The first day of class can be nerve-wracking for many students. In addition to their questions about the course material and requirements, they may set foot on school grounds wondering: Will I get along with my instructors? If I’m struggling, who can help me? Will I have things in common with others in my classroom? Will I be able to make new friends? With whom should I study? Where should I eat lunch? Did I choose the right outfit? These questions pop up because, to some degree, most of us are concerned about making a good first impression on others.

In the online setting, students may not have to worry about lunch buddies or clothing choices—yet, it’s still possible to make decisions that have a positive effect on how others view them as individuals. Though this may seem superficial to some, ultimately it’s not; the way a student presents himself or herself can impact the way classmates work with and interact with them. This, in turn, can impact the student’s attitude towards the course, as well as his or her participation and success.

The way a student communicates with others plays a large role in creating a positive impression in an online course. Ryan Watkins and Michael Corry provide several tips in E-Learning Companion: A Student’s Guide to Online Success, Fourth Edition, that can help students create an impression that reflects an attitude of responsibility, studiousness, openness, and respect for others. We’ve summarized these suggestions below—share them with your students:

  • Review your e-mails and discussion board posts for proper spelling and grammar. If your messages are full of typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors, others may think that you pay less-than-optimal attention to your coursework as well.
  • Consider the social skills you’d use in person, and adapt them to the online setting. For example: Would you walk up to someone you didn’t know and immediately ask, “Can I borrow your notes?” Likely not; it could easily be perceived as rude. The same principles apply online: better to first demonstrate genuine interest in the person and then discuss any requests you have.
  • Provide your contact information (e.g., a preferred e-mail account) so that others know how to reach you. Offering your information can let others know you are open to interaction and relationship building.
  • If a message from a fellow student seems unnecessarily terse or sarcastic, recall that you may be missing an important element of communication not often readily apparent in online interactions: nonverbal cues. (Also remember that sarcasm, slang, and some forms of humor don’t necessarily “translate” well in written communication; thus, it can be wise to steer away from them when speaking with fellow students and—especially—instructors.)
  • Communicate as clearly as you can regarding your intentions and next steps (e.g., “Once I’ve received your contribution to the project, I’ll send an e-mail confirming that I have it.”). If you are working with others in a group, make proposals and allow for feedback to ensure your suggestions work for everyone involved (e.g., “I suggest that we meet to discuss our project on Wednesdays at 2. Can everyone please confirm that this fits your schedule, or offer alternate days and times?”). (Watkins and Corry, pp. 120-125)


Reference: Watkins, Ryan and Corry, Michael. 2014. E-Learning Companion: A Student’s Guide to Online Success. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Want to provide your students with additional suggestions for successful participation in online coursework? Share our previous post: “What Personal Attributes Contribute to an Online Learner’s Success?” 

Do you have additional communication tips for students in online courses? Share your ideas below or send them to thinktank@cengage.com