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Moving from Objectives to Course Strategies

Once you have clear goals and objectives, course design continues with:

  • Considering your audience. Are they undergraduate or graduate students? Are they mostly full-time or part-time students? Do they come with prerequisite knowledge (and/or might you need to assess this at the start of the course)?
  • Identifying the content you need to cover in your course. Will you provide readings? Short lectures? Links to videos?
  • Determining how activities within the course will support your learning goals. Will students discuss or debate a key issue? Will they construct a project? Will you invite guest speakers for students to interact with?
  • Deciding on engagement methods. How will students engage in active learning?

Though all of this applies to face-to-face classes, moving online puts these issues front and center. For instance, if you want students to engage in peer-review and editing, you have to define exactly what that entails and pick technology tools to facilitate it. If you want to present content and have students discuss it, you need to record a presentation (no more than about 15 minutes per recorded segment to keep students' attention). You then need to set parameters for the discussion, identify a suitable interaction tool, and upload the presentation so students can find and respond to it. Because of these considerations, the preparation time for most online activities is generally more than for the equivalent activities face-to-face.

Instructional Strategies

In their widely used text The Systematic Design of Instruction, instructional design researchers Dick and Carey (2005) define instructional strategy as the organizing and sequencing of instructional materials and content that ultimately steer student achievement, course goals, and learning objectives. The strategy is created before course content in order to map out how content and activities will support accomplishment of course goals and objectives. Great content delivered in a poorly organized way will not result in student success.

In most courses, a combination of strategies from the following categories works best:

  • Direct Instruction: Highly-structured, this lecture-based approach assumes that students absorb information by listening and watching. Direct instruction can and should be interactive: you can use active-learning strategies like think-pair-share, minute papers, or polls to check students’ understanding and allow them to practice applying concepts.
  • Indirect Instruction: Here students are expected to observe, perform experiments, postulate theories, explore several or alternative solutions to ill-structured problems, etc. The instructor acts as a guide or facilitator for students making sense of complex data. Instructors must invest time in creating the instructional activities and managing the course. The potential payoff is higher levels of student learning. A limiting factor is student motivation. Low levels of student motivation can make implementing this instructional strategy risky. Indirect instruction has much in common with experiential learning.
  • Experiential Learning: The main differences between this approach and indirect instruction is the emphasis on learner reflection and application of knowledge to new, not yet experienced, situations (sometimes called "far transfer"). Experiential learning involves five stages: experiencing; sharing/publishing; analyzing/processing; inferring/generalizing; applying. Like indirect instruction, experiential learning requires a high degree of motivation among students.
  • Interactive Instruction: This is based on the belief that learning occurs through interaction during instructor-guided activities like discussion and peer-to-peer critiques. Activities and interactions must be expertly formulated, well-structured, and expertly monitored. So, instructor expertise in creating and maintaining the structure of activities is critical to the success of students.
  • Independent Study: This is built on the idea that students learn best when they are engaged in pursuits in which they have a vested interest. Instructors who use this approach provide planning and guidance, but student learning is driven by students' self-reliance and desire for self-improvement. Independent study can be self-paced, but is not the same as self-study. At the university level, independent study programs are generally structured, supervised, and often very rigorous.