Improving Student Learning Through Course Consistency

How To Successfully Structure An Online Course
Pavlo Plakhotia/
Summary: Setting the structure of an online course can be challenging for instructors new to it. A course shell reduces cognitive load, but there are specific steps that are required to implement it successfully.

Lessons Learned: The Value Of Successfully Structuring An Online Course

The other day, I was speaking with a new graduate student who is balancing two online courses this fall. Her first class has 160 students. Each week of the course is laid out in a similar format: There is a sequential list of readings to click on, videos to watch, and assignments to complete. In addition, the faculty members record a brief video on their phone summarizing the work and/or previewing the upcoming week. A progress bar leads her directly to what is next. Everything is easy to find, and she enjoys the clear and engaging approach.

Compare that with her other class where she has to collect the readings and assignments from various locations within the online environment each week. Assignments are in one section, readings are in another. Sometimes they refer to one another but sometimes they don’t. She’s never quite certain about the best sequence. The class has two teaching fellows who spend extra time with students answering questions about assignments and clarifying directions. This class, not surprisingly, is limited to 30 students.

 The Organization Of Online Courses

Nearly every student and parent I speak with has a similar story, at all levels of the educational system. Why has the organization of online courses become such a common complaint, and how can institutions begin to address this when instructors are already scrambling to adjust to this new medium?

Most students will eventually figure out how any online course is organized. But the quicker that students can internalize the structure, the more attention they can devote to the content. Cognitive load theory states that the creation of structures, or schemas, allows learners to treat multiple components as a single chunk. Over time, these schemas are internalized, freeing up our memory to take in new information.

One example I've used in training faculty is a story about driving my daughter to her first singing lesson one winter evening. Google Maps directed us to the instructor’s house, out in the Vermont countryside on an unfamiliar road. When Google announced "you have arrived at your destination," I checked the house number and realized we were nowhere near the correct address. At that point, I became wholly focused on squinting to see house numbers as I crawled along the snow-covered road. I drove by the correct house, almost backed into a ditch when turning around, and was 10 minutes late to the lesson. The next week, I found the house easily. That success was predicated on the fact that the house was in the same place as it was the previous week.

For years now, when our Instructional Design team builds courses that are part of an established program, like our online Master of Public Health (MPH), each course space in our Learning Management System (LMS) uses a standard course shell. The structure doesn't dictate what is taught, only how the content is organized. The links on the left-hand navigation are the same in each course within the program, and there are pre-built folders for each week. Each week is laid out with an introduction section containing learning objectives for the week, an overview, and a conclusion.

There are naming conventions for content items that persist from week to week. Once students in the program become familiar with the structure early in the semester, their cognitive load is minimized and they can devote their attention to the understanding of the material. The program director has encouraged the adoption of this course shell with the faculty, and faculty understand the value of sacrificing a small amount of individual expression for the sake of learner continuity.

When we pivoted to online in March, there was no opportunity to coordinate a consistent approach for the thousands of undergraduate courses that moved online within a week. Like a city built overnight without a building code, our approaches were understandably disparate. The resulting courses represented everyone's best attempt, but they were developed in a silo—and students noticed. On the end-of-semester survey at our institutions, one of the themes in the student feedback was a clear request for continuity in platforms.

Key Takeaways

This summer, our unit initiated an effort to bring its experience with online programs to the greater population. Here are some of our takeaways.

1. Laser-Focused Training

We offered faculty a 2-week online "Boot Camp" which covered the basics of teaching accelerated fully online courses in the summer. The course itself modeled best practices like the course shell originally developed for use in cohesive online programs. We also provided explicit instructions on the mechanics of applying the shell to their course. The training was offered 10 times between March and August 2020, with over 240 faculty participating. As the summer wore on, the content ballooned as we tried to accommodate additional teaching modalities such as hybrid synchronous/asynchronous courses. This diluted our message. In our debrief, we recommitted to targeting the training to online asynchronous course design and creating modules to cover other topics.

2. Building New Is Easier Than Rebuilding

"OMG, I love this!" was a comment from one faculty member who had been at a loss as to where to start building her course. Faculty who were new to the university were directed toward workshops on the course shell as part of their orientation. This accelerated their online course development by giving them a much-appreciated structure. Encouraging faculty to make adjustments to existing courses was a harder sell. Rather than rebuilding from the ground up, faculty were more likely to incorporate concepts from the course shell as an incremental change.

3. Keep It Simple

We provided detailed instructions on how faculty could apply the course shell to their courses. In talking with faculty this fall, we found that the learning curve was too steep—applying the course shell required a complex understanding of the features of our LMS in order to yield an aesthetically pleasing layout. Our next iteration of the course shell will be simpler to apply. The goals will be the same—reducing cognitive load for students—but we will make it easier to learn the steps. While the result is perhaps less visually pleasing, aesthetics is not the primary goal. Sacrificing some elements of the layout for something that's easier to build but still logical for students is a clear win.

4. Consistency Within A Course Is Much Easier Than Consistency Across Courses

In an ideal world, there would be a similarity between all courses as described earlier in the online MPH program. This requires a level of leadership, time, and cooperation that may be elusive—and perhaps not even universally desirable given the disparate needs of individual courses. However, there are a few common elements that are a more approachable starting point. Are all faculty using the same learning management platform or the same synchronous meeting tool? Is there a systematic way to ensure that common syllabus elements are preserved? Last but not least, using a "getting started" page within each course is a long-held best practice that can be used in any topic with an online presence. This page serves as an information kiosk—where to find what, and what to expect when. It gives a quick usability boost to any course.


Since the beginning of the pandemic, our faculty have been active in a private Facebook group focused on the transition to online teaching. It has continued this fall and provides a comfortable space to obtain quick answers, thoughtful opinions, and moral support. The grace and collegiality that I've witnessed as so many have adjusted to so much so quickly has been nothing short of humbling. Visits to our information technology knowledge base have increased nearly tenfold over the previous year.

While we all wish for a return to whatever was normal, the blurring of the lines between teaching modalities is an innovation—born of necessity—that I expect will become a permanent part of many faculty members' repertoire. Structures, such as a course shell, can form the anchor of any course regardless of how it's delivered, providing a stronger learning experience that better serves all learners.