Course Design Essentials

Contributors:Andrew F. Lawrence, Lindsay Murphy

This guide applies to a range of course design or revision techniques. You might use the Rule of 2’s: Simple Course Design Template to make notes and capture ideas as you work through this article. This article and the Rule of 2’s template follow a backward design flow, where you start planning with student learning outcomes in mind. (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Identify Course Goals

You may be familiar with student learning outcomes, also sometimes called learning objectives or course goals. Your course may have preset outcomes already determined, or you might need to identify outcomes. In either case, you want to make sure you have a set of student learning outcomes that are accurate and reflect the purpose of the course. Good student learning outcomes are observable and measurable — so you can observe student work and measure whether it meets the goals of the course. Outcomes might address content knowledge, skills, or even dispositions that you intend students to acquire. For a guide to writing effective student learning outcomes, check out the OAI+ article on assessment methods.

Imagine that a large box arrives at your house. It’s full of parts to assemble but has no instructions and no pictures of the final object — so you are stuck trying to make sense of all the parts without understanding the end goal. This is how students often feel when they enter a course without student learning outcomes or clear goals.

Once you’ve identified the outcomes for your course, they form the foundation, blueprint, or roadmap that everyone in the course is working toward. As you design or revise your course, keep coming back to these outcomes to ensure your planned assessments, assignments, learning activities, and teaching strategies align with your intended learning outcomes.

Build Assessments around Course Goals

Think back to that mysterious box that arrived at your house. What if the box had instructions, but they didn’t match the parts? What if parts were missing or the instructions skipped big steps?

This is analogous to what happens when assigned work doesn’t align with the course goals or when assessments don’t match what has been taught in the class. It’s difficult for students to understand why the work is necessary or relevant or how their assessments reflect what they are learning.

The Purpose of Assessments

This article uses assessments and assignments interchangeably as ways to externalize student learning, to better observe and measure it.

Some assessments are intended to help you and students perceive how much progress you’ve all made toward meeting the course goals. Other assessments are meant to measure whether students are ready to move on to the next stage, whether that’s the next topic in your course or another course altogether. Not all assessments need to be graded. Some can be used as practice that helps you adjust your expectations and helps students know what to focus on as they progress through the course.

On assessments meant to serve as learning tools for future work, it’s often helpful to give students opportunities for peer review, self-reflection, and suggestions rather than a letter or number grade. Research shows that grades are often demotivating for students and can be confusing when students try to improve their grade in future assignments. While we often look at grades as inevitable and ubiquitous, they are relatively new as a standard practice in higher education (Schinske & Tanner, 2014).

Questions to Consider When Creating Assessments

  • Do assessments measure what you mean for them to measure?
  • Are assessments aligned with your Student Learning Outcomes?
  • Which assessments absolutely need grades and which need a different kind of feedback?

Scaffold for Student Success

When asking students to complete large assessments such as term papers, presentations, group projects, lab experiments, final exams, or research studies, it’s helpful to break these assignments into smaller tasks that “scaffold” the work and support the final product.

Questions to Consider When Scaffolding

  • What steps do students need to take to complete the large assignment?
  • What kind of accountability and feedback will help them complete the large assignment? (It often helps to require that students turn in outlines, proposals, and drafts because it keeps them accountable and assists them in breaking their work into parts.)
  • How long will each part likely take, and how can you schedule one or two check-ins with students as they are completing the parts?
  • How long will you need to give students meaningful feedback where appropriate?
  • If planning a group project, what roles do you expect students to take to complete the project together, and how might a group contract or project proposal help to outline those roles and responsibilities?

Another important aspect of scaffolding is ensuring continuity between synchronous and asynchronous aspects of the class. For example, if students are assigned readings and discussions to complete on their own time, class time should relate to those readings and discussions. Maybe that means scheduling time for Q&A about the asynchronous work before moving on to new material, or providing the new material in advance of the class session so students are ready to discuss it in real time.

