Course Design: Creating Quality Learning Experiences

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All teachers and trainers want their learners to excel at their studies, think critically, and apply their knowledge. Learners need to remain motivated to learn, responsibly keeping track of their learning outcomes, and engaging wholeheartedly with the course material.

Quality learning experiences expand on the learner’s knowledge base. They also help prepare them to apply their thinking in unknown scenarios, whether they are personal, social, or professional.

In this article, we touch upon the components of an effectively designed online course, its benefits, how to go about designing your next course, and the common pitfalls you may encounter.

Benefits of Improving Course Design

Course design positively impacts the quality of learning for learners. Learners are more likely to start and complete courses if proper design elements are incorporated. That’s because well-designed course material becomes much more usable and easier to consume. Design elements can help learners navigate the course, give them easier access to resources, and push them to engage with the learning material. Ultimately, it leads to mastery of the learning outcomes.

From a commercial standpoint, well-designed courses reflect the high quality of learning available to the learners. Learners who are more satisfied with the knowledge they’ve gained are more likely to refer those courses to others.

We often underestimate the power of good reviews and word of mouth. However, referrals are one of the most effective ways to put your eLearning courses on the map. More referrals mean more sales and more sales mean more revenue. But, how does one go about designing an online course that focuses on high quality of learning?

How to Design an Online Course

For a course to impart knowledge effectively and keep learners engaged with the course material, it needs to include appropriate design elements.  These include clear learning objectives and easy-to-use navigation tools.

Clear Learning Objectives

Most courses start without highlighting the goals and learning objectives at the beginning of the course. As a result, students fail to understand the direction they’re headed in. Clarifying and reminding learners of the learning objectives gives them an idea of the desired outcome they’re working towards.

Bullseye as icon

It helps them chalk out the “why” aspect of their learning experience, that is, why they’ve chosen to take the course. Is it for attaining a skill that they need? Is it for achieving a personal goal?

Reminding learners of these objectives is an excellent way to keep them motivated. There are a number of design elements that can help you go about this.

Creating sidebars that hold a checklist of learning objectives is a great visual tool for indicating if a learner is achieving their learning outcomes. Similarly, including a summary table at the beginning and the end of modules, chapters, texts, lectures, and slides, can communicate what the course material presented and what learners can expect to learn from new sections.

Navigation Tools

The biggest benefit of online courses is that you can easily integrate tools that aid in learning. Learners are required to go through mountains of learning material, require simulation tools, need access to learning management systems and support during exercises.

Navigation icon.

Having a navigation tool within your online platform, such as a navbar, enables learners to consume their education more efficiently. Having the right set of tools when you need them is half the part of creating a quality learning experience.

It’s important to keep your course structured so it is easily navigable. That way learners intuitively think of what resources they’re going to need in order to achieve their learning goals.

Consider the simplicity and the essentials you’re going to need. One way to go about this is to build up learners’ knowledge of how to navigate the learning platform.

Pop-ups are a great way to divert learners’ attention. They can be deployed during the learning journey, pointing them towards what you think will help them at the time. Another way to help learners navigate is by providing them with tutorials. Having a tutorials section encourages learners to explore and exert their curiosity.

Strategic Assessment Placement

Conventional courses are designed in such a way that they gauge the learner’s aptitude by placing assessments at the end of the course, with a few quizzes in between the duration of the course.

However, this practice is not the most effective at gauging a learner’s ability and tracking their progress. Yes, placing exams and tests during these points in the eLearning do help, but they require learners to cram in a lot of information, promoting rote repetition instead of using their thinking skills.

The best way to go about this problem is to place assessments strategically. You’ll want to place them so that aptitude is tested right after learners have gone through a chapter, section, or text. The flexibility offered by eLearning platforms can then be used to your advantage, allowing you to place assessments depending on the level of difficulty encountered by the learner.

Plus, you can incorporate assessments in various forms like multiple choice questions, fill in the blanks, flashcards, or even long or short form textual answers. The benefit here is that it allows learners to identify where they stand at any specific point in the course.

Depending on their score, a smart design would redirect them to or suggest areas where they need to revise. Ultimately, learners will have a better understanding of how to progress further and study at their own pace.

Supplemental Resources

Your online course usually can’t explain every single aspect of a certain subject. For example, when teaching mathematics, the use of the binomial theorem is taught before linking it to probability. The scope of the course may prevent you from including its derivation, proof, and other applications.

Normally, learners find it much easier to use the binomial theorem when they know where it comes from. In fact, including this knowledge can help them learn to engage with the curriculum at a deeper level.

Having a section dedicated to supplementary resources can aid learners and encourage self-study to quench their curiosity. You can even embed your own resources like research papers, articles, links, as well as resources that are readily available that learners don’t know about or may miss out when searching for them.

Course Design Process

As a trainer, you likely already have an idea as to what must be included in your online courses curriculum; however, you may experience challenges when going about outlining the flow of the course.

This is where an effective course design shines the most. The ability to connect different topics so that clear learning objectives are identified will differentiate your course from others. During the course design process, you’ll chart the direction of your course.

