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Course Organization and Alignment

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Students frequently comment on how easy it is, or is not, to navigate a course. As faculty we put many hours of thought into the order and structure of our courses, but we do not always convey that framework to our students. This leaves them feeling lost, both in the abundance of materials to work through and in navigating the digital space of the course. It is important to articulate not only the intellectual organization of a course (chronological, thematic, sequential, etc.) but also the locations of items students need to access in the course.

How Do Students Move Through the Course?

On the first day of face-to-face (F2F) courses faculty typically explain the course syllabus, expectations, and schedule. In order to help students understand the flow of the course, faculty should also narrate the ‘story’ or trajectory of the course.

What are the course objectives? How do they support General Education or program-level outcomes–i.e. how does the course fit into the bigger picture? What are the modules or units the students will progress through? What are the objectives for the units, and how do the assignments or assessments (in a general sense) align with those objectives? Are students practicing component skills that they will have to apply in a research project at the end of the course?

These ‘sign posts’ can help students stay motivated because they understand both what is expected of them and how the work relates to course or program goals. This clarity up front also helps to establish a rapport with students and ease stress in the first days of a new course.

The same concept applies to hybrid and fully online courses. In a ‘Start Here’ content area of the course you will want to explain (in text, screencasts, or a short introductory video) how you organized the course. Also explain where students should look for the modules, assignments, and other course materials. While some faculty are reluctant to record videos of themselves, even a few videos helps to personalize and create faculty ‘presence’ in an online course.

Organizing Content

F2F, hybrid, and online courses can all benefit from a clear and consistent organization strategy for digital content. Not only will students know where they need to go each week, the outline of the course is reflected in the way the material is organized giving students one more way to visualize how the elements of the course all fit together.

Consider placing all of your course content into one content area or folder and linking to that folder in the course menu. For example, you might call the content area or folder “Units” or “Modules.” You can name it anything that makes sense, just convey that designation to the students.

Within this central content area or folder, create a folder for each module or unit of the course. Within each of those module folders, place all of the materials and assignments students will need to access during that module. This includes content materials, videos, external links, assignments, discussions, etc.

Organizing your course in this manner makes it easy for you to update things and it gives students a single, central place to go each week to access everything they need to do. If you prefer having separate assignment and discussion links in the course menu, still consider linking to those in one centralized folder for each module or unit. Students frequently become confused or miss things that need to be completed when items are located in different places and require students to move back-and-forth between course areas. This can inadvertently lead to students feeling like the course is “tricky” because they can’t find or easily see what is due and when it is due.

Another strategy is to build your content, rubrics, and assignment instructions in Google Drive and simply link to the Google folder in your learning management system. Some faculty find this simplifies updating materials used in multiple sections of course and from semester to semester. The links can easily be copied to other course sections but management of the files is always in one place on your Google Drive regardless of how many sections you teach. Just keep your folder and file naming strategies consistent and clear, for example: Module 1, Module 1 Instructions, Module 1 Assignment, etc.

“Chunking” Content and Cognitive Load Theory

“Chunking” content is essentially breaking it down into manageable groupings of 4 to 7 related details or concepts. Dividing a course into units is an example of chunking at the course level, but it also can be done within the unit (where there are perhaps 4 or 5 major concepts covered), the individual lesson (where 1 major concept is broken down into 4-7 concepts or examples), etc.

Using an outline, chart, or bulleted list can help students see how the content relates to what came before and what comes after, which in turn helps them process the information into long-term memory.

Chunking is important because it helps avoid overloading students with information or tasks simultaneously, also known as Cognitive Load Theory. In essence, research has shown that the brain’s working memory can only hold 7 (plus or minus 2) items at a time. Working memory is where we analyze and process information coming into our senses, so it is critically important as educators to manage this flow of information we give to students.

There are several types of cognitive load, which you can read about in more detail here, but the take-away is to limit both the information and technology demands we make of students’ working memory at any one time to better facilitate learning. Once working memory is overloaded, information simply does not get processed for long-term storage in memory. External stressors can also add to cognitive load, distracting students from learning or focusing.

Obvious Course Alignment

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All courses need measurable learning objectives for accreditation and university assessment purposes. If you need guidance on writing measurable learning outcomes, two great resources are Vanderbilt’s explanation of Bloom’s taxonomy and UNC Charlotte’s lesson for writing measurable course objectives. Each module or unit needs to have measurable objectives as well.

Being explicit on the alignment between module objectives and the larger course objectives is important for students. What is obvious to faculty is not always obvious to students in this regard. Moreover, students need to see the module objectives explained in terms of how the readings or content align with the assignments in that module.

In other words, students need to know what resources to use for which tasks or assignments (versus what is supplemental) and they need to understand how the assignments help them achieve module- or course-level objectives. Without this information, students are unable to self-check their learning as they progress through the module or course. This increases anxiety and leads strong students to feel unprepared for assessments and underprepared students to be overconfident based on what they think they understood after reading a text once. In either case, this dissatisfaction can lead any student to disengage with the course.

Building the course around the objectives and assessments–sometimes called backwards design–makes it easier for you as faculty to spot where an assignment does not have adequate course materials or where course materials no longer connect with any assessment or objective (which can happen as we revise and update courses over time).

Talking about this alignment with students can be accomplished in F2F courses at the start of each module or unit. In online courses, providing instructions and a checklist at the start of the module can convey this information for students. You also may want to organize the alignment for the whole course into a chart showing the connections between objectives and assignments or assessments. The chart can be given to students, or you may keep it for your own reference or for when your course is reviewed.

Course organization and alignment are necessary for both student and faculty success, and by making these sometimes hidden connections more obvious, we can prevent one source of frustration for students.

Additional Resources

  • Smith, R. A. (2014). Conquering the content: a blueprint for online course design and development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this page: Cannon, J. A. (2021, July). Course Organization and Alignment.

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