Design Active Learning Experiences and Plan Teaching Strategies

One of the most common mistakes in course design is assuming the material is the course. Rather, the material is merely one tool of the course. The learning experiences, relationships, and teaching strategies you plan should align with your course goals and students needs. “Those who do the work do the learning” (Doyle, 2011) — so the more students have opportunities to interact with the course materials, their peers, and you, the better. When considering what activities to design for your course, ask yourself what students can do to connect with the course skills, dispositions, and concepts.

For example, if one of your course goals is to have students evaluate different perspectives on global development, your learning activities and teaching strategies should give students the chance to do such evaluation. Instead of just listening to lectures, students could be invited to:

    • Share examples espousing different perspectives from global development organizations.
    • Engage in class role-playing scenarios based on different perspectives.
    • Apply case studies to global development scenarios.

These experiences give students more active involvement in learning about and evaluating perspectives.

The wide range of teaching and learning approaches includes:

    • Flexible teaching strategies that emphasize teaching and learning across course modalities (online, in-person, or blended)
    • Community-based learning that invites students and community members to participate toward mutually beneficial goals and projects in well-planned and structured partnerships
    • Open education focusing on using free learning materials that allow students to co-create alongside their instructors, building nondisposable assignments and encouraging agency
    • Universal design for learning that emphasizes student choice, access, and agency in assignment and course design to reduce/eliminate barriers to learning

Get Student Input during Design

Whether you use feedback from last term’s students or suggestions from this term’s students, inviting your students to give design input will do a lot to help the course run smoothly.

    • Student input encourages student motivation, participation, and agency.
    • Course co-creation helps to meet student needs by encouraging a diversity of ideas and choices.

Ways to Encourage Student Input as You Plan the Course

Ask: Send out a poll about a week before the course begins asking about technology access, communication mode preferences, and assignment type feedback. Students might be most interested in devoting some class time to ask questions while working on video projects rather than term papers — but as instructors, we won’t know that unless we ask.

Brainstorm: Give students three or four learning outcomes on the first day, and ask the class to brainstorm other outcomes they would like to include on the list. Work to include one or two of their suggestions on the final list of student learning outcomes.

Offer: Offer choice in how students complete some assignments. This might mean a choice of assignment formats, collaborations, or due dates.

Negotiate: Create a negotiated syllabus with your students during the first week of class. Give them a say in the course goals, assessments, assignments, and activities. You don’t have to make everything negotiable. A critical part of planning is to identify the scope of choice. This is a great way to build community and get student buy-in around course requirements. “The Negotiated model is totally different from other syllabuses in that it allows full learner participation in selection of content, mode of working, route of working, assessment, and so on. It should by this means embody the central principle that the learner’s needs are of paramount importance” (Clarke, 1991).

Student-Faculty Partnerships in Curricula has additional details and strategies.

Plan Regular Communication and Feedback

Even before you meet your students, it’s important to think about how you can engage with them, give them feedback, and check in with them regularly. Building community and a sense of instructor presence goes a long way in helping students feel supported and part of a learning community.

Ways to Stay in Touch with Your Students

Post a weekly announcement or send a weekly email. This message can include due dates, recommended practices, campus resources, and/or something fun, human, and non-academic to lighten the mood. The goal is to stay present with your students and build a regular communication pattern.

Hold regular student office hours in-person or via Zoom. Even if it’s just 30 minutes twice a week, being available to answer questions and build connections can be a big support for students. If your students are shy about attending student hours, consider having them sign up for at least one check-in of 10 to 15 minutes during the term.

Make weekly feedback videos of two to three minutes each for the whole class. Giving every student individual feedback can be time prohibitive. Instead, when students are doing those scaffolded assignments, send out a quick video to the whole class with your impressions of their work-in-progress and any tips about how they can improve it. Video feedback can be particularly effective in an online or blended course where you may not have as much visible presence.

Contact students individually when you notice they have not been participating regularly. Students are juggling a lot, and sometimes they might drop the ball. Having an instructor reach out to check in on them can make all the difference between a student who fails a course and one who persists and succeeds. Such outreach can be most effective when framed as an invitation to participate or an expression of care instead of a punitive reminder.

