Submitted by Stephanie Whalen, Academy Chair, English & Interdisciplinary Studies

As we gear up for another semester of mostly remote learning, faculty may be wondering what we can do to help students have a positive start to the semester. Just before each semester begins, students are looking for confirmation that they have access to their courses via Blackboard. 

Supporting a Successful Start: Providing Students with Clarity as the Semester Begins

Some faculty have made them available early, whereas others wait until the first day of the term, leaving students unsure of what to expect. When there are delays to receiving communication or seeing the course shell available, students often begin reaching out to various offices across campus with concerns. In order to reduce stress for our students and help them feel confident that everything is in order with their course schedules, you may consider making the course shells available before the semester starts and/or sending out an email to students letting them know when the shell will open and how to prepare.

Making course shells available prior to the start date of the course will reassure students that they do have access to the course and information they need as some worry when they see some shells available and not others. In addition to having the course shell open, sending out a welcome message with any pertinent information such as dates and times of online orientation sessions and/or location of orientation information as well as materials needed goes a long way in helping them feel prepared. Contacting students with a group Announcement that goes out to their emails via Blackboard can be done by posting a message and clicking a box to send it out via email, and students will greatly appreciate knowing what to expect and how to get started.

Sometimes shells cannot be opened prior to the course start date due to a variety of reasons such as faculty receiving a later course assignment, the course being a new prep for which a shell needs to be built, the course shell being redesigned or refreshed with updated materials and dates, or faculty preferences for when they begin to engage with students about course content. If you do not plan to open the shell in advance of the course start date, communicating that to students will help avoid panic for students who don’t understand why the course is not appearing in Blackboard—particularly when some of their courses are. Communicating via Blackboard Announcements that the course shell will open by the first day of the semester and sharing the syllabus and/or any other information you can such as the textbook information and any other materials or technologies that will be needed helps students better prepare and provides reassurance that they are all set to start the semester.

Many faculty have been opening shells and/or sending out announcements prior to the semester regularly, whereas others may want some assistance. If you need any support in preparing or opening a shell, sending messages via your Blackboard shell, or putting together an orientation for your course, please use the Academy’s Online Instruction Support form and a team member will reach out to you. We wish you all a great start to the Spring 2021 semester.

Sample Pre-Semester Message Template:

Welcome to our __________course! I am looking forward to working with you as we explore/learn/discover____________.

The course activities and assignments are contained inside our course Blackboard shell. A link to our shell is now available/will be available by ____________ in your Harper Student Portal at If you have trouble logging into the Harper Student Portal, please contact the help desk at 847.925.6866 or

In order to prepare for the course, please make sure you have _______________ by __________________. The attached syllabus includes more detailed information about what you will need and what you can expect in the course (or provide information about how to obtain materials and what to expect if the syllabus is not yet ready).

Please contact me with any questions or concerns as you get ready for our __________________course.