Have you ever been part of a cooking disaster? Not the kind involving a malfunctioning appliance or a grease fire, though that’s terrible. Rather, I’m talking about a good old-fashioned cooking debacle, such as when someone thought the recipe said tablespoons instead of teaspoons, or accidentally swapped salt for sugar, or infamously thought to themselves: Recipe? Ha! Who needs a recipe? And I may or may not have some personal experience in such matters.
However, in my defense, some cooking flops happen for other reasons, even outside of the chef’s control. For instance, have you ever tried to cook without the necessary ingredients or instructions on how to use them? I was once a member of the audience in a kitchen game show where top chefs were given limited cooking utensils, absurd ingredients, and silly rules, such as not being allowed to touch anything for a minute if they said the mystery word, watching helplessly as their “masterpieces” overcooked. It was hilarious to watch, and truly, a disaster, just as the producers had hoped. Needless to say, cooking without a proper setup is very challenging and one would be very lucky, indeed, if anything turned out right.
So, how exactly does this relate to us as educators? In a couple of previous articles, Baking a Calculus Cake That Rises and The Icing on the Cake – Final Preparations for the AP Exam, I shared a cake-baking analogy within an AP Calculus context to discuss successful teaching strategies, such as distributing the cognitive load, approaching content through multiple layers, and revisiting foundations when tackling deeper content, right up to the standardized exam, which is like the final touches on the cake. In the cooking analogy, such instructional initiatives are like various cooking strategies — the principles behind great teacher practice. However, what good are the best cooking practices without a good recipe to follow and the ingredients to match? Let’s face it, even a master chef is going to have trouble baking a cake without flour, sugar, or salt.
In this article, I’d like to discuss what is, arguably, the most fundamental element of all in creating a successful learning experience for an online or even blended student — the instructional design (i.e., the course recipe). Even with the most exciting course outcomes, the top teaching methodologies, and the very best teacher intentions, creating a successful course experience for students can only occur with the right foundation in place — the underlying pedagogy of the course. Ultimately, it is this pedagogical foundation that will determine how high the ceiling can be for student learning.
So, let’s take a look at some of the elements that create a great instructional foundation for an online course. It’s shared from over a decade of our team’s experience in creating courses, learning what works, what works great, and what doesn’t work at all!
Helpful Questions to Ask When Designing a Course Recipe
To begin with, when looking at constructing the pedagogical framework of a course, we have to ask some important guiding questions, such as:
- How can we design the course to be as conducive to learning as possible and minimize the number of obstacles to learning?
- How can we design instructional materials and strategies so that they decrease the amount of cognitive load required?
- How well does the course design suit the subject and grade level? How should it be different from other subjects or grade levels? How should it be the same?
- Where can the course design enhance the teacher-student relationship or at least avoid marginalizing it?
These questions and others frame our thinking as we design and build online courses at StudyForge. Whether STEM, Humanities, or other subject areas, a great deal of intentionality goes into the instructional design of each learning object in order to make learning easier for students. The following general principles are an important part of our online pedagogical recipe, if you will, and can be grouped into categories, as shown below.
Ingredients for Effective Online Course Design
Promote a smooth cognitive flow
- Have a clear single purpose or guiding idea throughout.
- Ensure thoughts naturally and logically flow from one to another.
- Use similar language throughout the instructional content and assessments so that students can spend their limited working memory on the content as opposed to the packaging around the content.
- Be efficient — but not too efficient!
- Minimize cognitive load whenever possible.
- Avoid cognitive overload at all costs.
Use palatable packaging
- Use palatable packaging
- Assume students could be working through varying levels of anxiety around learning.
- Use a conversational style instead of the formal language used in most math textbooks (Personalization Principle).
- Use an accessible grade level of language when introducing new concepts.
- Reveal content piece by piece.
Scaffold the content
- Build upon previously learned content.
- Provide frameworks to help students know what’s coming and where to place new information.
- Divide content into small chunks, such as keeping videos as short as possible, but not shorter (Segmenting Principle).
Direct the student’s attention
- Direct students’ focus on key information. For example, in videos, we synchronize text, audio, video, and animation so students’ focus is precisely on the right thing at the right moment (Contiguity Principle).
- Use interest-generating or attention-grabbing hooks.
- Use visual cues.
- Avoid using distracting animation (Coherence Principle).
- Avoid extraneous or unnecessary information.
- Allow students time and space to explore and discover.
- Use guiding questions.
- Use interactivity throughout.
- Use a pinch of humor when it fits.
- Use words and graphics instead of words alone (Multimedia Principle).
- Infuse communication with genuine enthusiasm.
- Invite further reflection and consideration.
- Use a note package to accompany the lessons.
Enhance the teacher/student relationship
- Provide the right amount of prescribed teacher-student touch points — not too many, not too few.
- Design the content with customization in mind, so the teacher can add their own personality to the course.
- Provide training materials to orient teachers to student problems quickly.
While this list isn’t exhaustive by any means, I hope it begins to give you a sense of some of the underlying pedagogy necessary to create a solid foundation for online and blended learning. Using these principles has enabled us to create successful, award-winning content with outstanding results.
Amazing Teachers + Amazing Courses = Amazing Online Student Experiences
We don’t need to serve our online students the mediocre educational fare of the past. If we construct our courses with solid, proven pedagogical principles, students can get the best possible educational experiences and teachers can have maximal impact. This is because, just like great chefs need great ingredients to create their masterpieces, amazing teachers like you need equally amazing courses to effectively educate their online students.
About the Author
Bruce Merz, M.A.
(Curriculum & Instruction), M.Sc.(Math)
Bruce is a passionate educator who has taught for over 25 years at both the secondary and post-secondary levels, in the classroom and online, and in the public and private/independent educational sectors, including educational work for the government. Bruce is the STEM Curriculum Specialist at StudyForge. He loves designing courses that create amazing learning experiences for students and help them achieve their potential. He also loves seeing how digital curriculum can help students in developing regions such as in the townships of South Africa, where he was able to see this firsthand, and is excited about what the future holds for education around the globe.