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Paying attention to detail in course design

Posted at 8:57 a.m. May 13, 2016, by in News


coursedesignLast week, I attended the Northeast E-Learning Consortium’s annual conference. One of the sessions that stood out in particular discussed the use of game elements in course design to increase student engagement and motivation, also known as gamification. [Note that this session was not about game-based learning, which involves playing games in a course. Read about the differences between gamification and game-based learning.]

Then, while scrolling through Twitter the next day, I stumbled upon an article about UX (user experience) design theory and course design. Like the gamification session I had just attended, the article discusses course design—but its focus lies not in increasing student engagement, but in simplifying course and assignment “navigation” for the student. In other words, while course content might be challenging, it should not be difficult for a student to determine the expectations of an assignment, decide which reading is required and which is optional, or figure out when a project is due. These are all examples of problems some students encounter while navigating their online courses.

Some instructors may only consider the following in designing their courses:

  • what do the students need to know?
  • what do I need to tell or give students so they learn what they need to know?
  • what do students need to produce to prove they’ve learned what they need to know?

Yes: these are important things to consider—and you should! However, many details and roadblocks can prevent students from producing and achieving, despite the instructor’s clear teaching and learning goals, due to unclear assignment instructions, poorly structured content, or vaguely-described expectations. This is where sound course design is important.

My takeaways

Big companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon put lots of money into ensuring that the user experience is simple and seamless. Likewise, game designers want to create game experiences that motivate players to keep playing. What are the most important ideas from UX and game design that we can use in course design?

Questions to ask yourself about course design related to UX

Here’s the most important idea I took away related to UX and course design:
Can students easily find what they need to know about your course?


  • how easy is it to find your course’s:
    • grading policy?
    • assignment due dates?
    • communication policy?
    • assignment instructions? (and grading expectations?)
    • required vs. recommended readings?
  • how easy is it to find course materials? (this is especially important in online and hybrid courses, where you may not be physically handing materials to students)
  • are you consistent in naming course materials and assignments?
    • Does your syllabus refer to “Essay 1” while the assignment instructions are titled “Melville essay”? Do you switch back and forth between referring to readings by author and by title or chapter?
  • how concise are your assignment instructions? Consider the instruction manuals you’ve found to be most useful.
  • and can students find these things from the very beginning of the semester, so they can plan accordingly?

Questions to ask yourself about course design related to gamification

gamesHere’s the most important idea I took away related to gamification and course design:
How is your course design promoting or discouraging student motivation?


  • do students know how many assignments are left in the semester to complete?
    • This knowledge works as a “progress bar” might in a game: students may be more motivated to complete papers when they know they have 2 out of 5 left instead of feeling like they are trudging up an endless ladder.
  • is feedback timely, and does includes positive elements in addition to areas for improvement?
    • Does student assignment feedback come in good time for students to rectify their mistakes for the next iteration of that type of assignment? Think about how you may feel playing a game if you got through 5 levels without knowing how you were performing—and then were told, at that point, that you had failed them all and had to go back to level 1! Students will be demotivated if they complete, for example, 3 case studies before receiving feedback that they had been doing them incorrectly all along. However, if they find out after submitting the first case study, in time to apply the lessons learned to the second, they are more motivated to correct their mistakes.
  • how does the difficulty of your course material and assignments progress?
    • Do students encounter very challenging material at the outset? It might be helpful to start with an easier assignment and progress into more difficult material, to keep students encouraged and motivated.