Imagine This…

You visit your local market to pick up some peanut butter. As you walk in, you realize that they have completely rearranged the store and your favorite peanut butter is no longer where you expect it to be. You ask three different store employees to help you locate it, but even though you feel like you’re getting closer, you never actually find it. After a considerable amount of time, you give up and walk out of the store with no peanut butter in hand.

A disorganized online course is like the rearranged market. When a student logs in and cannot easily find the information necessary to complete a specific learning task or lesson, their frustration often leads to them giving up. So what does an organized course look like?

An Organized Course

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


The “three Cs” of good course organization are: clarity, consistency, and 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, this roadmapping needs to be explicitly built into course design and instructional copy. Each time a student has to spend 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 get an overview of:

  • Expected learning outcomes
  • How students will demonstrate them and be assessed
  • How much reading / viewing / field / lab work is required, and when
  • What student interactions (group work, discussions, peer review) are required, and when
  • What content topics the course will cover, and in what order.

The most common way to provide this organization is with weekly modules that group course materials in folders and present them in chronological sequence. Links to everything needed for each lesson should be in that module or folder. 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 are:

  • 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 instructional copy for activities and assessments. Don’t make students refer back to the syllabus for activity instructions.

It’s extremely helpful if your department or program agrees on some conventions for how courses will be organized, so don’t hesitate to reach out and consult with your colleagues about establishing some course design patterns.

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. One of 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, and 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.

There are many variations on this pattern, depending on whether learning outcomes are more experiential, inquiry-based, or use an apprenticeship model 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 20-30 minutes before they need to do something in order to process and connect with the new information. What should they do? Active learning can take many forms, but what’s important to remember is that students need to process new ideas and skills by practicing them, not just absorbing them. A handy constructivist motto to remember is: “telling isn’t teaching, and listening isn’t learning.”

For every major skill in your pyramid, think about how students can do something to practice that skill fairly soon after it’s introduced. For information retention, provide a brief review quiz. For critical thinking or skill performance, ask students how they would choose between 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 a lot of challenging assignments — these should be fun, low-stakes activities.

Sequencing and Pacing

Once you’ve defined your key learning outcomes, “chunked” them into 20-30 minute lessons with a low-stakes activity for each, the next step is to put them in a logical sequence. Beware of 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 1) see this skill demonstrated, 2) practice and refine this skill with feedback, and 3) 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 in order to remember and be able to apply it.

But there’s a problem with this “think and do” learning pattern, which is that 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. These can be assessed on a done/not done basis or with a simple rubric.

Ideally, we should also provide a range of content delivery options. This can be as simple as making sure students know that 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.

Learn More Elsewhere

This article was last updated on Nov 12, 2020 @ 3:44 pm.

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