Diagram showing parts of course design process.

The Backwards Approach

Conventional courses are designed in such a way that it builds on the knowledge gained during previous sections. This approach is more curriculum-centered rather than focusing on the learning objectives attained. It may benefit you to incorporate a course design strategy that starts by developing a course outline starting with the learning outcomes before incorporating the curriculum that supports it.

As an example, let’s look at a course on mathematics – calculus. What are the learning objectives of calculus?

For simplicity, let’s say you want your learners to solve for areas and volumes using calculus. In order to do that, they need to understand continuous functions, how they are represented onto a 2D plane, and what the relationship between multiple variables is.

They also need to understand the concept of limits, antiderivatives, integrals, summations, sequences, and general axioms of mathematics. On the most basic level, they need to understand number systems, what areas and volumes are, and the terminology used in mathematical texts. What’s also important is a clear demarcation of where one concept ends, and another begins.

To help you understand this, you can create a backward flowchart that charts a learner’s journey. However, when presenting this flowchart to your learner, the arrows point the other way for them to realize its coherence. See the below example as an illustration.

When Creating a Course Outline Using the Backwards Approach:

Flowchart of example of course design.

Note that the above approaches aim to two different topics; however, integrals are included in both. The difference really comes down to the learning objectives of the two.

In the above example, integrals are a corollary to the learning goal, that is, the area under the curve, whereas, in the flowchart below it, it is a standalone topic, generalizing the use of integrals. You’re free to go about how you approach this problem, what topics you think should be included, and the depth you need to exhibit.

Coherence

The flow of course design is governed by coherence. Using the same example above, note that you’re jumping from topic to topic. What’s important to consider is the structure of each topic and the transition from one to the other.

The structure needs to remain consistent throughout the eLearning course. Learners need to assimilate to the way the content is presented so they know what to expect when studying a topic. It helps them navigate different learning media easily.

For example, learners need to know when they’ll expect a quiz after they’ve studied a certain topic. Having this knowledge beforehand can mentally prepare them for the task ahead.

Make sure that all instructions provided are clear and concise. There are many ways of representing information, but for it to be concise, you need to incorporate visualized representation. It helps to draw mind maps, include charts, and diagrams that visually sum up the information.

Organization

Additionally, the connections between each topic need to be clear when transitioning, deviating, or detouring. Therefore, information needs to be organized in such a way that learners don’t lose track of their learning objectives.

They could be learning peripheral topics that work towards an eventual goal. Not knowing this fact may deter them from going on with the course since it isn’t something they signed up for. Knowing that it builds up their knowledge towards the eventual learning gives learners an idea of the bigger picture.

Organized information makes much more sense to the user as it helps discern the learning objectives, helps makes sense of the subject matter, but most importantly, is easier to digest and retain.

Assessments

We briefly touched upon assessments in course design. Let’s expand on it a bit further and see how they can be better utilized in an online course for creating quality learning experiences.

Icon showing timer and grades.

You need to keep assessments transparent. That means a learner has complete access to their prior attempts at any assessments to allow them to gauge their standing.

Since assessments are normally marked, the point system can be used to prevent them from moving forward if they haven’t understood a topic sufficiently. Note that this practice serves not to limit a learner’s exposure to a certain subject; instead, it helps them realize the complexity that lies ahead. Giving them an idea of how important a topic is at the current juncture will help them later on.

Turning in Tasks

If you’re not satisfied with this and want to use a more hands-on approach, you can assign learners short answer questions, tests, assessments, or have them turn in a task before they move on.

Plus, you don’t have to include conventional assignments and are free to go about the teaching tools that you employ. Most courses tend to focus on passive modes of teaching. This means the onus of learning is placed on the learner where they have to rely on their comprehension and learning abilities themselves.

You may find that using active learning techniques, like having them work on projects, leaving aside a day for discussions, or using visual teaching aids, are more beneficial to learners. That’s because of the active engagement level they demand.

Furthermore, fostering collaboration cannot be possible without having a place for learners to provide feedback. Forums are perhaps the best places to do that.

They allow learners to come up with their queries, hold discussions, and highlight grievances. With this information, you can dynamically adapt to learner’s needs without having problems arise in the future. This lets your learners take charge of their own education and helps them remain motivated to pursue your course.

Mistakes to Avoid

Learners often find that they are missing out on an interactive environment when it comes to online learning. There are several reasons for this, but primarily, only including passive learning resources is the most common culprit.

Learners’ attention spans are not geared to go through mounds of text, long lectures, and stressful exams. Having learners work through activities that will truly cement concepts in their minds is a much better approach.

Again, you need to focus on the measurable outcomes instead of the curriculum. Remember, there’s only one way of defining the curriculum but multiple ways of teaching it. See which method transfers knowledge most effectively by gaining feedback from your learners.

Lastly, a good course design has the flexibility to change. Remember, you’re teaching online and not in a classroom. That means you have more freedom to incorporate tools and resources for the benefit of your learners. It won’t be the case that you find the ideal design on your first try. You may need multiple iterations to find the right blend of teaching methodologies, topic progression, and learning outcomes.

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