Flexible Teaching Strategies

When adapting your course to a new format, it can help to review instructional strategies. This article looks at different ways to provide content, peer learning, and student inquiry activities. In a traditional course classroom activities are synchronous (everyone is present at the same time). That includes lectures, discussions, labs, and small group work. Activities that are usually asynchronous include reading, media viewing, and homework.

With technology, teaching strategies that are usually synchronous can become asynchronous and vice-versa. For example, you can break lectures into short videos and have students view them online. Reading can become a peer activity using a shared annotation tool like Hypothes.is. Below are some strategies to help you stay flexible and explore new options.

Content Strategies

Sharing knowledge with students through written and media content is often the backbone of academic teaching. The challenge is to help them care about and question that material in productive ways. Students learn better when they feel your enthusiasm and insight. They’ll also learn more when you connect new ideas with their prior experience and knowledge.

Suggested Guidelines

Deliver or record your presentations in 15 minute “chapters” interspersed with activities. This is particularly important for challenging reading material or presentations. Some examples of what to record:

  • Demonstrate a procedure, project, or method of reasoning.
    • Show examples of the kind of work you want students to produce.
    • Explain abstract content with practical examples or case studies.
    • Show students a solved challenge and give them a new, partially-solved problem to complete individually or in groups.
    • Present recorded field work, subject-expert interviews, or sample project work.
  • Focus on introducing, roadmapping, sparking curiosity, and integrating new material with previous topics and course activities.
  • Motivate students by displaying enthusiasm for and showing the relevance of the material to real-world applications and students’ current and future lives. Students learn and remember new material when it’s presented in relation to things they already know (or think they know) about.
  • Introduce a new topic by walking through its sequenced components and methods. Build toward increasing complexity. Ideally, teach the steps in the same sequence that students must perform them.
  • Give students the most help and rapid feedback early on, followed by prompts for independent inquiry instead of direct instruction.

Note: Explore the wide range of available media and Open Educational Resources. Don’t reinvent the wheel, but address any differences between your perspective or knowledge and those presented in the external media.

Activity Ideas

Many of these are adapted from Todd Finley’s 53 ways to check for students’ understanding of course material. Students could:

  • Use audio or video to record questions and interpretations, or to amplify the course material.
  • Identify the theory or idea the material is advancing. Then identify an opposite theory and how that framework presents a different perspective.
  • Create a concept map connecting the new material to topics already covered in class.
  • List the three most interesting, controversial, or resonant ideas you found in the material and record/write a short rationale for the selection.
  • List 10 key words from the material and write/record a summary based on these words.
  • Write three substantive questions related to the content and share them with the class.
  • Summarize the author’s or presenter’s position or objective. What are its assumptions or preconceptions?
  • Identify the main point, and arguments or evidence for and against it.
  • Choose three key words or concepts from the material and define them.
  • Create a collage or video around the material’s themes, and briefly describe their choices.

Peer Learning Strategies

Students create more personalized learning experiences by engaging with each other. They often feel more comfortable asking questions and can gain deeper knowledge by explaining concepts. Peer-to-peer learning is very flexible — it can take place both synchronously and asynchronously.

Suggested Guidelines

  • Give students a clear understanding of the purpose of paired or group work. It can make students anxious or irritated, but is very effective when students feel it’s relevant and useful.
  • Interactions in class are often skewed toward more confident students. You can assign roles or have students change roles to make sure all voices are heard.
  • Address grading anxiety by making peer work low-stakes or having each student produce an artifact for individual assessment (not just a group grade).
  • Designate time within the weekly workload for students to discuss and collaborate on the group activity.

Activity Ideas

  • Have students pair up and peer review each step in a multi-step project for feedback and help (“workshop” each incremental step).
  • Pair or group students and have each address a different question or challenge. Have them share answers in a Google Doc, a discussion thread, or in synchronous breakout rooms with a shared worksheet that all groups use. This allows groups to observe each other’s work.
  • Use pairs or small groups in which each student peer teaches one concept, process, or method in their own words, and gets feedback from their peers. This can be done via Zoom or video recordings.
  • Use problem-, case-, or project-based activities divided into clearly defined contribution roles and then workshopped or presented as a group. Grade each contribution individually to reduce anxiety. This can be done via Zoom or video recordings.
  • Collaborative written reports in which each student in a group contributes one topic. This is an “authentic” exercise since workplace writing is often team-produced.
  • Have students post “One thing I understood well” and “One thing that’s still unclear” in a discussion forum. Use one student’s post as help on a topic. This lets them peer teach and highlights any topics you need to review.

