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6 Core Best Practices for Online Course Design

Here are six research-based best practices in pedagogy that will benefit your online, hybrid, or even face-to-face (F2F) course design.

A group of students sits around a table working collaboratively on a project.
Image credit: Pixabay

1. Foreground Student Interactions and Motivation

Student-to-student interaction is critical in both F2F and online courses. Students will feel isolated in the course if they are not given opportunities to introduce themselves and build connections with other students. These interactions develop a network of reciprocal intellectual and social support, which students may not have outside the classroom. They also provide opportunities to learn from others’ perspectives and to practice collaboration through discussions, group activities, etc.

Considering what motivates students is equally important for active engagement and student retention. Students are motivated when they feel like they are part of a learning community, but they also can develop intrinsic motivation when they feel the course materials and assignments are relevant to real-world problems or their own personal learning and career goals. Some ways to achieve this approach include explicitly drawing connections to present events or problems for students, and building flexibility into assignments so that students generate the research questions or can demonstrate learning by focusing on a problem or topic important to them.

2. Reduce Anxiety with Clear Expectations and Alignment

Provide students with clear instructions for assignments. Make sure students understand which course materials or units align with each assignment, and that your unit-level objectives articulate what knowledge or skills students should develop with that unit and assignment. This allows them to self-check their understanding and see how the assignments relate to the unit and larger course objectives.

Provide students with a grading rubric for discussions and assignments as well. Rubrics can also streamline grading by eliminating the need for repetitive comments when components are missing–although it is best to still provide feedback on the work overall. For larger projects and assignments, consider structuring the rubric as a checklist for students to use to prepare the final project. You may also consider providing anonymized models from prior students’ work (with their permission) for “B” level work. This helps students to understand what is expected and eases anxiety over graded work. Finally, provide students with a list of deadlines or a calendar so that they can plan for all the due dates up-front.

You can view rubric examples from Carnegie Mellon and see suggestions for creating different types of rubrics from UC Berkley.

3. Apply Universal Design for Learning Principles in Your Course

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as defined by CAST provides guidelines for creating a learning environment that benefits all students. It has three core principles that suggest we design learning environments to provide students with multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. Below are some ways to implement each principle into your course design.

Strategies for Engagement:

  • Recruit student interest by allowing autonomy in selecting topics or paths to achieve a learning outcome
  • Optimize the relevance and authenticity of an assignment by replicating real work applications of skills or content knowledge
  • Vary assignment expectations and resources to align the challenge of the work with the current skills and abilities of the students (reduce support over time)
  • Encourage students to reflect on their own growth through metacognitive journal or reflection assignments, which can develop self-assessment skills important to life-long learning

Strategies for Representation:

  • Offer learning materials in a variety of text, auditory, visual, and multi-media or interactive formats to give students multiple ways to engage the information through different parts of the brain
  • Provide alternative access to information that is visual or auditory (transcripts, additional explanations and alternative text, etc.)
  • Clarify terminology, background context, and patterns to help students understand how to decode discipline-specific details and process the information in relation to other things they are learning
  • Assist students in maximizing the transfer of new skills and knowledge to other contexts, including outside the specific discipline of the course

Strategies for Action and Expression:

  • Allow open-inquiry or multiple paths to achieve the end learning goal or performance, and optimize access to tools or assistive technologies for all students
  • Use multiple methods of assessment for students so that they can demonstrate skills or content knowledge mastery in a variety of settings or ways
  • Vary the expected levels of performance (increasing expectations as students master content) and provide numerous opportunities to practice those performances (skills or information) throughout the course
  • Help students set their own learning goals and develop strategies to achieve those goals, both within your class and in their overall course of study
This chart represents the three principles of UDL, which are providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. You can explore each of the principles in-depth at the CAST website linked in the image caption and again in the Additional Resources sections at the bottom of this page.
View or download the UDL Guidelines at the CAST website.

4. Accessibility

Applying UDL Principles can begin to move course design towards greater accessibility for all students. However, it is still important to consider the accessibility of your course in its own right. Legal precedents set by Atlantic Cape Community College (2015) and Wichita State University (2016) cases require that equally effective content and learning activities be present in course design from the outset, not on-demand.

In short, the agreement between the National Federation of the Blind and Wichita State University sets a high bar, requiring “equally effective” and “timely” access to all materials across the campus including all course delivery formats as well as websites and even extracurricular opportunities. You can explore more information about WSU’s efforts to achieve an accessible campus, but the take-away point is that faculty are also responsible for implementing accessibility standards in their courses.