Reflect and Iterate

Despite all the planning you’ve done, each time you teach a course you and your students will have different needs and outcomes. It can be helpful to keep a running log of changes you’d like to make or strategies that worked well. Then when you prepare to teach the course again, you have an idea of where to focus your efforts. An OAI course consultation or a student-centered course review can also give you feedback and ideas to continue refining your course.

Clarke, D. (1991). The Negotiated Syllabus: What Is It and How Is It Likely to Work? Applied Linguistics, 12(1), 13–28.

Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning into Practice. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Building Community in Your Online Course

Contributors:Kari Goin, Misty Hamideh

A community is a group of people who share a common purpose. In the context of an online course, a community includes not only students, but also the instructor(s) and, in many cases, experts from outside PSU. Establishing online community helps you and your students to:

  • Create meaningful learning experiences.
  • Answer larger questions beyond the scope of the class.
  • Increase student engagement and autonomy.
  • Have dialogues that support learning new skills and applying critical thinking.
  • Foster deeper learning connections.

To create and strengthen online community, build mechanisms into your course that encourage students to connect with you and each other. These can be technology features, collaborative teaching practices, or both.

Ideas for Building Online Community

Getting to Know Students

Understanding your students is crucial. An online course needs a meaningful place for students to share a bio and their interests in taking the class. Understanding their needs makes relevant and meaningful interaction easier.

Some ways you can get to know students:

Sharing Media

Encourage students to build their digital identity by sharing a piece of media — a photo, video, article, or sound clip. These PSU tools can help:

Seeking Help

Encourage students to develop a help-seeking strategy. Consider who your students go to for help and for answers to questions. As the instructor, you don’t have to be the only one. You could:

  • Invite a community expert to monitor a discussion forum for a week.
  • Have students help each other answer questions.

Supporting Choice

Allow for student choice in discussion forums or group work. Give students options in activities and/or assignments. Allow them to choose what’s most valuable and meaningful.

  • Each week, give students three topics to choose from — along with your guidelines and expectations for participation.

Setting Routine

The previous examples promote student autonomy and flexibility, key strategies in designing for adult learners — but routine is essential as well. For more engaging interactions and a feeling of inclusion, students need you to also supply:

  • Clear, simple, consistent expectations
  • Regular deadlines in a consistent, weekly format
  • Detailed instructions that outline involvement and collaboration

DIY Media Tips

OAI offers support around integrated and dynamic media for the classroom. Well-conceived and carefully integrated multimedia can help students understand complex topics, enhance student engagement, and support visual learning. Creating and implementing media doesn’t need to be overly complex. Here are some quick tips to help you make multimedia that shines.

Create Maps and Charts to Visualize Data

Promote critical thinking by asking students to create visuals for their research — such as maps, charts, or timelines. Creating data visualizations requires different skills than writing reports or research papers.

Add Digital Q&A to a Lecture

Want to encourage more engagement and interaction from students during your course lectures? If you use Google Slides as a presentation format, you can use the Audience Tools feature. Students can ask questions live, with an option to do so anonymously, and vote for questions from other students. You can monitor questions and pull the top-voted ones into your live lecture as a slide.

Make Videos with Your Own Device

PSU faculty are making their own videos to record lectures, introductions, updates, feedback on assignments, and additional information on an assignment within course content.

Everyone at PSU has access to a built-in recording tool in MediaSpace: Kaltura Capture. Use it to record yourself with a webcam, record what’s on your screen, a combination of both, or audio only. After you finish recording, you can make simple edits to your video such as trimming the beginning and end, or chopping out an unwanted section. If you forget to edit before uploading to MediaSpace, fear not: You can also do simple edits in MediaSpace after uploading. For videos you’ll reuse in multiple courses, remember to request captioning through OAI.

