Guiding Course Design through Evidence-based Practices

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Published: Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Apply a set of concrete suggestions to promote learner success.

The Continuous Improvement team applies the Course Design Inventory (CDI) to help guide course design through evidence-based practices. As an iterative process, course design always benefits from continuous improvement. That is why the CDI can help guide instructors through the continuous improvement process and support them in considering best practices. Let’s find out more about the CDI.

Learner Success

The CDI focuses on learner success. Is there a difference between student and learner? A student is one who is enrolled and attends an educational institution while a learner is one who is learning a subject or skill. There may not seem to be considerable differences between the two but it serves a semantic purpose since learning is possible in the absence of teaching yet students need guidance and support from teachers. When it comes to distance learning, a learner challenges the characteristics and connotations associated with the word student. Traditionally, students learned in schools, they sat in classrooms, and they were taught face-to-face by teachers. Learner, updates traditional conceptions of a student and makes it relevant with the understanding that learning can successfully happen outside the classroom. Further guiding learner success, the CDI applies Universal Design for Learning (UDL), the Three Types of Engagement, and considers current research.

Universal Design for Learning

Beyond learning outcomes and alignment of important course components, the CDI seeks to ensure all learners can participate meaningfully. Accessibility is important and the CDI provides a set of concrete suggestions to implement UDL. Providing course content in ways that allow for adjustability ensures it’s accessible and easier to comprehend for all learners. Allowing for digital materials to be customizable increases readability and perceptual clarity to a wider range of learners. One way of accomplishing this is by ensuring course documents have selectable and searchable text. Another example is offering alternatives for auditory content by adding captions to video lectures or offering alternatives for visual content by providing image descriptions. Learning is impossible if information is not perceptible. That is why providing the same information through different modalities is key in making course content accessible. In doing so instructors would be taking a proactive approach toward accessibility and providing an equitable education.

Three Types of Learning Engagement

What type of engagement is most suitable for your course and how will you incorporate it? Being precise is important when it comes to defining interaction in distance learning. Let's go over the three types of learning engagement, which the CDI takes into account.

  1. Learner-Content Engagement: This is the process of intellectually interacting with course content. The learner experiences changes in their understanding, perspective, or cognitive structure. They may apply various cognitive strategies such as internal didactic conversation to process information they encounter.
  2. Learner-Instructor Engagement: The subject-matter expert is present to stimulate interest and move the learning process forward by presenting information, demonstrating a skill, or modeling an attitude. Instructor responds to learners' application of knowledge and then evaluates and provides feedback.
  3. Learner-Learner Engagement: A valuable resource for learning, and some may agree it’s essential because it teaches interaction itself. This form of interaction can stimulate and motivate learners. It encourages the development of their expertise and tests it. Learners are not only engaging with others but in the process of generating new understandings as scholars.

Current Research

What about student’s perceptions of course quality? Experienced learners have the greatest needs and expectations when it comes to course quality. In order to perform well they look for courses that are designed well and presented in a logical, consistent, and efficient manner¹. Design and organization is a key factor in influencing learner outcomes and may influence their perceptions of learning satisfaction². Many seek clarity and appropriateness of assessments and value clear criteria for grading³. Instructor presence seems to have a direct effect on learners and perception of their online learning experience⁴. However, learners are most satisfied when provided with multiple opportunities to interact in different ways with peers as it helps keep them engaged in the course⁵.


[1] Hixon, Emily, Ralston-Berg, Penny, Buckenmeyer, Janet, & Barczyk, Casimir. (2016). The Impact of Previous Online Course Experience on Students' Perceptions of Quality. Online Learning (Newburyport, Mass.), 20(1), 25.

[2] Joosten, T., & Cusatis, R. (2019). A cross-institutional study of instructional characteristics and student outcomes: Are quality indicators of online courses able to predict student success? Online Learning, 23(4), 354-378. doi:10.24059/olj.v23i4.1432.

[3] Barczyk, Casimir C, Hixon, Emily, Buckenmeyer, Janet, & Ralston-Berg, Penny. (2017). The Effect of Age and Employment on Students' Perceptions of Online Course Quality. The American Journal of Distance Education, 31(3), 173–184.

[4] Ni, X., Diomede, S., & Rutland, S. R. (2013). Effects of using the quality matters (qm) programme as an intervention for online education. International Journal of Social Media and Interactive Learning Environments, 1(1), 93–105. 

[5] Sadaf, Ayesha, Martin, Florence, & Ahlgrim-Delzell, Lynn. (2019). Student Perceptions of the Impact of “Quality Matters” Certified Online Courses on their Learning and Engagement. Online Learning (Newburyport, Mass.), 23(4), 214.

Guest Author(s):
Ana Fierro
Former Instructional Designer, Digital Learning