Rebecca Johnson--To design or refine a course in any mode, begin by looking at your course's learning objectives and how they are assessed. Do your objectives clearly and accurately describe what students will learn in your course? Do assignments, materials, and student experiences align in such a way that students are likely to be successful in your course if they earnestly apply themselves? In this post, I will discuss some fundamental ideas in instrucitonal design and how a design mindset can help you identify opportunities to refine your courses. Taking another look at your learning objectives can also help you refine with flexible learning in mind.
Start with Learning Objectives to Refine Instructional Choices
Instructional design (ID) is a systematic and iterative approach to creating learning experiences. The particular focus of instructional design is on learners and the skills, knowledge, and abilities they should gain as the result of participating in instruction. Learning is change. This change is also largely invisible. Instructors must devise methods for collecting evidence to determine how well students have learned, or the extent to which students have been changed by instruction. These desired changes are described as learning objectives. A learning objective should be clear, observable, and measurable.
Learning taxonomies are classification systems that describe different types of learning. The taxonomies employ observable and measurable verbs that instructors can use to write or refine learning objectives. For more information about learning taxonomies and writing good objectives, see
- Northeastern University’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research: Creating Outcomes That Guide Learning
- Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning: Taxonomies of Learning
- Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation: Articulate Your Learning Objectives
Once the learning objectives for a course have been written, instructors select assessments. An assessment provides instructors (and students) with evidence of how well students are learning. An assessment can be formative or summative. A formative assessment provides feedback to learners on how well they are progressing, giving them opportunities to improve. A summative assessment provides information to instructors and students about how well students have achieved the learning objective. Summative assessments are often given at the end of a unit or the end of a class. See Classroom Assessment Techniques for more information on informal formative assessments; see also the Eberly Center's resource on Classroom Assessment Techniques.
Once objectives have been articulated and assessments designed, instructors can create experiences, select and sequence course materials, and provide opportunities for student interaction that they believe will help students learn. Designing instruction is a complex task. Happily, instructional design is iterative. Every course is an instructor’s best attempt at a design that supports student achievement of course objectives. Every course is also an opportunity to gather data that will help instructors refine their approach to the course. The ILI has experts on hand to assist you as you design and refine your courses.
Designing Flexibility into Your Course
Once the learning objectives are articulated, assessments identifiied, and course materials and topics selected and sequenced, you can begin to design a flexible course. Consider your objectives and how opportunities for gathering evidence about student learning may change depending on course mode. What physical and digital options do you have for assessing learning in a physical classroom? In Zoom breakout rooms? In a myCourses discussion board? Consider the suggestions in the blog post Using Digital Tools to Support Class Activities in All Modes.
The complexity of life in a pandemic has underscored the importance of maintaining communication with students and, when appropriate, developing flexible approaches to course policies and assignments. The following are ways that some faculty have responded to complexity with flexibility. Consult with colleagues and with your department chair if you have questions about implementing any of the following:
- Provide students with some flexibility on assignment due dates.
- Consider a revise and resubmit policy for some assignments.
- In a course with frequent, low-stakes quizzes or assignments, allow students to drop one or some number of them from the final grade tally.
- If a student experiences an unexpected disruption, consider allowing that student to complete group projects as an individual.
- Consider how you can provide students with options for the format of an assignment. What variety of evidence can you use to determine whether a student has met the desired learning objective? A poster instead of a paper? A video instead of a presentation?
These resources may be helpful to you as you design or refine with flexibility in mind.
- What Is Universal Design for Learning? Universal Design for Learning (UDL) combines what we know about how learning works with a commitment to providing course materials that are engaging and accessible to produce a learning experience that benefits all students. Instructional flexibility is a core value in Universal Design for Learning. This post has many links to UDL strategies and resources.
- How to Conduct Your Class Online This ILI blog post descriibes common tools used in the online mode.
- The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard has developed a set of resources on learner-centered design.
- The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University has developed their web-based resources in line with learning science. Their Solve a Teaching Problem site is particularly useful.