Evidence into Practice: How to Apply Fantastic Instructional Design to Your Online Classroom

by Kristin Murner, MBA, MSEd, Director, Instructional Design | July 1, 2020

To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you are going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” - Stephen Covey

Designing a great online experience for you and your learners in an online classroom begins with the end. Just as planning out a semester starts with the creation of a syllabus or a careful review of state standards, you have to know what the destination looks like in order to chart a path that leads there. The online classroom can deliver the same learning objectives and the same outcomes, but sometimes requires a bit more creativity in translating (what are normally) in-person activities for your learners to an asynchronous environment where the feedback loop isn’t as organic.

Break Up the Course Outcomes into Solid, Measurable, Learning Objectives 

Truly, there are few things that pay as solid a dividend in course creation as writing quality learning objectives. Spending time organizing your course in a scaffolded way will help track student acquisition of all the little skills that lead them up the ladder to the outcomes you establish in your syllabus. The meta outcomes that show that a student is ready for the next course or graduation, etc. are always made up of a subset of skills or content. Working backwards is the easiest way to create the subunits of instruction and measurement that will ultimately lead to proficiency.  

#1. Ask the question:

What does the student need to be able to DO when they are done with this course? These measurable behaviors will dictate your course outcomes.

#2. Break down the outcomes:

Break those outcomes into sub-skills and further into concrete learning objectives.  

Clear learning objectives always start with a MEASURABLE action verb. Words like “understand” or “appreciate” are not testable, and therefore not used. Think about how you would assess whether a student has learned the skill you are teaching, and this will go a long way towards writing both the learning objective and your test questions.  We’ve created a free, downloadable handout on Writing Great Learning Objectives to help you get started.

Once you have learning objectives (and an idea of how you will assess the acquisition of those skills or content) it’s time for the fun part—  designing the instruction.  After all, this is likely why you became an educator, right? (It’s a rare person that gets into teaching because they love a good learning objective or writing tests, though I’d argue that I work with a bunch of both!)

And to be clear, up until this point, creating either in-person and online classes are identical. Both require clear objectives and assessments, but the delivery method and the tools you use will likely, though not necessarily, be different. This is also the moment where having spent the time up-front creating learning objectives will pay huge dividends. 

When you are passionate about a subject area, it is tempting to want to tell students everything you know about a given topic. It is also where your expertise will nudge you into spending more time teaching the topics you like or feel confident delivering. Neither of these is ideal for your learners.  Having a concrete learning objective means every bit of content you deliver and every assessment item you write is in support of helping the student achieve that objective. Period.  If you find yourself adding superfluous content that isn’t aligned with the objective, you either need to add another objective (and only because you clearly overlooked that content’s role in building to the course outcome) or you need to prune your content back.  

Ask Yourself: What is the Best Way to Teach to This Objective?

In the last Digital Classroom Resources webinar, "Engineered for Success: Evidence-Based Strategies for Online Learning," we talked about evidence-based best practices for instructional design. One of the main takeaways was to “chunk it up, mix it, and spread it out.” While this may not be the most attractive image, learning is best acquired in smaller doses where foundational content (lecture/video/reading, etc) is interleaved with quizzing or activities that apply that new information and engage more senses to help make it stick.  Repeatedly using it and attaching new learning to existing memories, skills, or content is key to aiding retention.  Again, the learning objective is designed to be “nugget sized” —  it’s one behavior, knowledge component, or skill.  Each objective gets its own treatment and should be considered separately.  

What is the very best way for students to appreciate the content or skill to the level demanded by the objective? Online learning management systems (LMS) are ideally positioned to deliver chunked, interleaved, spaced learning, but it is on you, the educator, to create the learning objects and assignments at the right depth.  This is a case where “less is more.”  

For each objective, give students: 

  • The information they need, 
  • An initial opportunity to use it, and 
  • Create ways to use the information in bigger reflective or application activities that force them to link the new learning to information they already know.  