Student Inquiry Strategies

Inquiry-based approaches let students discover knowledge rather than having it presented. Discovery generates better learning retention, particularly when assisted by timely guidance (Halpern & Hakel, 2003). Used across disciplines, this approach helps students learn to do scholarship rather than absorb it. Communicating findings is a key part of this process.

Suggested Guidelines

  • Inquiry learning is question-based rather than thesis-based. Spend time fostering good questions and projects. Help make them relevant to personal, social, or community issues along with course learning outcomes.
  • Students formulate new knowledge by associating it with and refining existing knowledge. Make sure you have a good benchmark understanding of what your students know, so you can give them appropriate challenges.
  • Give students inquiry or research projects before presenting a full explanatory framework. The students’ work will generate questions, making them want the explanations you present afterwards.
  • Inquiry is particularly effective when students can share their plans with other students for discussion and feedback.
  • Inquiry is most effective when students have a degree of control over their work. Try letting them choose the specific path or topic they pursue. Give them resources and guidelines instead of step-by-step directions.

Activity Ideas

  • Have students formulate a question that takes them into their environment to document evidence (social, environmental, aesthetic, political). Field-based experiential inquiry lets students connect their work to a community rather than abstract values.
  • Create a media literacy challenge for your course subject. Have students find media examples and create a process to evaluate them.
  • Have students write or revise interview questions for a subject matter expert in the community. The interview can be audio, a recorded video meeting, or an email exchange. This can also be an oral history interview.
  • Structure a group project or experiment in which each student suggests strategies, and have the group vote on the approach(es) taken. This provides a realistic experience of workplace constraints and collaboration.
  • Use a Design Thinking model to research a particular problem (physical, social, environmental), collect data, and create a prototype solution. Have students or groups present conclusions for whole-class discussion.
  • Have students find a historical artifact relevant to your course topic and analyze it using a rubric.


Halpern, D. F., & Hakel, M. D. (2003). Applying the Science of Learning to the University and Beyond: Teaching for Long-Term Retention and Transfer. Change, 35(4), 36–41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40165500

Create Accessible Course Materials

When course materials — readings, videos, slides, websites, etc. — are accessible, all students benefit.

  • Students with disabilities can engage with your course materials without barriers, often using assistive technologies such as screen readers or closed captioning.
  • Even students without disabilities often use more than one device — such as a phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop — and may not have reliable internet access. Accessible materials help them, too.

To support all learners and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s important to include accessibility throughout your course.

Note: At times, you may need to discuss accommodations with the Disability Resource Center.


Images, graphics, diagrams, charts, and tables are key communication tools and can greatly enhance learning. For each image, include alternative text (alt-text) to describe the image to someone who uses a screen reader. Write your alt-text to describe:

  • The intended meaning or use of the image
  • Any included text or visual information (especially in diagrams)

Example: For an image of a course banner on the homepage of a course, the alt-text would include any text in the banner and the name of the course.

It’s important for alt-text to convey the same information as the image — so it’s best to include information-heavy items as readable text rather than images.

  • Rather than images of tables, include readable text-based tables. Make sure the tables have headings.
  • Write mathematical equations using the math editor in Canvas.

Note: Ask the Disability Resource Center about access to EquatIO, an institutionally licensed mathematical equation writing software.


Color in a digital environment requires sufficient contrast between text and background — but don’t use text color as the sole means to communicate information. For example, “assignments in red are due on Thursday” would not be accessible. It would exclude people who don’t see the color red or who use screen readers. Instead, use bold or italic to emphasize or highlight important information.

Another consideration is to use darker bolder colors for text used against a white screen. For best usability and accessibility avoid neon and bright colors in course content.


For anyone who navigates from a keyboard, headings are important to quickly move through content on a page.

  • Use heading style H1 for only one heading on each page — typically the title or main subject of the page.
  • Use heading styles H2 through H6 to identify subsections.
  • Follow a logical nesting order and don’t exceed six levels.


Ordered and unordered lists are commonly used in content authoring. Be sure to use list tools to create them.

