6 Pre-Course Activities for Online Learning

Robin H. Kay


None of the 15 books I consulted focusing on online learning emphasized or suggested the practice of engaging in pre-course activities. However, considerable research indicates that per-course activities can significantly improve the quality of the learning experience (Edwards, 2012; Gay, 2016; Gesielt, 2016; Ma, 2020; Perkins, 2010). Many students, especially those new to online learning, benefit from pre-course information to reduce anxiety. I have found pre-course activities and information helpful for at least ten reasons.

  1. Intro Video. An instructor video introduction helps build teacher presence early (Garrison, 2011).
  2. Overview video. A short course overview video helps students understand the big picture of a course.
  3. Course outline. Making the course outline available before class starts offers a detailed understanding of a course.
  4. Review assessment. Asking students to review how they will be assessed (e.g., assignments and/or tests), especially when I add video descriptions, saves considerable time in the first class. Instead of walking through each assessment, we can focus on learning.
  5. Background survey. With a background survey, I can gauge student interests, address their individual needs, and build social presence and community (Garrison, 2011).
  6. Previous knowledge survey. With this survey, I can prepare for and adjust learning outcomes and strategies to improve cognitive presence (Bransford, 2000; Garrison, 2011) and stimulate critical thinking (Fullan, 2013).
  7. Learning outcomes survey. In this step, I ask students what they wish to learn in the course. I can then adjust learning goals to meet the community’s needs, thereby building social and teaching presence (Garrison, 2011).
  8. A technology survey can ensure that students have the right technology and software to be successful.
  9. LMS tutorial video. A series of short videos showing students how to use the Learning Management System (LMS) can reduce cognitive load (Pass et al., 2003) before starting a course. Instead of being overwhelmed by how to use the LMS, they can focus on learning.
  10. Content/procedure videos. Providing students with a playlist of content or procedure videos to support learning helps students plan. It can also develop teacher presence (Garrison, 2011) if the instructor creates the videos and reassures students that scaffolding is available (Vygotsky, 1978).

General Guidelines

I offer ten suggestions to develop valuable pre-course materials or activities for online learning courses.

  • Instructor Introduction. Online courses, particularly if they are asynchronous, can be impersonal. Creating a video, infographic, or written introduction helps students understand who the teacher is. I prefer video introductions as they convey more information.
  • Course Introduction. Creating a big picture video of a course is an excellent idea to help students understand what they will be learning and whether they want to take the course (if they have a choice). Adding information about how typical class runs helps reduce anxiety, especially for students who have never learned online.
  • Course Outline. Providing a clear course outline (see Course Outline chapter) helps students acquire a detailed understanding of a course. Adding a scavenger hunt (e.g., filling in a Google form) would likely engage students more and ensure that they reviewed essential information.
  • Assessment. Most students are anxious about evaluations and want to know how they will be assessed in a course. Providing a clear description of all assessments (I include a video description), associated learning outcomes, their value, and due dates help students (a) understand what is expected and (b) make an informed choice about whether they wish to take a course.
  • Background Survey. Asking students to fill in a background information form is especially helpful for addressing individual needs. For example, in my Master of Education class, I ask students their primary area of focus (e.g., Elementary, Middle, or Secondary School) to create viable learning groups and maximize flexibility in assessment and instruction. I also ask students about their strengths and areas of growth. Ask anything that might be relevant to student success.
  • Knowledge Survey. In certain courses (e.g. statistics, math, science), I send out a pre-course survey to understand what students know and areas I may need to review, especially in the first few weeks.
  • Learning Outcomes Survey. Most courses have pre-set general learning outcomes. However, some flexibility may exist regarding the details. Surveying students about their learning expectations in a course is a great way to customize general learning goals to meet their needs. Additionally, students feel that they are involved and control their learning.
  • Technology Check. Sending out a checklist of technology requirements is essential to effective participation in a course. If a student does not have the right technology or software, the first week can be stressful. Spending substantial time working through individual student technical issues is not ideal for starting a course. If you are using any specialized software or apps (e.g., a wiki, a blog site, webpage creator), you can invite students to practice with these tools before class begins.
  • Learning Management System (LMS). Like technology, it is wise to send information and perhaps simple support videos to ensure students know where to go and how to access essential learning materials for the course. Preparing students ahead of time helps them focus on learning in the first class, not administrative issues.
  • Support Material. When teaching online, many teachers use videos to support learning. I like to create a playlist and share it with the students. Even if I have not made all the videos, students quickly get a sense of content, my teaching approach, and my willingness to offer support.


