I remember the first moments of 2nd grade like it was yesterday. I was starting in a new school, and it felt like all my previous education experience had meant nothing. There was a new building, new teachers, new rules, new classmates, and a new life. I worried there would even be a new alphabet to learn.

I hoped I wouldn’t stand out as the new kid, but after breaking my wrist in a tree-climbing accident that previous summer, my bright, green cast set me apart from my classmates. Nobody else had a 4-inch rattail as part of their hairstyle either.

Waiting outside the school building, I scanned my new classmates. All the other students knew each other from kindergarten and first grade. Their relationships were deeply established, inside jokes had already been developed, and even the kids with the strongest cases of “cooties” had already been diagnosed. Nervously standing alone, I awaited the teacher’s instructions to form a single-file line and enter the building.

As timid as I was, I remember walking into an unfamiliar classroom to find my desk with my name already written on it, giving me a small but powerful sense of belonging. My teacher gave us our first task: a worksheet asking us about our favorite foods, books, and school subjects. I remember thinking, “I know this stuff.  This isn’t so bad.” After we finished answering the questions, we were allowed to use colored pencils to give the worksheet some life. And boy, did I love coloring

Only thirty minutes into my life at a new school, I had felt like my teacher had created a safe space for me. With my own desk, an opportunity to reflect on my life, and a chance to be creative, an environment which had seemed overwhelmingly scary suddenly felt more comfortable.

Fast forward two months later, I was a joyful little schoolboy, my cast covered in the signatures of my classmates (my new friends), and my new school felt like home.

While my 2nd grade classroom and an online learning environment may seem like different contexts, learners can experience the same emotional anxiety when entering into an unfamiliar learning environment. The first moves my second teacher made were pivotal in shifting my initial impression of a new school, and the first moves you make in designing and facilitating an online course are just as important.  

Here are some best practices to make sure your learners feel both welcomed and confident that they’ll find success in your online course:

1. Start with an Introductory Week (Week 0)

Many courses on NovoEd start with an introductory week, where learners aren’t expected to engage with content right away.  Instead, they are asked to reflect on their own learning experiences and develop an online identity. Tasks such as completing a reflective survey and completing their profile give your learners an early sense of both belonging and accomplishment. Additionally, it’s a chance for your learners to learn how to navigate and use the environment (similar to getting a tour of a new school building or the rules of a classroom).

2. Use an Introductory Discussion

In an unfamiliar environment with unknown classmates, it may be difficult for learners to initially speak up and present their ideas.  Instead of beginning discussions with a controversial topic, the first discussion should be introductory, where learners are asked to share a bit about themselves and their goals for the course.  This practice results not only in revealing the course community to itself, but also gives learners a relatively risk-free opportunity to speak up in a public space, creating a stronger sense of confidence in sharing ideas using this new online medium.

3. Use Custom Profile Questions to Facilitate Reflection and Connections

While questions like favorite foods or movies were appropriate for 2nd graders, you can ask more content specific questions to your learners depending on your course topic. Asking things like “what is your level of confidence with the concept of _____” or “Rate on a scale of novice to expert your knowledge about _____”.  This gives your learners a chance to reflect on their skills and assures them that they’re not expected to know everything. When profiles are public for everyone’s viewing, learners with similar levels of skills sets can engage with each other for support, or seek out more experienced classmates for advice.

4. Set Clear Expectations

In the same way I learned how to get an A in spelling (a score of 90%), let your learners know what is required for successfully completing your course.  Tell them what the expected workload may look like as well as what strategies they may use to allot time to complete their coursework. More information provided upfront will mitigate learners dropping out due to poorly managed expectations.

5. Share Yourself with the Community

I remember my second-grade teacher playing the guitar for us, making our classroom more musical and enjoyable.  In an online setting, showcase the best parts of your personality by sharing your personal stories and insights early on. Your learners will develop a sense of connection not only with their classmates but with you as an instructor or facilitator. Post frequently to the discussions and comment on your learners’ posts.  The more time you invest in your learners, the more they’ll invest in your course.

In sum, imagine your online learners as awkward, nervous second graders entering a new school and you will continue to develop the empathy necessary to guide them through the potentially unfamiliar online world. Thanks to the environment my second grade teacher provided, I felt immediately comfortable in 2nd grade. With these five practices, you can provide that same comfort to your online learners to help create a community at the beginning of your course.