Give ‘Em a Clear Learning Path

A single path opening into two paths

Not all online courses look the same. That may seem a rather obvious point but it’s one that instructors may not realize regularly presents a barrier to learning for their students.

The Syllabus is over here in one course, and over there in another. The Home page may tell the student how to get started or it may be a Spartan declaration of the instructor’s contact info, the textbook title and nothing more (in some cases, there may be no Home page at all). The discussions in this course are part of the modules, but in that course, they’re accessed through a separate link in the navigation.

The differences aren’t inherently wrong but all this variety can translate to “I’m lost!” for our students.

And when a student is lost, they’re not learning.

5 Tips for Designing Usable Online Courses

There’s a great web usability book entitled, Don’t Make Me Think. Author Steve Krug’s main point is that “when you’re creating a website, your job is to get rid of the question marks.” In other words, make what your web visitor should do so obvious they won’t get distracted by having to think about it (otherwise they’re likely to leave). This principle holds true when creating an online course. Students are more likely to interact with and be successful in a well-designed, intuitive course.

In the 1980s, John Sweller’s research pointed out that extraneous cognitive load (the amount of mental energy expended to deal with non-essential information) can be reduced by good course design. While we don’t want our students to stop thinking entirely ;-), we do want all their thinking powers directed at absorbing our wonderful content, not on figuring out where to find the discussions or how to submit their assignment.

In the spirit of “don’t make me think,” here are five easy-to-implement sign posts that will guide your students to success in your course.

  1. Make sure there’s a clear starting point
    This might be a big Start Here button or a “Do This First” list of steps on your Home page.
  2. Clean up your course navigation menu
    Disable any links you’re not asking students to use. For example, there’s no need to include the Discussions, Assignments and Quizzes links since they can get to those through your modules.
  3. Create an intro video for your Home Page
    Do a short screencast (not more than 3 minutes) in which you show students how to find the important elements of your course. This does double-duty, as it also builds your “online presence.”
  4. Follow a consistent module structure and naming convention
    Inconsistency brings with it confusion. Pay attention to how course elements are titled and placed within your modules to help students avoid spending time figuring out what’s what or what’s next.
  5. Include contextual instructions for activities
    Just as you offer some kind of context when introducing an activity in a face-to-face class, it’s important to do the same online. Why are you having them watch this video, what ideas or details should they glean from this article, when will they be expected to use this information?

Invite Someone to Test Drive Your Course

Before publishing your course this coming semester, it’s a great idea to take yourself through it with the eyes of a student who’s unfamiliar with both your topic and with Canvas. Better yet, ask a friend or colleague (or even some Joe off the street) who knows next to nothing about your content to spend 10-15 minutes exploring your course as if it’s their first day of class. Then “interview” them:

  • Did you know what to do first, second, third?
  • Were you frustrated by anything?
  • Was anything unclear?
  • Did you get stuck anywhere?
  • Did you know how to get help if you were stuck?

I say, “Vive la différence!” when it comes to instructional methods. Variety is the spice of life and, arguably, the essence of a well-rounded education. (It also makes your job more fun!) But save your creativity for your content, not your course structure. It’ll free up your students’ time for learning.


Posted in Articles, Course Design Showcase, Rubric Section A.

Passionate about teaching and learning, Helen enjoys showing instructors how to apply best pedagogical practices in Canvas to create dynamic courses that keep their students engaged.

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