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Course design principles for live and online teaching

The following table presents evidence-based practices for course design and instruction. 

Learning outcomes

Best practice

Determine your course learning outcomes

  • Follow the Understanding by Design framework for guidelines on course design
  • Articulate clear course learning outcomes that identify the knowledge, skills, attributes, values you want students to have on completion of the course (E.g.: By the end of this course, successful students will be able to …)
  • Include your learning outcomes in your course syllabus

Note: 3 - 5 broad learning outcomes are recommended


Best online practice

Determine the technology-related outcomes

  • Anticipate a wide range of technical skills your students will need to participate fully in the course
  • Create or curate existing instructional materials to help them learn how to use the tools (use the tools creatively to do so if possible to demonstrate all the functions & features)
  • Introduce the technology skills at the beginning of the course
  • Provide ample opportunity for practice
  • Organize tech-related instructional materials in a folder for students to access throughout the semester if needed

NOTE: While Learning Outcomes describe student learning by the end of the course, tech skills are needed at the start of the course


Prioritize learning transparency

  • Clarify your learning outcomes at the start of each class to help keep students on track and engaged as your course progresses 

Course alignment

Best practice

Develop a course plan

  • Validate your learning objectives by aligning them with your course content, learning activities, and assessments to ensure a quality course design
  • Implement a backwards design approach, which works with any kind of course delivery method from face-to-face to fully online.


Accessibility and inclusion

Best practice

Use the Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to make your course as accessible as possible

  • Provide multiple ways of addressing content, not just one format (i.e. not all readings or all videos)
  • Offer options for expressing learning. For example, in an assignment, allow students to create a video/podcast, graphic or written work where possible. Determine these possibilities based on the learning outcome being assessed.
  • Vary the learning activities in the course to engage as many learners as possible. While it’s good to have a coherent and predictable course structure, it’s also wise to vary the types of activities you offer. Some students will engage at different levels and in different ways depending on the kind of activity.
  • Make instructions and expectations for all assignments and activities extremely clear. Consider providing rubrics, templates or example work from previous classes.

Ensure your content is inclusive

  • Examine who wrote your primary course materials (i.e. textbooks and other materials). Is it dominated by a particular race or gender? If so, find alternative sources to complement or replace existing material
  • Whose voice/perspective/paradigm holds authority in your content? Ensure a variety of voices, paradigms, theories, etc. are represented.

Best online practice

Ensure course materials and media are accessible

  • Include alternative text that describes what is depicted in an image (not just a general title of the image)
  • Include captioning for all videos (Note: Yuja provides auto-captioning)
  • Ensure all uploaded text material can be read with a screen reader (NOTE:  PDF scans of books, articles are not readable)
  • Provide watch AND read options for the same topic when possible
  • Format your online space and use fonts and spacing that are friendly: Eg: use sans-serif fonts, use bold font to highlight key ideas, use wide spacing, use high contrast font colour with background.

NOTE: Avoid using italics


Best practice

Develop a balanced assessment plan

  • Identify the types of assessments that will provide robust evidence that students have met the course outcomes

Note: a balanced assessment plan includes a variety of evaluations and grade weightings distributed throughout the semester

Vary the types of assessments you conduct

  • Use a range of assessment tools (collaborative projects, open-book exams, reader responses, reflective assignments, portfolios,etc.) to evaluate for deeper learning
  • Plan for both formative (non-graded) and summative (graded) assessments at regular intervals
  • For assessments that are built on a specific context, vary the context or aspects of the context each semester to maintain the integrity of the assessment


Follow Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles

  • Ensure your assessments follow the university’s accessibility guidelines


Best online practice

Adapt for the virtual environment

  • Strive for more frequent and shorter assessments throughout the course

Include alternative assessments

  • Use discussion forums, virtual practicums, web quests, simulations, e-portfolios, etc. to promote student engagement with course content


Plan frequent knowledge checks

  • Provide frequent and specific feedback to students with polling activities, short quizzes, discussion groups. etc.
  • Create knowledge check activities that focus on key theories, concepts, ideas in the class (NOTE: clarifying what is key helps maintain student motivation and engagement in an online environment).