For ordered lists — in which numbers or letters indicate chronological or hierarchical items — a common mistake is typing each number or letter rather than using the list tool. This does not create a structured list that screen-reading software can use.

Don’t rely exclusively on lists for organization. For example, use accessible headings to begin each major section.

Document Formatting and Layout

Document types such as PowerPoint, PDF, Word, Google Docs, etc. are often part of course content. Consistency among documents is important for readability and findability. Here are a few guidelines to consider.

Make sure PDF documents are selectable, searchable, properly tagged, and in accurate reading order. If you create them by scanning paper, use OCR (optical character recognition) instead of creating an image. OCR allows each letter and word to be read by a screen reader and makes all text searchable. You can scan with OCR in the PSU library.

For all document types:

  • Don’t use underlined text for emphasis. It can be mistaken for a link. Use bold and italics instead.
  • Use the same style and navigation in all documents.
  • Make a document’s title easy to understand — both in the file name and in the H1-level heading within the document.

Checking Accessibility

Canvas has a built-in accessibility checker! Anywhere Canvas has a rich content editor you can run the checker to flag potential issues and accessibility errors. The checker will then prompt you to fix each item it flags. Learn to use the accessibility checker in the rich content editor in Canvas.

Microsoft products such as Word and PowerPoint also have built-in accessibility checkers. Learn about the accessibility checker for Word and PowerPoint..

Flexible and Affordable Teaching Materials: Using OER

“Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources released under an open license that permits their free use and repurposing by others. OER can be full courses, course materials, lesson plans, open textbooks, learning objects, videos, games, tests, software, or any other tool, material, or technique that supports access to knowledge.”SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition)

Consider using OER to:

  • Reduce textbook costs for students.
  • Increase access to course materials (e.g., available on-demand across devices).
  • Build collaboration (between educators, between students and educators).
  • Improve flexibility and material quality (e.g., tailored material for specific purposes, adding current content).

OER reduce barriers to education while increasing the quality of teaching and learning.

Where to Find OER Textbooks

  • In online textbook collections. OpenStax has free learning modules and textbooks both developed and peer-reviewed by educators. Open Textbook Library is another collection that pulls titles from multiple OER sources.
  • By discipline. OER textbooks serve many fields, including commonly required coursework and high-enrollment classes. The PSU Library curates materials by discipline.
  • By PSU faculty. PSU has its own publishing initiative, PDXOpen, which supports faculty in developing open-access textbooks.
  • Using search engines. Two great options to begin your search are OASIS and Mason OER Metafinder (MOM), which search across OER repositories and thousands of entries. These are particularly helpful for more advanced or specialized courses.

How to Use OER

Where to Find Other Forms of OER (and Free Teaching Materials)


  • Khan Academy: A collection of instructional videos, practice exercises, and other educational videos across many subject areas.
  • Moving Image Archive: Over a million free films, movies, and other videos. Many (but not all) are available for free download. Be sure to check for permissions information in the video description.
  • YouTube Education University: Primarily a collection of lectures in various disciplines. YouTube offers a filter so you can search for videos published under Creative Commons licensing.

Photos and Other Images

  • Wikimedia Commons: Openly licensed and public domain images and visual media hosted by Wikimedia.
  • Flickr: Many photos on Flickr are available for free use and editing with a Creative Commons license.
  • Unsplash and Pixabay: While all photos on these sites are free to use, photographers appreciate being credited to help expose their work. Crediting can simply be including the photographer’s name and a link to their profile and/or photo.
  • The Gender Spectrum Collection: Seeks to add gender diversity and representation to “stock” photos for lecture slides, presentations, and so on. Free to use for educational, non-commercial purposes, but requires you credit the photographer and use photos without editing.

Books and Other Literature

  • Bloomsbury Academic: A collection of books and digital resources in the humanities, social sciences, and visual arts.
  • Project Gutenberg: Over 58,000 free eBooks digitized and proofread by volunteers, with a focus on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired.

Supplemental Materials

  • OER Commons: “A public digital library of open educational resources,” including syllabi, lesson plans, assignments, modules, textbooks, etc.

