Basic Course Design

“… education, as now conceived, leads to demonstrable changes in student behaviors, changes that can be assessed using agreed-upon standards. “
—  David T. Conley

Instructional design is a systematic process in which educational content is created, organized, and subsequently made available to learners. Information is ideally presented in such a way that the learner is motivated to acquire the knowledge or skills being taught by the instructor. The purpose of this post is to shed some light on the first steps of the course design process.

One of the rudimentary concepts in education is the notion of delivering learning content through a series of “chunks”. The theory of the magic number seven, plus or minus two is more than half a century old, yet George Miller’s original publication remains one of the most cited papers in psychological journals. This theory can be readily applied to the delivery of educational content in an academic setting. The course structure within Canvas closely follows Miller’s chunking guidelines. ELearning expert, Tom Kuhlmann, once mentioned on his educational blog that even the most complex educational courses have similar structures when you break them down:

  • Welcome: some sort of title screen that welcomes the learner
  • Introduction: information about the course and its purpose
  • Instructions: review of the interface and how to navigate the course
  • Objectives: learning objectives and reason for taking the course
  • Section screens: this is the area that holds the core content. Each section can have its own welcome, instructions, content, assessment, and summary
  • Assessment: process to review overall understanding
  • Summary: summary of course objectives
  • Resources: additional content and resources that augment the course and support ongoing learning
  • Exit: next steps and see you later alligator

Within Canvas, some of these elements will be housed within the “course home” section of the Modules page, while the primary learning content will be accessible within the individual units. Graphically, the course structure appears as follows:


When you break down the course even further to its very core components, the most important elements in instruction process are:

  1. The objectives
  2. The educational content
  3. The assessments

Often, most or all of the focus of course development is centered on creating and organizing the instructional content. Indeed, this proportionately represents the largest quantity of material in a course. However, it is important to realize that a course is only as valuable as its learning objectives and assessments. Without good objectives, it is not possible to accurately assess the content, much less the value of the course itself. Similarly, without good assessments it is not possible to know if students really know if the students benefited from the instructional content — as delineated through the learning objectives.

Thus the relationship between the learning objectives and the assessments which accompany the objectives is an instructional design marriage (with the offspring hypothetically being the actual instructional content). The objectives state what the students will learn and the assessments evaluate the extent which the students learned the material. Thus from a psychometric standpoint, it is essential that the assessments be:

  1. Specific
  2. Measurable
  3. Related directly to a learning objective

Good instructional design would not settle for even two of the three assessment essentials. Likewise, learning objectives must be written in such a way that they can be evaluated directly by an assessment (which is both specific and measurable). Thus, for students the most important “chunks” of information within a course will be found in the actual content within each unit or module (and optimistically the units will aggregate up into higher-level chunks), while the most important chunks for instructional designers are the objectives, educational content, and assessments within each unit or module. Granted, this may be an oversimplification of a rather complex system, but the logic behind this notion is one of the tenants of instructional design.

In some of the upcoming posts, we will further discuss how to write effective learning objectives, as well as how to recognize objective that require further refinement in order to be effective.

Written by Dr. Sean Nufer, Director of Ed Tech for TCS Education System.