Consider These Tips to Ensure High-Quality Video

  • Set your camera. Make sure your webcam is eye-level. You may need to raise your laptop on top of a few books, but this angle will be more flattering! Also, place your camera an arms length away from your face. It shouldn’t be too close or too far away!
  • Scout your location. Assess your location to ensure it isn’t distracting. The visual background shouldn’t be busy and background noise should be minimal. Your background sets the stage for your video’s brand or theme; think about what you want it to say about you. It should be clean and professional. Faculty often choose to film in an office setting, but showing a more personal setting such as a tidy living room, or a working environment such as a laboratory, can also work.
  • Create flattering lighting. Set yourself up so you are lit from the front or side. The worst thing you can do is have your back to a window, with your camera facing the window. The best thing you can do is have a lamp beside your computer, at eye level. A lamp is better than overhead lights because overhead lighting can create unflattering and distracting shadows. Don’t be afraid to move lamps around your space to achieve optimal lighting.
  • Mic up. Use an external microphone. It will almost always be better than your device’s built-in microphone and will pick up less ambient noise. A headset works well, but you can also use the mic on your earbuds.
  • Dress the part. Small patterns such as thin stripes or polka dots can strobe or appear to move on camera. Avoid large jewelry that may sparkle in the light, or jewelry that rattles or clanks such as multiple bracelets or long necklaces. You can test your wardrobe through a short test video to see how it works on camera.

Note: Don’t make a video just to make a video! It should add value to your course. If your students can find the same information in other course content, there’s no point making them watch it in a video.

Make Interactive Videos

Interactive video can help students identify misconceptions or practice applying concepts. You can easily build an interactive question-and-answer function into any video uploaded to MediaSpace. The Video Quiz tool allows you to add embedded multiple choice and true/false questions.

Video quizzes generally don’t integrate with grading systems, so they are best used for guided self-study. Adding a quiz is one way to segment video to help students retain the information, by giving them a chance to participate.

Note: Assessment reporting for MediaSpace video quizzes is disabled by ad-blocking browser extensions. This results in anonymous quiz responses. If you plan to assess your video quiz, give students instructions to open it in an “incognito” or private window. This will not activate the ad-blocker and will allow you to see results by student.

Learn More Elsewhere

Create Engaging Videos

A well-made video can be a powerful tool for teaching and learning:

    • Instructor-made videos can help online students feel more like they are attending class face-to-face.
    • By presenting information differently than textbooks, videos can add information or reflection that the text does not.
    • Videos can give students more control of their learning by allowing them to watch at their own pace, pause if they need a break, and rewatch for review.

Pan et al. (2012) found that students responded favorably to instructor-created videos and thought the videos supported their learning.

Reasons to Make a Video

  • To welcome. A welcome video helps students get to know you and better understand what to expect. When you make a welcome video, feel free to share your hobbies, photos of your pets, and your background. Don’t worry too much about speaking slowly; focus on conveying enthusiasm. Students can pause and replay if they need to. Your welcome video — like all your videos — should be brief.
  • To show, not tell. Consider using video to show a demonstration or experiment. Break away from the standard lecture video by conducting an experiment or demonstration on camera. This allows viewers to learn while watching, rather than listen to an explanation. Another option: Conduct an interview, perhaps with an expert in the field.
  • To interact. Use the video quiz tool in MediaSpace to create an engaging video that requires participation through embedded questions. This allows students to interact with the content and helps them gauge their knowledge of the material.

Production Tips to Stay Engaging

  • Plan before production. To make a brief but compelling video, you’ll have to do some planning. Write a script with the information you would like to share, and practice in the mirror. This will give you an idea of how long your video will be and what information may not be necessary. Outline the flow of your video, especially if you’ll include more than one visual.
  • Keep it short. While an hour-long lecture might work in a face-to-face classroom, a recording of the same lecture is not likely to keep students engaged online. Engagement time drops as video length increases. Students are more likely to watch short videos in their entirety. Guo et al. (2014) found that six minutes or less is ideal.
  • Don’t give your in-person lecture. Instead, if your video is expected to be long, find natural breaking points in your script where you can cut it into multiple videos. Each video will be a subtopic. This concept is called “chunking” — cutting large amounts of information into smaller pieces, making it easier for the viewer to process.
  • State your objectives. Tell your audience why they should keep watching. Within the first 10 seconds, viewers should know what they will get out of watching the video. Consider an outcome statement or a summary of the topics you’ll cover.
  • Remember cognitive load theory. Mayer and Moreno (2003) found that working memory can hold only five to nine items at a time. Avoid overloading with activities and information that don’t contribute to learning. Eliminate tangential or extraneous elements to keep the video concise and coherent.

