Overall Course Structure

To create a solid course structure you need to think about your course as a whole and identify the most important concepts, issues, topics. The course should be logical, consistent, easy to navigate, assignments/activities should be easy to understand, relevant and authentic.

To create a course structure a detailed course plan is required. The course plan should include, but not be limited to analyzing both students' and instructor's needs and course goals; selecting course materials for students' knowledge construction; designing activities, discussion topics, projects, and tests; envisioning any potential technical or academic problems; and testing the accessibility of course content.

A detailed course plan should address (a) Navigation/Flow (b) Chunking/Segmenting Content (c) Course Assignments/Learning Activities (d) Authentic Learning Opportunities (e) Course Outline.

a. Navigation/Flow

The course concepts, issues, topics need to be organized in some kind of logical order. They could be arranged chronologically, simple to complex, or some other sequence. The goal is to have topics that build on one another that allow students to integrate previous topics into each new topic or concept. For online courses, how it is organized is particularly impactful to student learning because students must contend with navigating in a new environment and must stay motivated to digest large amounts of information in a self-paced environment. Flow of topics and logical navigation throughout the course is particularly important because getting lost is one of the most common causes of frustration in online learning.  

b. Chunking/Segmenting Content

Course materials need to be ‘chunked or segmented’ into small digestible pieces. Breaking down information into bite-sized pieces allows students’ brains to more easily digest new information. The reason the brain needs this assistance is because working memory, which is where students manipulate information, holds a limited amount of information at one time. (Mayer, 2009; Miller, 1955).

c. Course Assignments/Learning Activities

Content should be organized weekly to correspond with the semester/term, and assignments. Weeks in the online course should align with the course syllabus. Where possible, categorize the course assignments into groups such as discussions, exams, projects, readings, or videos. These activities (readings, discussions, projects, etc.) should then be presented in the order in which students should complete them. For example, a student would read the assigned chapter, complete a practice exercise related to that reading (summative assessment), post to the discussion board to reflect on the topic/assignment s/he just completed, and then take a quiz as a formative assessment.

A variety of content organizational methods can be used; however, the week-by-week method is most helpful for students. The week-by-week presentation of content has built-in time management components; it helps students visually see the amount of work they will need to manage and, specifically, the timeframe in which the work will need to be complete. With this organization, students are able to approach their course preparation using a clearly delineated, step-by-step framework.

To further enhance this organization, weekly work/assignments should be broken into ‘categories’ where students can easily see what tasks will need to be completed. Categories labeled with short, succinct words of what a student will DO such as ‘Read’, ‘View’, ‘Listen’, ‘Practice’, ‘Discuss’, ‘Submit’ ‘Exam’, and ‘Project’ should be used to organize material and help students quickly identify assignments and large impact activities such as an exam or project deadline. (See image below)

Weekly work should start with content delivery (readings, narrated lectures, screencasts, etc.) followed by opportunities for students to practice (low stakes activities reinforcing the content with immediate corrective feedback), and then an assessment mechanism. (Gagne’, 1985; Merrill, 2002). This sequence could repeat multiple times during one week.

d. Authentic Learning Opportunities

Provide students with authentic tasks. Variety is very relevant to student motivation. Variety should be included but not in relation to the framework. This can be achieved by varying the types of assignments and activities provided to students. These may include case scenarios, reading assignments, web field trips, group work, diagraming exercises, etc.  Assignments should be challenging and have the balance necessary to increase curiosity and creativity. Activities should be developed that have personal meaning to the students and can draw on prior learning and real-world experiences. (Chickering and Ehrmann, 1996; Gagne’, 1985).

e. Course Outline

To help visually frame the structure of the course provide students with a detailed description of the course structure for each week. A ‘Weekly Overview’ table documenting all the above information provides students with the structure and detailed information required for each week at a quick glance.

Weekly Overview table

Works Cited

Chickering, Arthur and Stephen C. Ehrmann (1996), "Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever," AAHE Bulletin, October, pp.  3-6.

Gagné, R. (1985). The Conditions of Learning and the Theory of Instruction, (4th ed.), New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Mayer, Richard F. (2009). Multimedia Learning (2nd ed.).  Cambridge University Press.

Merrill, M. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43–59. doi:10.1007/BF02505024

Miller, George A. (1955) “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” American Psychological Association Psychological Review, Vol. 101, No. 2, 343-352

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