May 12, 2022

Implement instructional design approaches to inform your online teaching strategies

The main objective of any instruction should be to focus on the learning outcomes or abilities you are trying to achieve. Bloom (1956, 1964) identified three types of learning outcomes: cognitive (awareness), affective (attitudes, emotions and values), and psychomotor (skills). For each outcome, instructors should also consider the level of outcome they are trying to achieve. So if you are teaching cognitive skills, such as math or language, you need to consider whether you need your students remember (level 1), to understand (level 2), apply (level 3), analyze (level 4), assess (level 5), or to create (level 6) (Krathwohl, 2002). Once you have determined the result level(s), you must align your assignments to those levels. A multiple-choice exam may assess Level 1 and possibly Level 2 results, but it will not assess students’ abilities to apply, analyze, evaluate, or create. Therefore, you will need to design more challenging assignments to achieve higher levels of student performance, using essays, problem-based learning assignments, and case studies, for example.

Instructional Events

Another approach that can be applied to online teaching is to use Gagné’s nine teaching events (Gagne et al., 2004). Depending on the learning outcomes you are trying to achieve and your target audience, you will need to organize the events accordingly:

  1. Draw attention
  2. Inform learners of the objectives
  3. Stimulate recall of prior learning
  4. Presentation of the stimulation material
  5. Provide learning guidance
  6. Drive performance
  7. Provide Feedback
  8. Evaluation of performances
  9. Improve retention and transfer

Draw attention

The first event usually involves grabbing the audience’s attention – achieving this in an online course can be difficult as you are not physically present in the room, but appropriate use of technology can help. Once you have won your students’ attention, you also need to keep their attention and motivate them throughout the course. This is where engaging activities become essential. Keller’s ARCS Motivation Model (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction) offers practical suggestions of strategies you can use to build motivation into your course (Pappas, 2015).

Inform learners of the objectives

For each lesson and assignment, you should also state the objectives (event 2), indicating what learners are expected to do, how, when and where. Depending on the level of achievement you are trying to achieve, you need to use appropriate action verbs to get your students to the desired level. Thinking back to your own experience as a learner, have you ever lost points for not comparing and contrasting because the instructor asked you to “describe” in the assignment summary? Fortunately, Bloom has devised a taxonomy for each level, suggesting appropriate action verbs for each level. If you need your students to analyze a historical event (level 4), you should use a verb like “analyze” in the assignment summary, rather than “describe” or “explain”. You should also avoid using verbs such as “know” and “understand” unless you tell learners How? ‘Or’ What they will demonstrate that knowledge or understanding. In other words, by carefully considering the action verbs in your assignment briefs, you are more likely to get the performance you want from your students.

When writing objectives, Mager’s (1990) Three Characteristics of Useful Objectives can also be helpful. As mentioned earlier, each objective must include an action verb, but you can also add a condition such as “Given a list of…”, “Without using a calculator…” or “Using primary sources …” to elicit a particular performance. You may also need to specify certain criteria, such as speed (…in five seconds), accuracy (…accurate to the nearest whole number), or quality (…fluent in French). It should be noted that the conditions and criteria you specify should be essential to performance (for example, do not include a speed criteria if it is not necessary).

Stimulate recall of prior learning

The third event encourages instructors to stimulate recall of prerequisites. Unfortunately, this event is often overlooked in higher education, especially when classes include students with varying backgrounds. But even within a course, instructors can help their students by directing them to content covered earlier in the course. Using hyperlinks or even a simple “Remember the 4 week lecture on topic X” may suffice.

Presentation of the stimulation material

The fourth event, presenting the stimulus materials, is where the instructors officially begin teaching. It is essential that the content uses the right tone for the target audience, either accessibleand is addressed to universal design. The content must also respect information design best practicesin terms of typography (sans serif tends to be easier to read online), color (consider the subject matter and cultural implications of your color choices), and formatting (for example, use white space and blocks to separate paragraphs).

Provide learning guidance

The fifth event – ​​providing learning guidance – is even more critical in online education, as students don’t have the luxury of problem-solving sessions with classmates over coffee. Consistent use of technology, providing designated forums where students can ask questions, and establishing clear guidelines of expectations (of students and instructors) are other forms of guidance.

Drive learner performance, provide feedback and evaluate performance

The remaining events occur after the information has been acquired. Instructors should elicit learner performance (Event 6), providing students with regular opportunities to engage with the course material and each other. Sheffield Hallam University menu of pedagogical approaches suggests technologies and assignments for different types of teaching approaches. Instructors should also provide feedback on learner performance (Event 7) and formally assess performance (Event 8). As stated earlier, instructors should use appropriate action verbs in their assignments and assessments to ensure students understand what is expected of them. Ideally, instructors should employ a mix of independent and collaborative assignments. One way to do this is to ask students to keep personal reflective blogs describing their experiences of collaborative projects.

Improve retention and transfer

The end event – ​​improving retention and transfer – is sometimes overlooked by instructors who focus solely on helping students achieve course outcomes. Instructors need to find ways to link course content to real-life scenarios, as well as to other courses in the curriculum.

Careful consideration of the learning outcomes and the nine events can help instructors design instructionally sound courses. Aligning assessments and activities with learning outcomes and clearly communicating these outcomes to students in the form of objectives will ensure that students understand why they are being asked to undertake certain tasks and the level of performance expected of them.

Darina M. Slattery, PhD, is a tenured faculty member and Head of Technical Communication and Instructional Design at the University of Limerick (UL) in Ireland, where she teaches courses in e-learning, design pedagogical and learning and collaboration technologies. She is an alumnus of the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) and Vice President of the IEEE Professional Communication Society.

The references

Abel, Scott (2007). Simple English is good, but simplified English is better: One Writer’s View. The content wrestler.

Forward (2020). The UDL framework explained

Bloom, Benjamin S. (1956, 1964). Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational objectives. Book 1 (cognitive domain) & 2 (affective domain). Longman.

Gagné, Robert M., Wager, Walter W., Golas, Katherine C. and Keller, John M. (2004). Principles of instructional design. 5th edition. Wadsworth.

Krathwohl, David R. (2002). ‘A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: an overview’, Theory in practice, 41(4), pp. 212-218.

Mager, Robert F. (1990). Preparation of educational objectives. 2nd revised edition. Fearon Publishers, Inc.

Pappas, Christophe (2015). Instructional Design Models and Theories: Keller’s ARCS Motivation Model

Sheffield Hallam University (2014). Pedagogical approaches menu.

The Visual Communication Guy (2020). Information Design Rules

World Wide Web Consortium (2020). How to Meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) (Quick Reference)

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