Getting Started

Now that you’ve read through these tips, it’s time to follow a plan.

  • Identify the purpose of your video and align it with your instructional goals.
  • Write a script — and practice reading it.
  • Create an outline of the video, and decide on any visuals.
  • If you plan to use OAI’s Media Labs, schedule your recording in advance.
  • After recording your video, review it to make sure it meets your instructional goals. Don’t be afraid to re-record.

Guo, P., Kim, J., & Rubin, R. (2014). How video production affects student engagement: An empirical study of MOOC videos. Proceedings of the first ACM conference on learning, 41-50.

Mayer, R. & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43–52.

Pan, G., et al. (2012). Instructor-made videos as a learner scaffolding tool. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 8(4).

Digital Activities to Support Student Engagement

When educators think of the Internet as an extension of the classroom, the possibilities are endless. Strategic approaches to activity design can emphasize the learning possibilities of the Internet to increase student engagement both online and face-to-face.

Inhabiting digital spaces by engaging in and contributing to those spaces shifts our perspective from consumptive and numbing to thriving and generative. Hashtags, collaborative mind-mapping, social annotation, and digital field trips are just a few design strategies that help shift the way we think about engaging online.

Another way to increase engagement online is to create regular and meaningful touchpoints for students to interact with each other. For example, have students complete one large individual assignment that has components due every other week of the term. Then have them share each component with their peers in an online discussion forum to get and give feedback each step of the way. This strengthens the community of learners in the course and creates a spiral of actions that has built-in feedback loops for students to create an exemplary project. Be sure to give clear prompts for the kinds of feedback you expect students to give. Also share clear expectations that the forum is designed to create a community of learners through posts that offer new perspectives, encourage further discussion, demonstrate critical thinking, and/or model self-reflection.

Start Designing

Explore the following questions to inspire your activity designs and help you place students at the center of their learning.

  • How can this activity help students co-create knowledge?
  • How can what the students produce in the course activities and assessments be part of the content of the course?
  • How can you bring the students into the design of this activity early enough so the work becomes about students’ goals instead of exclusively the course outcomes?
  • How can this activity or assessment connect to a student’s personal experience and expertise, becoming meaningful and relevant to themselves or their professional practice?

By inviting students to become collaborators in the design of the course, educators can increase student motivation, foster discovery, and create environments for emergent learning. Lifelong learning develops by engaging students in thinking meaningfully and deliberately, and then co-creating their learning experiences.

Sample Activities

Here’s a small sample of possible activities to support student engagement. You can adapt the underlying ideas of most for both online and face-to-face courses. You can find many more by speaking with colleagues, exploring online teaching forums and repositories, and chatting with OAI. Remember to consider your learning outcomes, your own expertise with web technologies, and the previous questions.

Have Students Design Assignments

You can provide assignment choices or ask students to collaboratively come up with course assignments that feel relevant and motivating. By asking students to examine the course outcomes that interest them the most, you can make crafting a set of assignments and activities to meet that outcome an assignment in itself.

Jigsaw the Content

The jigsaw method has many components.

At base level, students form teams. Each student in a team is assigned a different task or area of study. Students then find ways to obtain the needed expertise.

Next, they break out into temporary expert groups with students from the other teams who have been assigned the same role or purpose. At that point, students study, learn, rehearse, question, negotiate, and share content with other members of their expert group.

At some point, students move back to their home teams and share their new knowledge. You could assign an ending quiz, presentation, game, or some other type of capstone event to summarize learning.

Build a Portfolio

Create an assignment durable enough to be portfolio-worthy and appropriate to the field of study. You could ask students to:

  • Create a professional Twitter account, which can help them grow their personal learning and professional network.
  • Interview a celebrity in their field or research current trends and build a curated digital newsfeed.
  • Write a blog of their learning process in the course. What concepts have direct application to their current practice, personal commitments, relevant interests, or professional pursuits?