Designing a Hybrid or Blended Course

In blended and hybrid courses (with the two terms used interchangeably in this article), students complete activities both in the classroom and online. Online activities typically prepare, supplement or assess in-class work. Online activities can also invite engagement and exploration in the open web or within closed digital learning environments such as a Learning Management System forum discussion board or collaborating on a Google document. Blended learning creates opportunities for students to engage with content and each other digitally in addition to learning in the face-to-face environment. Designing online activities and experiences that operate in tandem with face-to-face learning promotes activities that explore real-world problems (informal and formal), can be “problem-based” learning and develop relevant digital skills that support learners to co-create knowledge.

Digital Activities

As you design learning experiences for a blended course, you have the web as an additional classroom space to support your face-face course activities and content sharing. Offering activities online in conjunction with in-class experiences raising students’ digital literacy, and addresses multiple learning preferences. Digital activities such as going on a “digital field trip” where students conduct research, engage in a discovery activity or analyze web content can support multiple learning goals. Educators can also design activities that require interaction and engagement online that enhance the community of learning already established in class. Examples include using annotation tools (for example, Hypothes.is) to annotate websites and online articles, co-edit a Wikipedia page, create and comment on public blogs, build an eportfolio, collaborate on creating a digital document, infographic, website, podcast, or video.

Even though classroom time is available to facilitate discussion and meaning-making, educators can design online forum discussions in small groups to take in-class discussions to a different level or add additional engagement opportunities to the course content. Creating opportunities for digital exploration and engagement increases digital fluency for life-long learning and can enhance comprehension.

Strategic Activity Design

When designing assignments and activities,, consider both the in-class learning environment and the online learning environments to create deeper and more diverse learning opportunities. This often opens up a new way of teaching and co-creating communities of learning.

Educators who plan effective in-class activities that run in tandem with activities online will find that students’ motivation and engagement increases. This is also true when digital learning spaces are presented as just as important as the in-classroom space. This is best achieved when the digital space is designed to be connective and collaborative. One such activity to enhance connection and collaboration is dividing students into project groups for discussion and projects. Requiring student-led discussions or annotation activities and designing question prompts that are meaningfully relevant and/or reflective can foster online communities of learning as well. Starting off the term with a personal share or declaration of course goals is a great way to build community and connection early on that can lead to easier interdependence and motivation for collaboration later in the term.

Instructors might use in-person meetings to tackle difficult course concepts, provide lectures, facilitate group/lab work and in-class presentations. Students have access to an accompanying online course shell, 24/7, hosted on the learning management system. The online course shell is used for course content, assignment submissions, videos, readings, participating in discussions, submitting quizzes, exams and accessing the gradebook tool. The logistics of course administration and ease of giving students timely feedback can be a great time saver for faculty. Students prefer the flexibility of reviewing course content anytime, anywhere on their mobile devices and using the course tools, such as the assignment dropbox, discussion tool and quick access to the library widget.

As you plan activities and weigh which activities to move online and which to implement face to face, consider the following:

  • Identify potential challenging content areas in the course, and consider what new online resources can support students learning complex concepts.
  • Design your assignments first and consider what smaller activities will support their success (scaffolding). Which ones can be done online?
  • Ask if content can be given through a recorded lecture watched before or after class. This can act as a prompt for in-class activities or enhance concepts from class time.
  • Is the labor involved in the online experience appropriate?
  • Is the activity or content clearly outlined and presented? Why are they doing it?
  • Does the activity or content you present match your learning outcomes and is it realistic for your student population to succeed? Consider technical capacities, collaborative skills, and communication styles when designing and planning for alternatives. It’s possible that you may not know your student population well enough to determine success but having an open and adaptive mind will help you navigate these choices and create just-in-time solutions.

The most effective and engaging blended courses create digital learning experiences that enhance course content and provide opportunities for students to create, connect, and collaborate. Success is often achieved when educators make strong connections between learning that occurs in the classroom and learning that occurs online. Educators can place self-paced activities online as preparation for class or design activities for meaning — making and reflection to build a cohesive and well-balanced blended learning environment.

Encouraging Academic Integrity through Course Design

Academic integrity is not only about holding students to high standards and creating consistent expectations through course policies. More fundamentally, it’s about helping students find the value in facing learning challenges and rising to meet them. Academic integrity develops foundational skills for ethical growth, as well as skills for fair and responsible behavior in society and the workplace. Also, preserving academic integrity in higher education preserves the integrity of the degrees it issues.