Activity 1: Background Survey


Understanding students’ interests, goals, and background is essential to designing a meaningful, robust online course. For example, I like to group students with similar teaching backgrounds for certain activities in my courses. Having this teaching background information ahead of time helps me create more purposeful and effective breakout room activities.


To conduct a background survey, identify critical information that will help design and run the online classroom. Send out this survey using Google Forms or another simple survey tool. Alternatively, I have tried another approach that worked particularly well with my higher education students.

  • I used a shared Google Sheet where every student can add their information AND see the response from other students.
  • I try not to ask personal questions so no one would feel embarrassed, and I leave the option of not responding.
  • Here are the key questions I ask students:
    • Name
    • Area of Focus/Expertise
    • One or two passions/interests
    • Main strengths
    • Areas for growth.

With this approach, the teacher and students get a sense of the entire learning community. Sometimes we go over this information in the first class to help build a social presence.

Possible Challenges

The main challenge for conducting a background survey is selecting the right questions based on specific course content and the student population. You would likely ask different questions for secondary school than you would for higher education students. Balancing questions that bring out the community’s personality and aren’t too revealing is tricky. Using a survey helps reduce this risk because the information gathered is only known to the instructor.

Activity 2: Knowledge Survey


Understanding how much your students know before a course helps adjust learning outcomes and teaching approaches. It is best not to assume that all students have the same knowledge base because you will have to modify your teaching on the fly. A pre-course knowledge survey helps (a) focus on required per-course knowledge and (b) ascertain whether students have this knowledge. You may even send this survey well ahead of time, with instructional resources to guide and support less-knowledgeable students.


I follow four steps to develop a prerequisite knowledge survey:

  1. Reflect on the key concepts and learning goals in a course and the essential pre-knowledge required to succeed.
  2. Itemize this list, create a survey and send it to students. If possible, send this survey out well ahead of time. You could also send a diagnostic quiz to assess prerequisite knowledge.
  3. Summarize responses and identify areas of weakness.
  4. Focus on prerequisite areas in the first few weeks (in-class or as home activities) or send support videos for students to review

Possible Challenges

The biggest challenge could be knowing the course subject area well enough to understand the requisite knowledge required by students to succeed. Some courses may not have a straightforward solution to this challenge, so instructors will be stuck with a trial and error approach. A second challenge might be not having enough time to address students’ knowledge gaps. I would suggest that support videos could be beneficial, but students will be required to look at them early in a course or fall behind quickly.

Activity 3: Learning Outcomes Survey


Most secondary school and higher education courses include pre-established learning goals, often articulated in a general format. The specific sub-goals and learning activities selected to reach the broad learning outcomes are more flexible. Based on the description, one community-building exercise is to send a pre-course survey asking students what they would like to learn in the course. Collecting student responses and explicitly including them in the course overview helps students feel control over their learning.


Creating a Learning Outcomes Survey is relatively simple. Include the course title and course description and ask students what they would like to learn in the course. Organize the list of specific learning goals identified by students and integrate them with the general learning outcomes. That way, students will see their input incorporated into the course. Some student-identified learning goals may not follow within the purview of the course. Explain to students that while you will not be pursuing these specific learning outcomes as a class, they could pursue these goals through independent study or extensions of their assignments. In summary, gathering desired learning goals helps students feel part of a learning community.

Activity 4: Technology Check


Students and instructors need the right technology to participate in an online course. If they have a poor internet connection, a small monitor, and/or a poor microphone, they will not fully participate in a virtual classroom. Moreover, students with technology challenges during class will slow down learning for the entire class – I’ve seen it happen many times. Sending out a required technology checklist before the first class is a good preemptive step to ensure a smooth start to the course.