Vary the focus of your knowledge checks

  • Use a variety of approaches to check for student learning (polling activities, one-minute papers, etc.)
  • Evaluate different levels of knowledge (Eg: use questions to review factual knowledge and use other question types that prompt students to apply knowledge and concepts)

Course content & instructional materials

Best practice

Select your course resources

  • Choose the course book, readings, media, etc.
  • Consider replacing printed textbooks and assigned course materials with Open Educational Resources (OER)
  • Identify required readings, including title, author(s), edition number and availability
  • Share information on how course resources can be purchased, borrowed or accessed with students prior to the start of the course


Structure, organize and sequence your course content

  • Select the topics that support your course learning outcomes and assessments
  • Decide what parts of your content to include (i.e.foundational and critical) and what parts to eliminate
  • Determine the sequence of your course content (e.g. topics arranged chronologically, a progression from simple to more complex concepts, familiar to unfamiliar, or a series of theoretical principles followed by application)

NOTE: a concept map or graphic representation of the topics can help you organize content.

  • Keep the scope of the content manageable and focus on the prerequisite knowledge students need. Ask yourself “What do they absolutely need to be able to successfully complete their learning activities and assignments?  Vs What is extra and beyond the course curriculum?”

Provide multiple instructional resources

  • Use a variety of content, including readings, images, maps, simulations, audio, and video.
  • Integrate relatable, real-world examples into course materials
  • Wherever possible, provide various perspectives on the content.
  • Use open source instructional resources to increase student engagement and success.

Create your own instructional resources

  • Create your own instructional resources (e.g. PPT slides, videos, etc.)
  • Divide your lecture/videos into smaller chunks (main ideas/concepts) and intersperse these chunks with learning activities (discussion, collaborative activities, etc.)
  • If you are using audio Powerpoint presentations, create the script ahead of time, break down the presentation into smaller chunks (e.g. 6 minutes each), and redesign your slides to act as a storyboard for your script.


Best online practice

Use tools supported by Concordia University

  • Use Moodle, Concordia’s learning management system (LMS) to organize and store course content in a secure web-based environment
  • Use Moodle to post, collect, and grade assignments, administer quizzes, host asynchronous online discussions, share resources, and more
  • Use Zoom for synchronous class sessions, group discussions, online synchronous collaborative work, online office hours, guest speakers, student presentations, etc
  • Use Yuja, Concordia’s lecture capture tool, to pre-record lectures and share them with students on Moodle


Organize your Moodle course page

  • Consider how students will interact with your course materials, and structure your content so that it is clearly organized and easy to find and navigate by students, for example:
  • Organize your course by week, topic, or module and use Blocks to organize your course page
  • Create a table of contents
  • Keep a clear and coherent pattern throughout the course
  • Provide clear titles for each week, topic, section, or activity
  • Provide a high-level overview for each section
  • Use subheadings to organize course content within each section
  • Use indentation to help organize packets of information and create visual hierarchy in your course page
  • Identify tasks, due dates, and resources
  • Control access to content or the pace of the course by hiding advanced course content, activities, or sections


Chunk information in smaller bites

  • Break your content down into sub-topics to keep the learners focused.
  • Divide live lecture and recorded video presentations into short segments (5-7 minutes) and alternate with brief interactive activities, such as polling, discussion or group collaboration to maintain student engagement
  • Anticipate what students will struggle with the most, and provide bridging explanations, additional examples, a Frequently Asked Questions page, or a glossary of terms to further support learning
  • Expose your students to difficult key concepts and crucial information early and often in your course and help them interact with these elements in a variety of engaging activities and relevant explanatory approaches.
  • Provide your students with bridging examples and multiple models to help them understand the relevance of a particular difficult concept or a course as a whole as well as the significance of why this concept is critical to their overall education.
  • Assign students enough work and learning activities without overloading them and ensure students workload in online courses is proportionate to the credits awarded.

NOTE: Smaller chunks mean smaller file sizes which is important for many students with slow internet.


Plan for how students use the technology

  • Provide instructional materials that students can access anywhere (on their mobile devices or desktop). PDF files are an excellent choice for documents that students will not have to edit.
  • Inform students of any new materials that you post in Moodle
  • Use inclusive formatting for more inclusive course materials


Provide a variety of content resources

  • Present your content in different forms including readings, images, maps, interactive tutorials, simulations, audio, and video.


Build your technological capacity

  • Research and practice with the technology you will be using in the course
  • Research and practice with the pedagogical features that are included in to the platform(s)
  • Identify support available to you in case of problems


Learning activities

Best practice

Plan for active learning

  • Provide students with frequent and varied collaborative learning activities that engage them with you (Instructor), the content and their peers
  • Intersperse your content delivery with active learning techniques to support deeper learning


Best online practice

Curate a tech-toolkit to support active learning strategies

  • Research the functions and features in your platform to identify the different ways students can engage with content, work collaboratively, share their work, and communicate with you
  • Augment learning with applications and websites that increase students’ curiosity for, and engagement with, course content and activities

NOTE: Consult  Concordia University Educational Technology Guidelines for Faculty and Students to ensure that you protect your students' information, privacy rights, images, and intellectual property when using third party technologies.