Students share faculty concerns about academic integrity and social responsibility. An inventory conducted across 23 institutions found majorities of both students and campus professionals “agreed that personal and academic integrity should be a major focus of their institution” and “strongly agreed that developing competence in ethical and moral reasoning should be a major institutional focus” (O’Neil, 2013). Faculty and students are partners in the belief that academic integrity and social responsibility are important aspects of a well rounded education.

Building Community in Your Course

Setting the tone for your course helps clarify expectations early on and can help prevent academic misconduct. The key is a community-building approach that avoids an adversarial relationship with students. This can be tough, but the rewards are tremendous. Community building encourages students to persevere and take risks when they may otherwise have considered a shortcut. Students who understand the reasoning behind your methods are more likely to abide by your expectations and transfer them to future learning situations.

Why Student Integrity Lapses

By aiming to understand where students’ motivations reside, we can turn a violation of academic integrity into a learning opportunity. Students live complex lives. Their reasons for making poor choices may not be simple, calculated, or even intentional.

So why do students cheat on tests, plagiarize writing, copy homework, etc.? In an interview, James Lang, the author of Cheating Lessons, noted that “cheating is an inappropriate response to a learning environment that’s not working for the student” (Golden, 2013). Understanding students’ motivations will help you know how to proceed when a violation occurs.

  • They don’t find peers and faculty who value academic integrity. Students aware of peers cheating or faculty ignoring cheating are more likely to assume that cheating is necessary to succeed. Similarly, schools that have no honor code reported nearly twice as much cheating as those with honor codes (McCabe, 2005).
  • They want a competitive edge. Students who focus on getting the grade they want, gaining entrance into a competitive program, or pleasing parents or mentors may choose a shortcut toward that goal. Conversely, students who focus on growth, improvement, and mastery are less likely to cheat (Lang, 2013).
  • They haven’t been taught to accurately cite research. Many students enter college having never been adequately taught how to conduct research and incorporate sources into their writing. They may have a vague idea of what plagiarism is — but accurately paraphrasing, quoting, and summarizing borrowed information requires skills they may not have mastered, causing them to inadvertently commit plagiarism.
  • They are ill equipped to face the challenges of college. Whether it’s poor time management, too many commitments, or family emergencies, students often find themselves with work due before they’re prepared to complete it with quality. To exacerbate the issue, many students are afraid to contact their instructors about these issues or ask for help until it’s too late.

Teaching to Encourage Academic Integrity

As faculty, we need to collectively look in the mirror and realize we probably contribute to the cheating problem. Therefore we are at least partially responsible for fixing it. Faculty members are clearly a key to achieving academic integrity, because they are in the classrooms and dealing with students every day (McCabe et al., 2012, p. 144).

Syllabus and First-Day Practices

Your syllabus is a contract between you and your students, and is often students’ introduction to your expectations. It’s important to specifically state your policies on academic misconduct and links to the official PSU Student Code of Conduct section on academic dishonesty. Your statement can be brief:

“Academic integrity is a vital part of the educational experience at PSU. The PSU Student Code of Conduct lays out the university’s policy on academic dishonesty. A confirmed violation of that Code in this course will result in failure of the course.”

You’ll help students succeed if you encourage them to consider — from the first day of class — your course requirements and how to meet them. The Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Berkeley developed an academic success assignment that prompts students to break down tasks to meet their goals for a class. This primes students to practice behaviors that will lead them to meet those goals.


Meta-teaching is “teaching about teaching,” a practice that can help any instructor be more mindful about their own practice. Overtly practicing meta-teaching with your students is a powerful way to include them and promote academic integrity. Meta-teaching improves metacognition in students, but also helps them understand the reasoning behind your methods — which encourages them to internalize those methods and carry them into future learning.

Meta-teaching can be as simple as explaining why a certain policy or practice is important to you as a teacher or scholar. It can also be a deeper part of learning, where students are encouraged to analyze the why behind your teaching practice and how that practice is intended to engage them.

One example of meta-teaching is from a class where the instructor uses innovative grading. During the first week, the instructor defines formative and summative assessment for students and explains why she chooses to avoid summative assessment until the end of the term.

Fostering Students’ Intrinsic Motivation

When students are motivated to learn, they have no desire to cheat or take shortcuts. When deciding whether or not to cheat, students often ask three questions (Murdock et al., 2006):

  • What is my purpose?
  • Can I do this task?
  • What are the costs associated with cheating?