Curate Course Content

After week five, consider assigning students to:

  • Find relevant scholarly articles to review and share as homework for the rest of the class.
  • Write portions of an emerging textbook for the class.
  • Write the introduction to an anthology of classic works, or curate a set of scientific articles and write introductions for them.
  • Find an article, website, or interactive media example relevant to the course content to assign for reading or viewing and lead a discussion surrounding it.
  • Create interactive online exhibits.
  • Have students study a media news feed for a particular topic, population and content area. This could include analyzing trends to understand their relevance.

Collaboratively Annotate

Invite your students to annotate in specific ways. For example:

  • Questioning: Have students highlight, tag, and annotate words or passages they find confusing.
  • Close reading: Have students identify formal textual elements and broader social and historical contexts at work in specific passages.
  • Gloss: Have students look up difficult words or unknown allusions in a text and share their research as annotations.
  • Rhetorical analysis: Have students mark and explain the use of rhetorical strategies in online articles or essays.
  • Opinion: Have students share their personal opinions on a controversial topic as discussed by an article.
  • Multimedia: Have students annotate with images and video or integrate images and video into other types of annotations.
  • Independent study: Have students explore the Internet on their own with some limited direction (find an article from a respectable source on a topic important to you personally), exercising traditional literacy skills (define difficult words, identify persuasive strategies, etc.).
  • Bibliography: Have students research a topic or theme and tag and annotate relevant texts across the Internet.

Tell Digital Stories

Invite students to create a multimedia-rich, digital narrative to enhance or extend course concepts.

  • Word-cloud interactions: Use them to crowdsource student interest, preference or understanding. A word cloud can also:
    • Highlight key themes and common vocabulary used in the course or some section of it, prompting students to look up any unfamiliar words before fully participating.
    • Introduce new and important terms before a class assignment or lecture.
  • A day in the life of a scientist, scholar or celebrity: Research a celebrity in your field and write a story of their typical day by examining their digital identity. Take on their role in an online discussion.
  • Micro-blogging course discussions: Create a course hashtag and conduct discussion beyond the LMS using Twitter. 140 characters forces students to think and connect in different ways.
  • Visualizing course concepts: Turn a paper into an infographic, storyboard, timeline, or mini-videos.

Create Thriving Online Discussions

Contributors:Aifang Gordon

Online discussion is a mainstay of online courses, and for good reason. Compared to face-to-face communication, online discussion has many benefits for adult learners, especially in flexibility of time and location. Importantly, its benefits extend to students in face-to-face and hybrid courses. These benefits include:

  • You and your students can enter, leave, and re-enter the conversation as time allows.
  • Students have time to reflect on what they want to convey before they post.
  • The conversation has a durable record, which you and your students can review throughout the course.

However, poor participation in online discussions has been identified as the biggest and most frustrating challenge for faculty who teach online (Hew & Cheung, 2012). Poor participation includes:

  • Posting few or no messages
  • Posting questions or messages unrelated to the topic or not appropriate for a full class discussion
  • Demonstrating superficial or surface-level critical thinking or understanding

Ask Good Questions

The questions posed have a large impact on how students participate. Questions that have only one or a few answers, or that can be answered with little more than memorized facts, will limit student contributions and peer interactions as well as hinder higher level thinking. For example, consider the following discussion prompt:

After reading textbook chapter 5, please describe challenges that social workers face due to social climate, economic changes, and political environment.

Once a few students have responded to the question, it’s likely that all potential answers will have been given. The rest of the students will have little to add without being repetitive. Also, fact-recall questions don’t help students identify their own knowledge gaps, explore multiple perspectives, or negotiate content meaning.

Use Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions — with many possible answers, or no single correct answer — can offer more extensive discussion opportunities.

Examples of Open-Ended Questions to Ask

  • How do you perceive that plan as adequate to the problem?
  • Why do you think so?
  • Where might that plan derail?
  • What other plans are possible?

