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How to Set Virtual Learning Expectations For Students

As an educator, setting clear expectations for virtual students is essential for everyone's success.

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By Debra Kidder

Virtual Learning Expectations for Students

At the height of the pandemic, nearly 98% of all households with school-aged children reported engaging in at least some online learning according to the United States Census Bureau. Although distance learning has been in existence long before the Internet, this was the first mass migration to virtual learning. And while that number has come down a bit in recent years, a fair amount of students still do some level of online education.

As I wrote about in my book Distance Learning Workbook: Hands On Approach to Virtual Teaching, there’s an art to distance education. What many teachers new to an online learning environment don’t realize is that setting solid virtual learning expectations for students, just as they do in their physical classrooms, is the important first step to success in online teaching.

Virtual learning expectations are different but are equally important to traditional school rules and expectations. Without them, managing your eLearning environment could be disastrous.

In the article below, I’ll share my thoughts on why setting virtual learning expectations for students is so important and provide you with some guidelines for doing so based on my experience as a distance learning professional who’s worked hand-in-hand with countless school teachers and administrators to provide a better online learning environment for all involved.

Why Are Expectations for Students Important in eLearning?

Students of all ages come into our teaching spaces wide-eyed on the first day of school, motivated and ready to absorb our content expertise through projects, hands-on engagement, peer-to-peer interaction, and teacher-led instruction.

But before any of our knowledge can be given to these eager learners, great educators know the importance of establishing a community of norms and facilitating a productive learning space.

Expectations are included in this community. They are the guide rails that keep students on track.  When communicated early, expectations can stem classroom management issues, challenge learners to achieve higher goals, and establish mutual respect between student and teacher.

Communicating expectations to distance learners is especially important.


Virtual learners are removed from a physical shared classroom and cannot read the body language and facial expressions as well as brick and mortar students. It’s one of the key differences between online learning and classroom learning.

The avenues of communication for online students are more limited than their in-person peers, so asking for help, clarification, or getting a quick deadline reminder is more infrequent.

Students who understand distance learning expectations upfront are set up for success. Knowing what is required sets a solid foundation for digital learners to excel.

What are the Most Important Virtual Learning Expectations for Students?

This could be a long list, and any educator could put dozens of different expectations on it.

Below are carefully curated ideas for different virtual learning expectations for students that I’ve found garner better online classroom management, keep students engaged, and further their success.

1. Workspace Expectations

This may not be obvious at first, but digital learners each have their own student workspace that is uncontrolled by the teacher or school.  Many need assistance to set up an environment conducive to learning.

Educators can consider their teaching level and content area and decide what is important for students to have within arms reach.  Depending on those variables, some ideas I recommend are:

  • A quiet area free from distractions and background noise like siblings and pets, toys and games, or food and drinks
  • A well lit, clean surface space where their device can remain plugged into a power source
  • Office supplies like pens, pencils, crayons, glue, or paper
  • Access to headphones, a microphone for Zoom or whatever screen sharing software you’re using, and a clock
  • The contact information for the IT department, in case of login problems

2. School Day Routine Expectations

Without a bell schedule, a bus pick up, or a parent drop-off time, many students will need the online instructor to post specific login times for students and maintain that routine.  Students should be well aware–and reminded often–of the exact attendance and school day expectations.

Some School Day Routine Expectations to consider and communicate:

  • When will students log in and log out of your virtual conference platform?
  • During which activities will students have both their cameras and microphones on, and when will they be muted?  Is it ever OK to be off-camera?
  • When should students use the ‘chat’ feature, if ever?
  • What is the appropriate procedure for asking a question?

Whatever the decisions are, students need to the school routine to have a successful day.

3. Turning-Work-In Expectations

In my work, I’ve found that many schools use platform-specific methods for turning in work, and it can vary greatly from one school to the next.  Some rely on email.  Others use specific apps. Others still use a combination of ways to receive completed work.  Whichever way the teacher or school decides, make sure virtual learners know exactly how to turn in their work.

A great idea is to practice turning in samples before work is actually counted towards their grade to make sure they all know the procedure and there are no technical glitches.

Another aspect of this expectation is the timeline.  Virtual learners have different time constraints and environments than in-school learners do.   Turning in work ‘on time’ may take a slightly different meaning in the digital space.

In the brick-and-mortar classroom, classwork is usually due by the end of class, or by the start of class the next day.  For online learners, long-term projects may have due dates with different times on them because they are time-stamped when they are submitted.  The online teacher can set the time of day as part of the due date. Teachers can take into consideration after dinner hours, weekend hours, or even holiday time for due dates.

Whatever the turn-in routine is, distance learners need to know what it is if they are expected to follow them successfully.

4. Break Time Expectations

Kids need breaks.  No matter what their age or the length of the day, at some point distance learners will get antsy, their eyes will start darting around, and the teacher will know: it is time for a break.

For all-day, elementary-level teachers, breaks are a great way to allow students to get energy out and grab a brain-boosting snack to make the next part of the day productive.  Some ideas for five-minute morning breaks are:

  • 25 jumping jacks, a walk around the house, or dance to your current favorite song to get some excess energy out
  • Grab a quick, nutritious snack and water to keep the brain awake, well-nourished and hydrated, and firing on all cylinders
  • Give students examples of easy stretches to get the blood pumping
  • Let their creativity flow and inspire another part of their brain by giving the students a creativity break–crayons and colored pencils for five minutes, and then a share session
  • A quick scavenger hunt is great for distance learners–it gets the kids moving their bodies and keeps their brains engaged in something fun

Secondary students generally have breaks built into their schedules, as their classes change from subject to subject.  However, it is important for each teacher to set opening expectations for what a student should be doing just before entering their digital classroom space to be sure their students are prepared to learn.

5. Community Expectations

Virtual learning expectations would be incomplete without community expectations.  These can be in the form of message boards, collaborative projects, and breakout rooms.  They take the place of smaller learning and peer-to-peer learning that in-person learners experience.

The result is that the virtual classroom feels like a community that the students want to be a part of and continue participating in.  How can students help create and participate in a virtual classroom community?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Virtual students can post to a message board a minimum number of times to further a class discussion
  • Virtual students can enter breakout rooms to participate with smaller numbers of students on projects
  • Virtual students can use the chat feature within their platform (and moderated by the teacher) to feel a sense of connectedness with their distance learning peers.

Of course, each of these would need to be carefully monitored for appropriateness by the teacher, as it would also need to be in the brick and mortar classroom.

A Final Word on Setting Virtual Learning Expectations for Students

The overarching theme in all of this is that lines of communication need to stay open and clear during virtual learning.  None of these expectations can be met without multiple channels of communication right from the start.  We all want our students to succeed.  Laying the groundwork of distance learning expectations is the necessary first step on the pathway to academic achievement in the digital space.

Have any questions about setting virtual classroom expectations for students? Have your own tips to add to the list? Sound off by leaving a comment below.

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