Students who understand why coursework matters, what steps they should take for success, and what the consequences are for cheating are more likely to engage ethically in the class. When courses are built around problems, questions, and challenges rather than with the goal of covering content, students are more likely to be curious and motivated to complete the work themselves. Similarly, helping students connect the coursework to their own lives and interests will spark greater intrinsic motivation.

Students are intrinsically motivated to do well in their courses when they have a positive relationship with the instructor and content, when they’re given choices about how and what to learn, and when they have the resources they need to succeed.

Considerations for Online Classes

Because you will often never meet your online students in person, it can be a challenge to make positive connections that encourage ethical academic behavior — but it can be done. The editors of Distance Education Report (2016) detail seven techniques that foster academic integrity in online classes:

  • Set expectations.
  • Build relationships with students.
  • Help students transfer face-to-face classroom norms to the online environment.
  • Keep groups small.
  • Use frequent and varied assignments.
  • Use technology judiciously.
  • Allow opportunities to play and explore.

Above all, remember to plan your course to foster engagement.

Turnitin as a Teaching and Learning Tool

Turnitin is a PSU-supported platform that allows students and faculty to determine whether student work is original or borrowed, and whether plagiarism may have occurred. Turnitin alone cannot determine whether academic integrity has been violated, but it assists faculty and students in deciding whether a text meets the standards of documenting borrowed information.

While Turnitin is designed to detect plagiarism, it can also help students learn. With appropriate planning, you can give students ownership over their use of Turnitin, helping them improve their ability to incorporate borrowed information.

  • Include a statement (such as this) about how you’ll use Turnitin in your syllabus so students know what to expect.
  • Introduce Turnitin to your students as a way for them to improve, not as a policing tool. Demonstrate how it works.
  • Build in enough time for multiple drafts. This will allow students to use Turnitin to detect potential plagiarism and make corrections.

Dealing with Academic Integrity Concerns

If you suspect academic misconduct, your best resource is the Director of Conduct and Community Standards in the Dean of Student Life Office.

  • It’s the only central program on campus that can track concerns, patterns of behavior, and incidents of academic misconduct.
  • It’s the only office on campus that offers educational engagement opportunities for sanctions that foster accountability.
  • It has knowledgeable staff experienced in academic integrity concerns and new or developing trends in academic misconduct.


Distance Education Report. (2014). Seven Ways Online Faculty Can Promote Academic Integrity. https://www.daytonastate.edu/onlinestudies/files/7%20Ways%20Online%20Faculty%20Can%20Promote%20Academic%20Integrity.pdf

Golden, S. (2013, September 11). ‘Cheating Lessons’. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/09/11/author-new-book-discusses-ways-reduce-cheating-and-improve-student-learning

Lang, J. M. (2013). Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Harvard University Press. https://search.library.pdx.edu/permalink/f/p82vj0/CP71246236900001451

McCabe, D. L. (2005). It takes a village: academic dishonesty & educational opportunity. Liberal Education, 91(3), 26. https://search.library.pdx.edu/permalink/f/eqsjiv/TN_cdi_proquest_reports_209822048

McCabe, D. L., Butterfield, K. D., & Treviño, L. K. (2012). Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do about It. Johns Hopkins University Press. https://search.library.pdx.edu/permalink/f/p82vj0/CP71344019770001451

Murdock, T., & Anderman, E. (2006). Motivational Perspectives on Student Cheating: Toward an Integrated Model of Academic Dishonesty. Educational Psychologist, 41(3), 129–145. https://search.library.pdx.edu/permalink/f/eqsjiv/TN_cdi_proquest_journals_204134258

O’Neill, N. (2013). Infusing Personal Responsibility into the Curriculum and Cocurriculum: Campus Examples. New Directions for Higher Education, 2013(164), 49–71. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/10.1002/he.20075

Learn More Elsewhere


Course Design Essentials

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 2s 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. (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).

Some questions to consider when creating assessments and assignments:

  • 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.

  • 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.

A few 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.

Some 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. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/12.1.13

Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning into Practice. Stylus Publishing, LLC. https://search.library.pdx.edu/permalink/f/p82vj0/CP71186902670001451

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. https://search.library.pdx.edu/permalink/f/p82vj0/CP71131314480001451

Organize Your Course for Success

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.

  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.