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Instructional Designers' Lens

Design  Develop  Teach  Evaluate


As instructional designers, we spend a lot of time working with faculty members on the design and development of their online courses. As a result, we have acquired plenty of strategies to streamline our own efforts that we would like share with you.

Important questions to consider

The first step to start gathering key information that will essentially define the overall design of the course.

  • Is a college or department syllabus template used?
  • Does the syllabus need updates for use in the online course?
  • Does the syllabus need additional information for use in the online course (technical support, netiquette, etc.)?
  • How is content organized (modules/weeks)?
  • What are the current learning activities?
  • What are the current assignments/assessments?
  • Which course materials and activities can be replicated online?
  • What new materials/activities/assessments will need to be developed?
  • How will the content be organized?
  • How will the interaction (student-student, student-instructor) occur online?


The next step is to prepare the content for the course. A good place to start is to create or review the learning objectives for the course. Student learning objectives are statements that specify what learners will know or be able to DO as a result of a learning activity. Perhaps the most important aspect of the course planning and development stages has to do with alignment between learning outcomes learning activities, and evaluation activities. Indeed, the major component of your course that differentiates it from all other courses on campus (at least on paper) is its specific list of course outcomes. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the assignments in your course should align with those course outcomes, and to do this you need to have effective learning objectives that are measurable and align with specific assessments. Once you have clearly defined learning objectives, the rest of the course development process is peanuts and creativity. Well maybe a bit more than that, but at least you’ll be using the correct map to find your destination.

This video on Learning Objectives provides insight on how to write effective objectives that are measurable and align with course assessments.


In 1956, Harvard Psychologist, George A. Miller developed concept of "chunking" content. Miller (1956) writes, “The span of absolute judgment and the span of immediate memory impose severe limitations on the amount of information that we are able to receive, process, and remember. By organizing the stimulus input simultaneously into several dimensions and successively into a sequence of chunks, we manage to break (or at least stretch) this informational bottleneck.” Content chunking is a strategy of that makes more efficient use of short-term memory by consolidating and grouping different sections of information together. Our working memories can only hold a certain amount of information at a time. Chunking works by presenting large amounts of content in small modules to make the information easier to read, process, remember. Chunking permits students to focus their attention on the key ideas that are presented, thus heightening their ability to recall and retain the material they learn. When you begin to gather the content for your course, you should classify your content based on its importance. By differentiating relevant and useful content from content that is meaningless and unnecessary, you free up your learners' working memory.

View the slideshow - Basics of Content Chunking, to learn more about how to chunk course content.

To assist you in chunking the content in your online course, we recommend using either a course chunking plan or a course map. The benefit of using either of those tools is they will assist you in better organizing and scaffolding course content for more effective student engagement. With either a chunking plan or a course map, the content that has been chunked is organized into four main sections:

  • Module Purpose Statement
  • Learning Objectives
  • Agenda and Assignments
  • Alignment Statement

Chunking Plan

The course chunking plan uses a more linear approach.

Course Map

The course map represents the same information as the chunking plan in a different format. The course map uses a more visual/spatial approach.


Scaffolding is the support given during the learning process which is tailored to the needs of the student with the intention of helping the student achieve his/her learning goals (Sawyer, 2006). When instructors scaffold their content, they provide tasks that allow students to build on prior knowledge and internalize new concepts. To do this effectively, instructors should organize their content and instruction into meaningful units, while providing their students with tools and structures for each chunk. What this means is that “how content is organized” and “where content is placed” inside a course can be every bit as important as “what the content is” in terms of fostering an effective learning and teaching environment.

Read Scaffolding Student Learning: Tips for Getting Started to learn more about how to scaffold course content.

We can’t emphasize enough the importance of applying some minimal level of scaffolding to your online course. In fact, we are so committed to the idea of scaffolding in online courses that we've developed an Online Course Template for faculty use, which will be discussed in the next stage.


Once your content is nicely organized into a chunking plan or a course map, you are ready to move into the course development stage.




Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81-97.

Sawyer, R. Keith. (2006). The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.