Questions that invite students to share their own point of view from their personal and/or work life also generate multiple perspectives. For example:

Reflect on an article, present examples that illustrate the point of the article, and explain why these examples were relevant by sharing your own opinions.

By sharing personal experiences and ideas, students can create a community where they can learn from one another, expanding their ideas through the experiences of others (Curry & Cook, 2014). The best questions allow learners to integrate their knowledge and comprehension of concepts and apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate them in real-world scenarios that reflect Bloom’s Taxonomy of critical thinking.

Use MANIC Questions

Curry and Cook outline an approach to discussion questions to promote deeper student interaction — not only with course content, but also with each other. Implementing MANIC strategy is straightforward. For each reading (or combination of readings, depending what the instructor chooses), students answer:

  • What was the Most important thing in the reading?
  • What was something you Agree with in the reading?
  • What was something you do Not agree with in the reading?
  • What was something you found Interesting in the reading?
  • What was something you found Confusing in the reading?

Students should quote directly from the text and give a detailed explanation. For each week’s assigned readings or videos, students are required to complete two tasks:

  • Their own MANIC responses (and they must answer all five questions to get credit)
  • At least five meaningful responses to their classmates (You can change the number of required responses at your discretion.)

Students post their MANIC responses and reply to others as a way to keep a conversation going, which allows them to interact with each other and course texts. Curry and Cook recommend these tips for implementing MANIC:


  • Provide an example.
  • Explain expectations.
  • Participate heavily.

Do Not

  • Assume students understand the strategy.

Share Your Expectations

Another factor contributing to poor participation is unclear expectations. Without clear expectations, learners may not feel the need to participate. They may have difficulty understanding where to submit, how much they are expected to contribute, or what their messages should look like.

Examples of Expectations to Set to Encourage Student Participation

  • How much online discussion participation counts toward the final grade
  • What constitutes appropriate netiquette
  • How you will interact with students in discussions
  • Where to submit posts
  • When initial discussion posts are due
  • Number of interactions within other learners’ posts
  • When interactions in discussion are due
  • Expectations for quality of discussion posts

Finally, to increase interactions among learners, many instructors ask students not only to post comments to the discussion questions but also to respond to one or two other students. If you employ this method, make sure you assign different due dates for initial posts and peer-to-peer interactions. This will help prevent learners posting on the last day of discussion, giving them no time to interact with each other.

Curry, J. & Cook, J. (2014). Facilitating online discussions at a MANIC pace: A new strategy for an old problem. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(3), 1–12.

Hew, K. & Cheung, W. (2012). Student Participation in Online Discussions. Springer.

Organize Your Course for Success

Contributors:Misty Hamideh, Vincent Schreck

Imagine this: You visit your local market to pick up some peanut butter, but it’s no longer where you expect it. You ask for help, but still can’t find it. You give up and leave the store with no peanut butter. A disorganized online course is like the rearranged market. When students log in and can’t easily find what they need to complete a task or lesson, their frustration often leads to giving up.

An Organized Course

An organized course creates a pattern of expectations, resulting in routines that are easy for students to follow. Instructional designers often refer to these routines and patterns as the “learning cycle.” A clear learning cycle allows students to anticipate their learning and plan ahead. A consistent course structure and communication pattern will lower students’ anxiety and keep them focused on learning.


The “three Cs” of good course organization are:

  • Clarity
  • Consistency
  • Communication

In a face-to-face course, you can go over the syllabus to answer questions and verbally roadmap the course. In a digital environment, roadmapping must be explicit in the course design and instructional copy. When a student spends time looking for instructions, content, due dates, etc., their anxiety level increases and becomes a cognitive burden. Good organization reduces that burden.

The goal is to make it easy for students to know:

  • Expected learning outcomes
  • What tasks are required each day/week and how to find and complete them
  • When and how they’ll interact with you
  • When and how they’ll interact with other students
  • What they’ll be graded on and how to prepare for assessments

The most common way to provide this organization is with weekly modules that group course materials and present them in chronological sequence. A module should have links to everything needed for each lesson. Coursework that’s one click away lets students focus on learning rather than finding materials.