Here is a resource that goes in-depth on course materials and accessibility to assist educators.

5. Faculty Presence and Feedback are Key

From the student’s perspective, it is very frustrating to receive limited or no feedback on assignments and not see the faculty member active in the online classroom. They may not know what they are doing right or wrong on the work, and that often leads students to disengage from the course.

Instructors can create a presence in an online setting in several ways. First, use the announcements to narrate the course story and progress. Consider sending messages at the start of each unit, or at a minimum every two weeks. Faculty can also engage with and guide discussions or activities. If a discussion board is open for a week, try checking it every two days to encourage or redirect conversations as needed. Third, create opportunities for students to contact you via email or synchronous meetings with tools like chat and Zoom. These can be individual meetings, like office hours, or open times that anyone in the class can check-in and discuss the course material or questions. Finally, be sure to provide specific and timely feedback to students to help them progress throughout the course. You can even record your feedback via video or audio tools to make extensive comments less overwhelming to students, although keep in mind the accessibility of these options too.

Most of an online course is built in advance of day one, but instructors also need to be present throughout the course to observe where students are struggling, to provide remediation or additional resources to address those problems, and to correct inaccurate prior knowledge or guide students when they slip into a side track. Instructor presence also ensures community rules for civil discourse so that all students feel comfortable expressing their perspectives and learning from other perspectives.

Arizona State University has a resource for creating faculty presence in a course and this article from Edutopia includes research-based reminders for crafting helpful feedback.

Frustrated student is biting her pencil. This is decorative but connects to the section on faculty engagement to avoid student frustration.
Image credit: Pixabay

6. Keep Content Organized and On-Point

Students are relatively or completely new to the discipline and may not understand your organization strategy for course content. It is critical for you to explain how you organized the course and course materials–both intellectually (progression of topics, etc.) and physically (where do students find assignments?). You may even consider using a graphic chart to frame the relationships among course topics for students. Make sure to clearly denote material that is supplemental from content you require students to read/view to complete the assignments.

It is also important to organize your content into groups of related concepts or materials, with 4-7 items in each group. Groups can be units, sub-units, individual lectures or lessons, etc., all building on one another for the larger unit or course objectives. This is popularly referred to as ‘chunking’ content, and it facilitates the brain’s ability to process information in working memory without overloading students. We should always consider both the content and technology as part of the cognitive load we are placing on students at any one point in a course. Too much information or stress trying to learn and apply a technology while also learning course material will make it difficult to process and learn anything from that lesson or activity.

Finally, some best practices for using and creating multimedia materials in your course. Ideally lessons or videos should be 10-15 minutes in length; in longer class periods for F2F courses, shift activities every 15 minutes, which can be as simple as moving from lecture to questions. Research shows this is the best timeframe for content delivery to both keep students engaged and to avoid overloading them with information. Research (Mayer 2009) also points to the most effective multimedia materials being those that synchronously display easy-to-follow images or graphics with related audio content or simple text summaries (but not audio and text, only one or the other with the visual cues).

Internet bandwidth is also a concern, and it is explored in-depth in this recent article. Use streaming servers like YouTube or Google Drive to share video content so that students do not have to download a large file (including narrated PowerPoints) before they can view it.


Additional Resources

CAST. (n.d.) Universal design for learning chart. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Conrad, R. & Donaldson, J. A. (2012). Continuing to engage the online learner. Jossey-Bass.

Herman, J. H. & Nilson, L. B. (2018). Creating engaging discussions: strategies for “avoiding crickets” in any size classroom and online. Stylus.

Major, C. H. (2015). Teaching online: a guide to theory, research, and practice. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multi-media learning (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.

Nilson, L. B. & Goodson, L. A. (2018). Online teaching at its best: merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. Jossey-Bass.

Online Learning Consortium. (n.d.) OSCQR rubric. Retrieved from http://onlinelearningconsortium.org/consult/oscqr-course-design-review/

Quality Matters Higher Education Program. (n.d.) Sixth edition higher education rubric. Retrieved from http://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/rubric-standards/higher-ed-rubric

Quality Matters Higher Education Program. (n.d.) Video length in online courses: what the research says. Retrieved from https://www.qualitymatters.org/qa-resources/resource-center/articles-resources/research-video-length

Tobin, T. J. & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.

Weinstein, Y. & Sumeracki, M. (2019). Understanding how we learn: a visual guide. Routledge.


Cite this page: Cannon, J. A. (2021, July). 6 Core Best Practices for Online Course Design. http://www.drjacannon.com/online-best-practices

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