Determining the right technology and software on the technology/software checklist will partially depend on the course content, but here are a few good starting items to consider.

  • Internet Speed. Focus on bandwidth here – Download and upload speed. Download speed is how fast information (e.g., videos, images and text) is loaded onto a computer when you click a link. As of 2022, I recommend at least 50 Mbps per person in your house. If you are going wireless (which most people do), you could be competing with others in your household.
  • Microphone. There are several good headsets out there ranging from CAD$30 to $125 (I’m sure you could pay more. Logitech is a brand that has worked well for me with a $30 to $60 price tag. If you want to sound like a radio announcer, Plantronics ($100) is wonderful. If you do not like the clunky headphones-over-the-head- look, consider a Blue Snowball (CAD$50) Yeti StandAlone microphone (CAD$130). Another option is using a Mac computer, which is very expensive but has decent audio and video (but a small screen).
  • Webcam. Usually, the webcam from a laptop will work well, but students need to ensure that it works.
  • Lighting. Remind students that they require sufficient lighting, usually located in front of them so that others can see them.
  • Monitor. While not essential, I would suggest at least one 27” monitor. That will allow students to open multiple screens during class. That said, a relatively large laptop screen will suffice.
  • Mouse. If students have a laptop, I strongly suggest purchasing a wireless mouse for efficiency and agility.
  • Google Tools. Students need to sign up for a Gmail account to have access to the Google Workspace tools (e.g., Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides, Google Sites) is critical to the success of most well-run online courses. This set of tools is invaluable for collaborating inside and outside the virtual classroom.
  • Screen Recording Software. Students will likely need a software tool for creating videos. Screencast-O-Matic, Snagit for Education, Screencastify, and Quicktime are good options.

General Resources


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press.

Edwards, & Faulkner, S. (2013). Pre-course preparation in a virtual world: An evaluation. British Journal of Midwifery, 21(11), 814–817. https://doi.org/10.12968/bjom.2013.21.11.814

Gay, G. H. (2016). An assessment of online instructor e-learning readiness before, during, and after course delivery. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 28(2), 199-220. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12528-016-9115-z

Geisler, K. R., & Geisler, N. S. (2016). Overcoming inexperience using active education. In, Proceedings, international snow science workshop, Breckenridge, Colorado (pp. 1049-1053). https://arc.lib.montana.edu/snow-science/objects/ISSW16_P3.26.pdf

Ma, Cui, C., Yu, J., Guo, J., Yang, G., & Yin, Y. (2020). Multi-task MIML learning for pre-course student performance prediction. Frontiers of Computer Science, 14(5). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11704-019-9062-8

Paas, F., Renkl, A., Sweller, J. (2003). Cognitive load theory and instructional design: Recent developments. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 1-4. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15326985EP3801_1

Perkins, Fullerton, J. N., Davis-Gomez, N., Davies, R. P., Baldock, C., Stevens, H., Bullock, I., & Lockey, A. S. (2010). The effect of pre-course e-learning prior to advanced life support training: A randomised controlled trial. Resuscitation, 81(7), 877–881. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resuscitation.2010.03.019

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes. Harvard University Press.

About the author

Dr. Kay is currently the Dean of and a Full Professor in the Faculty of Education at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Canada.   He has published over 160 articles, chapters, and conference papers in pedagogy, technology in education. He taught computer science, mathematics, learning and development, and educational technology for over 25 years at the high school, college, undergraduate, and graduate levels.  Current projects include research on laptop use in higher education, BYOD in K-12 education, web-based learning tools, e-learning and blended learning in secondary and higher education, video podcasts, scale development, emotions and the use of computers, the impact of social media tools in education, and factors that influence how students learn with technology.  Dr. Kay received his M.A. in Computer Applications in Education at the University of Toronto and his Ph.D. in Cognitive Science (Educational Psychology) at the University of Toronto.  ​


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Thriving Online: A Guide for Busy Educators Copyright © 2022 by Robin H. Kay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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