Other things you can do to help clarify course organization:

  • Create a consistent weekly coursework pattern
  • Have a prominent announcement area and use it regularly
  • Have a “Getting Started” module or folder for your syllabus and course information so students can easily find and refer to this information
  • Create module introductions and write clear instructions for activities and assessments

It’s extremely helpful if your department or program agrees on some conventions for how to organize courses, so don’t hesitate to consult with your colleagues.

Create a Weekly Coursework Pattern

Even in the best circumstances, students have busy lives. Many need to schedule their Internet access in advance; almost all will need to schedule their studies around work and/or childcare. This means students quickly look for coursework deadlines. Among the most helpful things you can do is establish a regular pattern of study and activity completion, so students can create a schedule at the beginning of the term.

For example, a common pattern for courses with one synchronous session per week is to have all homework due the day before the live session. Within a department these days can be staggered for all required courses.

Coursework patterns can also support a constructivist learning cycle. These follow a basic pattern (with variations):

Activation: Connect each topic to something students already know, then get them curious about aspects of it they don’t know.

Demonstration: Show students why/how this topic is relevant in the world.

Application: Let students practice using each concept or skill, with feedback.

Integration: Help students remember this lesson by reflecting on and discussing it.

This pattern has many variations, depending whether learning outcomes are more experiential, inquiry-based, or modeled on apprenticeship to demonstrate, coach, and support independent skill-building.

Examples and Templates

Chunk it Up

A good rule of thumb is that people can pay attention for 20 to 30 minutes before they need to process and connect with the new information. Active learning can take many forms. Students need to process new ideas and skills by practicing them, not just absorbing them. A handy constructivist motto to remember: “Telling isn’t teaching, and listening isn’t learning.”

For every major skill in your pyramid, think about how students can practice that skill fairly soon after it’s introduced. For information retention, give a brief review quiz. For critical thinking or skill performance, ask students how they would choose among different approaches to solving a problem. For a creative process, have students make a low-stakes artifact and share it. This does not mean overloading students with challenging assignments — these should be fun, low-stakes activities.

Sequencing and Pacing

Once you’ve defined your key learning outcome and “chunked” them into 20 to 30 minute lessons with a low-stakes activity for each, the next step is to put them in a logical sequence. Beware the temptation to follow textbook-chapter sequencing. Books are organized by the logical flow of domain knowledge, not the order in which students learn intellectual skill-building. Instead, focus on your learning outcomes and what students need to practice for each outcome.

  1. Look at your list of learning outcomes. Now imagine a pyramid with those outcomes at the top and decide what skills students will need to attain them (conceptual, procedural, behavioral, affective or physical skills).
  2. List those skills at the base of the pyramid and consider whether they should be learned in a particular order. Decide the best way for students to:
    • Observe this skill demonstrated.
    • Practice and refine this skill with feedback.
    • Self-correct and improve this skill independently.
  3. Think of all the possible modes students could work in to gain each skill. If you normally assign multiple essays or exams, consider other ways students might demonstrate needed skills.

Learning Preferences

Research shows that without regular mini-challenges, students don’t learn as well. They need to use each “chunk” of new knowledge/skill to remember it and be able to apply it.
But there’s a problem with this “think and do” learning pattern: Even low-stakes assignments can intimidate, overwhelm, or annoy students. How do you make this pattern transcend “busywork” and become meaningful?

The best way is to let students choose their own “think and do” activity:

  • Students with writing or homework anxiety often benefit from review quizzes with multiple attempts allowed. Such quizzes are learning tools, not assessment tools.
  • Students with quiz anxiety often prefer to create a mini-artifact or write a discussion/journal post to activate their learning. You can assess these on a done/not done basis or with a simple rubric.

Ideally, your course content will have options for content delivery. This can be as simple as making sure students know their computer operating system offers text-to-voice delivery for PDF content. When possible, provide accessible audiovisual options for articles, so students can choose to get information in the way that works best for them.