Course design

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Constructivism accommodates peer-to-peer and social activities
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  • Updated.jpg This entry is out of date, and will not be updated, August 2018


See also ADDIE model | Blended learning | Designing online courses in higher education | E-learning | Library workshop evaluation | Teaching library users | Web 2.0

What is online learning?

Online learning (also elearning) is the facilitation of learning through electronic means, and the most common communication platform in the 21st century is undoubtedly the web. Online learning eliminates restrictions of time and place. With face-to-face (F2F) learning, learners are expected to keep pace with what is being taught even though they have not mastered material before moving on. In F2F learning, success is measured by the speed of someone's ability to learn not whether the individual is ready to learn or not. This is an important distinction between F2F and e-learning. Online learning may be even more effective when "blended" with F2F learning. Blended approaches eliminate the time that often gets wasted as some learners are prepared whereas others are not. Online learning can cover the fundamental concepts or knowledge that learners need to engage in an interactive session and team-building exercise. E-learning can take place with several learners and instructors simultaneously, (synchronously), or with each learner working at their own time and pace (asynchronously). Online learners still have the ability to catch up to what others say, and sometimes asynchronous discussions can be more thoughtful as they are not time and situation-specific. Learners can form their own learning communities and mentor each other or work alone. In online learning restrictions no longer apply. They were caused by the limits on a human instructor's ability to deal with variables.

Philosophies of learning

There have been many philosophies about learning, but three are commonly used:


Constructivism is a theory of learning based on the premise that we construct our own understanding based on past experiences. Each new learning experience is approached with a "mental model" in place and learning occurs as we adjust our thinking to accommodate new ideas and circumstances. This philosophy is currently in vogue with instructional designers. In online learning, it lends itself to creating case studies and scenarios.


Cognitivism is best described as learning established through continuity, structures and repetition. Observing others in the same situation as well as personal reinforcement are contributors to learning retention. Online learning makes it easy for learners to repeat lessons and to associate sound with text or images with concepts, etc.


Behaviorism is a theory of animal and human learning that focuses on conditioning based on response to stimuli. Responses can be recorded quantitively based on observable changes in behaviours. Behaviourism is often used in game design, and works well with reinforcement techniques used in online learning and computer-based training.

Basic principles of pedagogy

In 1956, Benjamin Bloom proposed a way to measure the level of intellectual behaviour within learning. He was able to break learning into six levels within the cognitive domain, beginning with a simple recall of facts, through abstract levels to the highest level of intellectual capacity (which is classified as evaluation). Bloom includes verb examples to act as a guide for measuring these levels of learning. Someone restating a fact or definition would be demonstrating learning in the knowledge domain, whereas someone assessing or predicting a concept would be demonstrating within the evaluation domain. By using these levels of learning which Bloom calls a taxonomy, as a guide to the outcomes of your course, you can gauge learning retention. This concept, along with learning retention, is discussed in detail below.


Definition: The student can appraise, assess or critique the concept on a basis of specific criteria.

Verbs: appraise, argue, assess, attach, choose compare, defend estimate, judge, predict, rate, core, select, support, value, evaluate.


Definition: The student originates and combines ideas into a product, plan, or proposal that is new to him or her.

Verbs: arrange, assemble, collect, compose, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, manage, organize, plan, prepare, propose, set up, write.


Definition: The student distinguishes, classifies, and relates the evidence, assumptions, or structure of the statement or question.

Verbs: analyze, appraise, calculate, categorize, compare, contrast, criticize, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, examine, experiment, question, test


Definition: The student selects and uses data and principles to complete a problem or task with a minimum of direction.

Verbs: apply, choose, demonstrate, dramatize, employ, illustrate, interpret, operate, practice, schedule, sketch, solve, use, write.


Definition: The student translates or comprehends information based on prior learning.

Verbs: classify, describe, discuss, explain, express, identify, indicate, locate, recognize, report, restate, review, select, translate.


Definition: The student recalls or recognizes information, ideas, and principles in the approximate form in which they were learned.

Verbs: arrange, define, duplicate, label, list, memorize, name, order, recognize, relate, recall, repeat, reproduce state.

What are Learning Outcomes?

The single most important question you should ask when beginning to design a course is "What are the learning outcomes I want to achieve?" A second question might be "How will I know that I've achieved them?" Defining measurable learning outcomes is perhaps the most difficult step in course design, but well worth the effort if you want to succeed. A learning outcome is also the result you want to achieve and that can be expressed as a statement of what learners will be able to do as a result of each learning activity. These learning goals are usually expressed as knowledge, skills or attitudes. The statement may describe any desired knowledge, attitudes, skills or behaviours as a result of the learning activities. It is important that it be expressed in such a way that is measurable. The statement will serve as a guideline for content, instruction and evaluation, and should convey what should be accomplished once the learner has completed your course.

Writing Learning Outcomes

When you define desired learning outcomes for your students (referred to as demonstrable competencies) remember your intended audience. What do need to demonstrate they know when they finish the course? What specific skills do they need to know? Are there obstacles or other factors to consider? In taking that into consideration, a good learning outcome will be written with three distinguishing characteristics:

  1. The learning activity must be observable by the instructor
  2. The learning activity must be measurable by the instructor
  3. The learning activity must be completed by the students

If actions taken by students in learning activities cannot be assessed, then learning outcomes do not meet the above characteristics. A learning outcome such as this:

  • Participants will understand the 6 levels of knowledge in Bloom's taxonomy

Is not as measurable as:

  • Participants will list and describe the 6 levels of knowledge in Bloom's taxonomy

In the second example, learners have a better understanding of what is expected of them. Another point is wording; since performance should be observable and measurable, the verbs chosen for each outcome should be action verbs. Sample action verbs are: discuss, explain, apply, utilize, demonstrate, list, analyze, critique

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