Women students talking around table

Lesson Design

Lessons are where asynchronous online learning happens... but what do they look like? There are no hard and fast rules, but the ALT Centre does encourage a few "shoulds."

Lessons should be:


Online Learning: It's Different

When we're ready to start lesson planning, we want to think of individual lessons as a package of content. We want to chunk our content so as not to overwhelm our students' brains--which is extra important in an online context. 

Online students are working without the normal cues our brains receive from being around other people, plus we're asking them to use technologies and complete tasks that are brand new to them

Why Chunk?

Studies have indicated that: "students learn new material better and can remember it longer when they receive a complex lesson in shorter segments rather than as one, long continuous lesson. Any continuous exposition of content, whether videos, podcasts, animations, needs to be divided into short segments of three to ten minutes. Even text should be segmented by headings and subheadings, with [screen] reading limited and/or broken up by alternative tasks" (Nilson & Goodson, 2018, p. 87).

Students are also more likely to visit our online courses for small 'chunks' of time (sometimes every day) rather than spending a large block of time like they would in a face-to-face environment. 

All this to say: if online learning is different, then we should work with what it is, not fight against it.

Strategies for 'chunking' lessons

  • Add a short (e.g. 3-5 minute) intro video at the start of each lesson explaining what 'chunks' are in that lesson and why you've put them there.
  • Tell students how much time you estimate each 'chunk' of your lessons will take (e.g. readings, lecture videos, activities, etc).
  • Keep your videos short. Instructional and intro videos should be about 6 minutes; lecture videos are often best kept to 20 minutes.
  • Use 'headers' or obvious breaks in longer videos (especially those longer than 10 minutes) so students can easily scrub to the part where they left off.
  • Reduce students' unnecessary cognitive load: link to instructions and resources for your OWL tools the first time you use them, or create video demosntrations where necessary. Ensure students struggle to learn your course content, not how to navigate OWL.

Scaffolding: The Final Step in a Backwards Design Approach

When using a backwards course design approach, first we solidify our course learning outcomes and then we consider our assessments. The final step is to consider our lessons.

Lessons are the bridges, or 'instructional scaffolding,' our students to successfully complete those assessments, and ultimately demonstrate our learning outcomes. Think about where students START your class to where you want them to END UP. What steps do they need to take on their way up? Where do they need instruction and practice?

Online Learning: A New Space-Time Continuum?

In a face-to-face class, we get to control students' exposure to new content (to a certain extent). We choose what our lectures are about and what we present them.

But in an online course, time and space don't have the same meaning. Students will come and go from our course sites, often in small 'chunks' of time. They can click on the pages they choose, they can scrub ahead on our videos.

Sometimes this means for greater, deeper learning: students can stop and pause and review the material they're confused about--a freedom they don't always have in our face-to-face courses.

But it also means they can 'skip' essential material or complete lessons out of order.

Sequencing: Making Courses Make Sense 

Lessons, then, need to be presented in a logical sequence. We want to make it obvious to students what to click on, in what order, and 'by when.' 

Part of online course design is thinking about course sequencing and scaffolding to ensure students have enough practice and exposure to new knowledge to (a) successfully complete our assignments, and (b) demonstrate our course learning outcomes.

How do we sequence?

Look through all of the material in this section of the website for tips on course sequencing, including:

  • Use an OWL Template
  • Limit the number of OWL tools 'visible' to students
  • Include instructions to your eLearning and OWL tools the first time students need them
  • Include a very short 'intro video' at the start of each lesson

Educating the Whole Person

Online learning can feel isolating for students unless we purposefully build classroom community. Our lessons are where classroom community is built and maintained. We want students to always feel like there are humans creating and teaching their courses, and other humans learning alongside them.

Strategies for Making Lessons 'Human':

  • Include short unscripted introduction videos to each lesson. Wait to record these so that you can incorporate students' real questions, real names, and real answers wherever
  • If you'd rather pre-record your intro videos, consider 'summary' videos or 'discussion forum responses.'
  • Use your face and voice in lesson material, wherever possible
  • Respond to student inquiries 'publicly' on the course, when appropriate
  • Actively participate in discussion forums
  • Incorporate an opportunity for students to talk with one another and/or with you every lesson. Ensure this collaboration is essential for students to really understand the learning content of that week
  • Ask students to post short videos instead of only using text

Learn more