Simple course design benefits students

When designing courses, teachers should provide students with a clear navigational route, so students know what they are to do next to accomplish their learning objectives. Photo by DaveBleasdale (Flickr/Creative Commons)

There are so many options when creating a course structure in a learning management system (LMS) such as Moodle, Blackboard or Canvas. Some teachers choose to organize content by type, so they place all the assignments, quizzes and reading in their own separate areas of the course. Other teachers may choose to only use the LMS to deliver documents, so they place pdfs in one area and Word documents in another.

If the teacher is not careful, pretty soon the course structure will cause unnecessary confusion for students, who will have difficulty finding what it is they are supposed to be working on each week. Students will unnecessarily need to navigate to different areas of the course just to complete assignments or find what it is they are supposed to read.

It is important for teachers to plan ahead before creating their course content in an LMS. Teachers should provide a clear navigational route for students, so students know what to do next. At NCSSM, we promote a simple modular course design, where in each module of the course, the student is told what their learning objectives are, and the teacher then provides all the reading, quizzes, forums and discussions as part of that module. Students can then go through each module bit by bit until they know they have completed their objectives.

Instructure recently collected data from 387 colleges and universities that use its Canvas learning management system. What they found is that courses that are designed with less complexity generate more student interaction and engagement. Their research supports what we’ve said all along: courses should be designed with a simple, modular structure that allows students to get from point A to point B with the least amount of hassle. During their study, Instructure found that the more complex the course navigation, the lower the student submissions, grades and interactivity. In courses that were designed with simple structures, students posted approximately three times more forum posts. 

Simple design does not mean the course content is shallow or not fully developed. It simply means teachers or course designers should look at navigational complexity first and foremost, and simplify the course structure so students can get to the activity they need to get to faster with less confusion.

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