Ten Online Course Structural Components to Support Learning

Student types on computer for online course

Online courses can be examined from two perspectives—what students do in the course and how a professor structures the course. There are a variety of instructional strategies and learning activities educators can implement to keep students engaged in the doing of the course. Equally important is the structuring of the course, in which instructors make intentional choices in course design, optimize course layout, standardize due dates, and provide meaningful feedback with grades.

From our combined thirty-plus years of teaching online pedagogy, we have devised ten (plus a bonus!) recommendations for structural components in a digital classroom.

1. Consistent course design carried throughout the entire course structure

Implement a highly structured, consistent course site design. Regardless of the actual structure (folders, modules, etc.), the course should be clearly and consistently organized in a predictable pattern. The same types of content should be posted in the same places each week (e.g. weekly checklist first, then readings, then a link to the discussion board, followed by small assignments, etc.). These course components can also be coded with text color for visual reference. Consistency through course design is crucial for student success.

2. Intentional orientation to course structure

The series of links, folders, modules, etc. of an individual instructor’s course organization can create an unintended maze for students. One solution is to create a visual orientation to the structure of the course by including a screenshot of the LMS links on the landing page with explanations of the contents of each link. Another solution is to develop a narrated video tour of the course as part of the first week’s materials. What seems obviously labeled and clearly organized to teaching faculty might not be as clear to a student managing multiple online courses, each with various organizational designs.

3. Best practices in online learning

Students in online classes each bring their own distance learning expectations and experiences with them. Providing space and time for students to learn about best practices in online learning and the skill set necessary for online course success encourages students to self-assess and determine if the online learning environment is right for them. As part of the first week’s module, incorporating a How to be an Online Student video that summarizes best practices from research on being a successful student in online courses can assist students regardless of their level of online course experience. The video can include easy-to-implement ideas and strategies students can quickly use starting the first week of the course. Additionally, if an online skills inventory is embedded with the orientation materials the first week of class, students may engage in self-assessment and determine if the online course format truly meets their current skill set or if a more traditional course delivery format would better fit their needs.

4. Use of low-stakes assignments for students to learn navigation and functionality

In the first weeks of the course, provide low stakes (inconsequential point value) assignments that allow students to test the various features of the LMS used throughout the semester. For example, provide students an opportunity to send the instructor an email through their institution’s email address, submit an assignment that requires an attachment/upload, complete an online quiz, and post to a discussion board (or other peer-to-peer interaction). Use of these low-stakes assignments can scaffold necessary technology skills required for success in the LMS environment, and students can revise and repeat these assignments until they achieve mastery with the skill.

5. Weekly checklists

A checklist is the first item visible in the course and contains all the assignments and tasks for that week. Students may print the checklist to add a physical presence to the course or simply view it on their screen. The checklist can serve as a visual reminder to the student to engage with content. Interim due dates (such as mid-week initial discussion board posts) not reflected in the Learning Management System (LMS) can be displayed in the checklist. Furthermore, the checklists can be used to set the stage for upcoming or multi-part assignments.

6.Discussion board forums to facilitate dialogue and questions about the course

Provide structured discussion board (or other peer-to-peer interaction) prompts that encourage students to learn from each other and ask questions of the instructor. In some LMS, instructors can subscribe to these forums to receive notifications when posts are added. This open forum allows the instructor and students to assist each other in an open, welcoming online learning environment. Students likely will have questions about the course, and if there is not an accepting forum for those questions, they will likely not be asked at all.

7. Consistent course announcements throughout the week on a predictable schedule

Many courses begin with a weekly ‘starter announcement’ that introduces the content for the week or reviews questions from last week. Consider scheduling three announcements each week to offer consistent interaction and demonstrate active involvement in the course throughout the week. Instructors might make the first announcement as the traditional weekly initial launch post, the second an avenue for sharing additional course-related resources, and the third as a nudge for upcoming assignment due dates.

8. Consistent due dates and assignment locations

Providing consistent due dates (the same type of assignment always is due on the same day of the week for each week of the semester, or all assignments are due the same day each week) is easier to schedule as the instructor than random due dates spread throughout the week. From our own experiences, having a consistent day and time that assignments are due each week is more important than a particular day or time. Ensuring assignments open at predictable times adds another layer of structure and stability in addition to the course layout.

9. Use of rubrics and scoring guides

Using rubrics with embedded scoring guides allows for a quick and less-subjective method of grading, not only for large projects but also for smaller, repetitive assignments such as discussion boards. Rubrics afford a template for grading for the instructor and additional guidance to the student as more explicit expectations can be detailed in the rubric in addition to the assignment’s directions.

10. Substantial and personalized feedback

Providing students with meaningful and individualized feedback allows the instructor another avenue to frequently communicate with students to praise work and offer suggestions for improvement not visible through points or percentages alone. Detailed feedback can be manageable if a standard feedback comment is drafted, then personalized based on the work of each student.

Bonus: Internal, informal formative course surveys

Instructors can learn much about their courses by surveying students with the anonymous survey tools embedded within the LMS. Students can, for example, share effective instructional practices they experienced in other online courses or articulate what course components are especially helpful to their learning. When instructors introduce the survey platform for student input, students are empowered to provide constructive feedback. Moreover, instructors are afforded an opportunity to become aware of and to resolve issues before the end of the semester.

These practices in course structural development have assisted us in creating and maintaining online courses that are organized, predictable, and functional and held in high regard by students.

Laura Schisler, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Teacher Education department at Missouri Southern State University. Following a career teaching junior high and high school science, she now instructs science methods and general teacher education courses in a variety of instructional formats.

Carissa Gober, EdD, is an associate professor in the Teacher Education department at Missouri Southern State University. Currently, she instructs general teacher education courses and English as a Second Language major courses following a K-12 teaching and instructional coaching career.

Melissa Locher, EdD, is an associate professor in the Teacher Education department at Missouri Southern State University. She has over 15 years’ experience in online instruction in both general education and Special Education course content.


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