Consider the Tools

When moving online, especially if it wasn’t your idea in the first place, it is easy to view it as always inferior to in-person. But online learning doesn't have to be inferior. For example, does your class have a career panel where you bring in speakers to talk to your students?  Moving online automatically means you can include professionals from around the globe in a synchronous classroom rather than being restricted to those who are locally available. Diversity is easily enriched this way and everyone benefits.

We’ll talk more about the synchronous vs. asynchronous debate later this summer, but it is clear that sheer volume of online educational resources can be overwhelming.  Oftentimes, there are free versions for educators, but be careful as they often restrict the number of students, the data you receive, or the amount/size of files you can host for no charge.  You will also want to check with your department/school to see what licenses for tools and platforms are already available.  

Here is an exhaustive checklist of things to consider when evaluating new online educational tools. While this list is particularly beneficial if you are in charge of recommending and supporting tools for your district/campus/department, it is also good to be reminded of questions and features that you may not have considered individually, as well.

Think About the Experience from the Student Perspective

Just like educators, students are busy.  They have a lot of moving tech pieces in their lives, but it is a false assumption to say that “students are digital natives and won’t struggle online.”  Using Instagram and YouTube doesn’t automatically translate into understanding how to interact online with classmates in an online forum. Be sure you can use the tools you assign to students. 

Most EdTech vendors will have self-service training online.  Do it before you create anything.  You don’t want to spend hours copy/pasting only to learn there is a “duplicate entire module” feature down the road.  Beyond that, create your first lesson/video/object and have a friend do it —  with no instructions.  Can they use it solo? You are better off using fewer tools and learning to use them well than to try to dazzle your students with variety.  

Your job is to help them master the learning objectives. Spending brain power learning and mastering (multiple) new tools will add to the extraneous load your students are experiencing and lessen the effort they can apply to learning the content.  That is not a trade worth making.

Practice and Evaluation

Our assessment expert, Laura, dug deep into online testing in an earlier blog.  For our purposes here, it is important to note that research points to how frequent quizzing helps student knowledge retention (Hattikudur & Postle, 2011) and specifically how online quizzing can lead to enhanced self-efficacy (Karpicke & Roediger, 2008).  Students who are forced to go through the effortful retrieval of knowledge during testing benefit in both the testing experience and in the review of those tests. Take the time to write good items in-line with your learning objectives, and write clear and detailed explanations as to why each answer choice is correct or not.  Credit your students for not only completing the quiz, but the remediation process, as well. 

For some courses, we have students complete test reflection worksheets that ask them why they got questions wrong. This type of activity forces students to learn error patterns, identify content gaps, and helps them generally learn who they are as a test-taker. Frame the quizzing experience as a learning activity and not merely evaluative.

Let’s Talk Shop

When thoughtfully constructed, online learning can be effective, creative, and productive for both the educator and the learner.  Framing the whole process around well-written learning objectives makes all the tasks that come after easier.  It creates a bite-sized “litmus test” of sorts, where you can be sure that each asset or assessment item created is in direct support of an associated, essential learning objective. Using fewer tools deeply helps build familiarity and increases the time spent mastering objectives over time spent learning platforms.  Finally, offer ample opportunity for students to quiz themselves and learn from their mistakes.  We’ll dig deep into these topics and more in our next webinar,“Evidence into Practice: How to Design to Your Online Classroom.” 

Resources:

Hattikudur, S., & Postle, B.R. (2011). Effects of Test-Enhanced Learning in a Cognitive Psychology Course.  Journal of Behavioural and Neuroscience Research, 9, 151-157

Karpicke, J. D., and Roediger, H. I. III (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science. 319, 966-968.

For more educator resources to use in the digital classroom, read more articles on our blog.

Kristin has worked in traditional, distance/online, and for-profit education for over 20 years. She has taught undergraduate marketing on an Army base; chemistry, algebra and physics at a private K-12 school, and she has delivered and proctored more standardized tests than one should ever have to count. At Kaplan Test Prep, Kristin helps craft tools and policies that promote solid learning science across all of KTP’s business units. She holds a BS in health physics, an MBA in marketing, and an MSEd in instructional design and technology.

See more posts by Kristin Murner, MBA, MSEd, Director, Instructional Design