Build critical engagement

  • Use platform tools strategically to design engaging collaborative activities (discussion forums, wikis, etc.)
  • Use a discussion forum or other tool to facilitate peer feedback of assignments, reading responses, etc.
  • Develop protocols, or instructions to facilitate group work online (Eg: Assign roles for online discussions on a rotational basis, so that each student in the group has a specific function within the discussion such as 'primary responder', 'devil's advocate', 'synthesizer', etc.)
  • Use the “jigsaw” method to have students work in groups to become experts in one idea/theory/principle (each group is assigned a different theory/principle). Each group synthesizes their learning into an object (document or other kind of media) to share with other groups
  • Use social features, such as ratings and upvoting, whenever possible and appropriate
  • Use tools such as Edpuzzle and Perusall to make passive activities, such as videos and readings, more interactive.



Best practice

Develop a feedback plan

  • Plan for when and how you will provide students with feedback to help them monitor their learning progress
  • Plan for how you will get feedback from students to help you identify how you might adjust your class to support learning success
  • Make feedback an integral part of the learning process is also key to improving students’ metacognitive skills

Include Peer Feedback

  • Create guided peer-to-peer feedback review activities to promote deeper learning
  • Clarify your expectations by modelling how to conduct a peer review using sample work and a guided worksheet or rubric NOTE: Co-creating the guided worksheet/rubric with students is a great way to acquaint students with the task
  • Model constructive approaches to providing feedback and appropriate communication strategies


Promote self-reflection

  • Identify strategic points in the course (lesson, assignment, exam, etc.) to encourage self-reflection
  • Provide prompts to engage students in self-reflection and metacognitive practices
  • Use reflection activities (Eg: journals, 1-minute papers, group discussions, etc.)  at different points throughout the course. For example:  Prior to launching a new unit or chapter, use prompts like “What do I already know about this topic?”; After wrapping up a unit, use prompts like “What have I just learned?”,  “What do I still need to learn?” “What is most confusing or challenging about this concept / skill?”


Best online practice

Provide multiple feedback formats

  • Acquaint yourself with the variety of feedback methods you can use (Eg: annotation tools & voice recordings for written work, graded quizzes, etc.)
  • Include short quizzes or polling activities at various points of each class to check student understanding of concepts and to ensure students have frequent and immediate feedback on their progress
  • Use your office hours to provide students with virtual individual virtual feedback via Zoom
  • Use the Moodle Workshop Activity to automate the peer review process


Learning environment

Best practice

Familiarize yourself with the physical space

  • Determine how you will use the classroom (size, configuration, etc.) and available technology (computer podium, software, etc.) to best suit your instructional plan

Build a class community

  • Plan icebreakers for the first day(s) of class to allow students to become acquainted
  • Clarify your expectations for participation and collaboration
  • Co-create class ‘rules’ with students
  • Provide guidance & models for constructive communication and productive work habits
  • Conduct a needs analysis to get a snapshot of the specific interests and self-identified needs of the students in the group

Best online practice

Establish Teaching Presence

  • Record a personal video introduction
  • Send a welcome email
  • Conduct a 5-10-minute synchronous meeting with each student
  • Record an intro video and tour of your Moodle Course
  • Model what presence is in an online course

Establish Social Presence

  • Encourage students to post pictures and profiles on Moodle
  • Create a student introductory forum to act as an icebreaker exercise
  • Create a virtual discussion space where students can meet and support one another
  • Divide classes into study groups of 4-6

Establish Cognitive Presence

  • Devise communication/exchange structure that has students build understanding between themselves 
  • Build opportunities for students to think and apply the course content together
  • Start and finish your class in Zoom (e.g. provide a hook, intro, and closure activities)
  • Design discussion forums around meaningful and thought-provoking questions

Ex. Teamwork Value Rubric:

Teach and model good ‘netiquette’

  • Use greetings and closures for asynchronous messages and live sessions
  • Instruct students to address peers by name in discussion threads to encourage a better quality of interaction (more personalized)
  • Model how careful attention to word choice, acknowledging the merit of a peer’s idea/comment before sharing your own, and keeping the discussion focused on the ideas rather than the person associated with them are crucial to maintaining a positive tone and productive exchange
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