Faculty Focus


Managing High-Enrollment Online Courses

Online instructors are being asked to accommodate an increasing number of students in their courses. The challenge is to manage the workload associated with these high-enrollment courses. Susan Fein, eLearning consultant/instructional designer at Washington State University, offered some advice on how to do this.

Replace written activities with objective knowledge checks. “One question that instructors can ask is, ‘Is there a chance that I can replace one or more written activities like a discussion forum or paper with some style of objective questions such as quizzes?’” Fein says. “Quizzes or any objective-style assessment is very good for a couple of things, but the easiest slam dunks are facts, figures, terminology, historical events, who discovered what, definition of acronyms, basic foundation concepts—stuff that has a right and a wrong answer.”

Use peer review. “Instead of the instructor being the only person who does all the grading, consider doing some peer review activities. Perhaps students could review a first draft of a final paper and provide feedback. Peer review will not work if you don’t provide a rubric. The rubric needs to clearly outline to all the students the criteria they need to look at and how to judge the quality of those various criteria,” Fein says.

Use TAs effectively. When teaching high-enrollment online courses, instructors often have teaching assistants who can help grade assignments. One of the challenges of working with TAs is that they often interpret the quality of work differently than the instructor. As with peer review, a rubric is an excellent way to ensure accurate and effective assessment. “Implementing a rubric, even if it’s just for TAs, can be an excellent way to delegate the workload and to make sure the interpretation of the quality of the work is consistent. This minimizes disputes with students over grading concerns where one student got a better grade than another for comparable work because their work was graded by different TAs,” Fein says.

Use threaded discussions judiciously. “One of the things that kind of happened in the evolution of online learning was that we got very focused—and rightly so—on creating community and collaboration and having a lot of interaction. All those are absolutely valid, and I would never suggest that they should go away. But at the same time, I’m not so sure that threaded discussion didn’t get overused to a certain degree. Sometimes educators feel compelled to include discussion forums for every single lesson when in fact that may not be the best way to get the outcomes that you’re looking for. Use them selectively,” Fein says.


Resist the temptation to read and respond to every discussion post. Fein offers several ways to achieve this. One approach is to assign students to facilitate the discussions on a rotating basis. Another is to state in your syllabus that the students are obligated to post a minimum number of original and response posts throughout the semester and that you are going to select and review a random selection of these posts. “Because they don’t know which of those posts you are going to look at, they’ll need to give it their best throughout the course so that they are not graded on that one discussion in which they slacked off,” Fein says.

Another approach is to scan a sample of posts to get an idea of where the discussion is headed and post a high-level directive rather than responding to individual students or conversations.

Streamline feedback. One of the objections some instructors have to automatically graded objective quizzes is that they do not provide students with useful feedback. However, most learning management systems have a feedback feature that allows instructors to program responses to wrong answers. This feedback can point students to resources in the course where the concept was addressed. “That takes a little bit more prep time, but now you’re using that prep time to reach a lot more students,” Fein says.

Instructors often use a set of common phrases when giving students feedback on their assignments. One way to reduce the amount of time it takes to provide feedback is to have a document of stock phrases from which the instructor can copy and paste them as needed rather than having to type them each time they’re used.

Excerpted from Managing High-Enrollment Online Courses Online Classroom, (January 2012): 1, 2.