be a breeze. In our experience, many student questions were the result of not reading directions. An Ask and Answer forum places the accountability on the students—students ask questions and their classmates answer the questions. Consider requiring all students to use the Ask and Answer forum a minimum of three times over the course of the 5-weeks. Another strategy to encourage student accountability is to have students ‘contract’ (by Google survey or other quiz) that they have read and understood the course syllabus and course expectations. Sometimes encouraging students to read and contribute to ‘Community Ground Rules’ for the course can encourage community building and accountability in the first week of interactions, setting the stage for how the course will be conducted.

  1. Maintain an active online presence

Online activities in our courses directly relate to student engagement. As such, we check into the class and engage with students every day. This may be in the form of a comment on Voicethread, answering questions on the Ask and Answer forum, giving students feedback on course activities, or sending out general reminders or updates. Students are working hard to keep up with the pace of the class. When they receive timely feedback and answers to their questions, they feel supported in the learning process. Timely feedback also allows for students to make changes to future assignments or work that often may relate or be prepared in a similar format. This can be challenging for faculty to commit to being online, but if you are able to check in regularly the assessments/grading can be less overwhelming for you as well. Student needs and struggles can be identified earlier to support the student as well. With early feedback, students will quickly identify where they went wrong and make the corrections to their work earlier, sometimes making the evaluation process more efficient for faculty because students gain knowledge about what the expectation was in the assignment or activity.

  1. Design a student-centered, active learning enviornment

We found that a significant proportion of students expected the course to be different. They expected a reading list and a final assignment, with minimal interaction with the professor over the course of the five weeks. Using only one instructional strategy (assigned reading), will not meet the needs of all students. Use multiple modalities (videos, discussion prompts, recorded lectures) to support student learning. Facilitate opportunities for students to interact with each other and to think critically about the content. Provide students with multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning. Humanize their experience to facilitate engagement and maintain interest. Let students know that their learning is important to you. By the end of the course, students will repeatedly thank you for developing meaningful learning activities, and an interesting engaging online course.