The Critical Importance of Instructional Design

I attended the OLC Accelerate conference last fall in Orlando, and as is often the case, I got more out of the conversations between sessions than I got from the sessions themselves. What follows is the first of a series of posts on my thinking.

Is delivery of content the primary responsibility of a college instructor? The purpose of this post is to argue that it is not. Content, at least at the introductory level, is largely a commodity. If you think your students get the content for your course from your lectures or the textbook, you might be surprised. Increasingly, students go online to find “easier” or “quicker” explanations of the content for their courses; e.g. a YouTube video. An experienced instructor can still provide an explanation of the content that works better for their students than a textbook or even YouTube, but that doesn’t make it their most important responsibility. If a student doesn’t come to class that day, what good is your explanation?

I believe the most important responsibility for teachers today is instructional design. Instructional design means intentionally creating a learning environment that makes students in a particular course want to engage with the material and with others in the course, inducing them to participate in activities that lead to deep learning.  That may include coming to class 😉

When I began teaching, I didn’t think much about the design of my courses. I adopted a textbook recommended by my department chair. I gave a midterm exam, a final exam and sometimes a term paper. I lectured about the content, and assumed that by reading the text and assimilating my lectures students would learn what they needed to be successful on the exams. After all, that’s what I did. Over time I discovered that most students didn’t learn as well as I thought they should. I also discovered that students learn best from doing economics, not reading about economics or listening to me lecture on it.  How then could I reorganize my courses to help students learn more deeply? This is a question of instructional design, something that I, like most college faculty, had little training in.

It was not until I started teaching online that I really considered the design of the learning environment in my courses. As I’ve said before, teaching online has improved my face-to-face teaching. My first formal foray in instructional design came after more than 30 years of teaching experience, during the 2017 Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute. HT to @amcollier & @slayams.

A given instructional design creates a path through a course; it both enables and constrains how students interact with content, other students, and the instructor, that is, the instructional design enables and constrains how students learn in a course.  Did you get that?  A poor instructional design may constrain how students learn?  If an instructor doesn’t think carefully and critically about the instructional designs of the courses they teach, the default is still an instructional design. It just may not be an effective way to accomplish the course learning goals.

How can one design a learning environment that genuinely engages students in a course? What are the impediments to student engagement?

If students don’t know how to be successful in a college course, I suspect that could limit their engagement. I’ve noticed that this seems to be true of weaker students. They do certain activities, like skimming and highlighting the text, but have little sense of how much they are learning or how well they have done on assessments (e.g. upon taking an exam or submitted a paper). Learning is sort of a mystery to them. This is often true of first year students just starting college.  More generally, the stronger the student, the better they understand how to learn in a given course.

Here’s a hypothesis: Students coming to college assume that learning in college will follow the same process as in their secondary education. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve demonstrated that they can win at the game of school, where grades are the point.

{Side note: Instead of students seeing learning as instrumental towards the goal of good grades, how can we make grades the instrument towards the goal of good learning? That’s an instructional design question for a future post.)

Another hypothesis: Students assume that learning in a course will follow the same process as learning in other college courses they have taken. Again, why wouldn’t they assume this? Yes, there is some recognized variation across disciplines and instructors, but the basic model is the same.

Suppose these hypotheses about student assumptions are accurate, but the  assumptions are wrong—that is, students believe learning in college is similar to learning in secondary school, but in fact it is substantially different. If so, what should we as instructors do about it? How would our teaching practice be different if we did? How would our students’ learning practice and learning performance be different? Do we have a professional obligation to change our practice?

Have you ever felt your students were unprepared for college-level work?  How often do we, as instructors, teach our students how to learn in our courses? How much do we know about how students learn? How often do we teach college-level writing? How often do we teach college-level reading? How often do we teach college-level research skills? Or do we just assume that students already know these things? In other words, they learned them in secondary school or in earlier college courses?

How can we convince students that they can be successful if they trust the process that we teach them, especially if the process is different from what they are used to? It’s not enough to just tell them.

To be continued…

Image Credit: Thomas Stromberg, Pizza Hut Delivers By Motorcycle, via

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