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Designing Online Courses for Student Needs

Using Student Feedback to Create Effective Online Learning Experiences

One of the key reasons many faculty struggle to embrace online learning is that they find themselves teaching in this modality without receiving proper training and support. This can lead to learning experiences they consider inferior to their traditional courses.

Learning Designers (also known as Instructional Designers) can be a beneficial support resource for faculty, as they’re trained to translate faculty’s curriculum and content in the online medium. In the article below, learn how one of Wiley Education Services’ Learning Designers, Loreli Smyth, thinks about online course design and development, and how she utilizes feedback to help faculty ensure their online students’ learning experiences remain the core focus.


As a Learning Designer, I know that continuous student feedback is essential to designing a course that delivers the appropriate learning outcomes and experiences. Student feedback allows the faculty and I to understand which ideas and course design elements benefit the students (and which ones don’t) so that we can create more effective and engaging online learning experiences.

Based on my own experience and research (sources cited below) on the topic of student feedback in online course development, I’ve compiled the following list of insights that anyone designing an online course should consider if they want to meet students’ needs and expectations.

What Do Students Say They Want and Need in the Online Classroom?

  • Faculty Presence: Engagement, Feedback, and Assistance. Students don't want to feel isolated in online learning environments. They prefer when instructors incorporate interactive elements and opportunities for communication into the course design. Research suggests that engagement increases when faculty relate course activities to students' major field of study or life experiences.
  • Course Content: Clear Expectations, Motivation, and Challenge. When students aren’t able to find important information or course components, they simply are unable to use them. This can result in frustration, lowered motivation, and decreased self-efficacy. Research suggests that findability is the most significant predictor of both self-efficacy and motivation among students in online courses. Students also find greater satisfaction when a course has real-world relevance and provides appropriate challenges. Students reported that challenging assignments have intrinsic value that further increases their satisfaction.

What Do Students Say They Struggle With Most Online?

  • Instructor Presence: Social Interaction (i.e. feelings of isolation) and Lack of Support. As mentioned above, students don't want to feel isolated. It is one of the primary struggles that they deal with as online students. While isolation can be addressed through course content, it is up to the instructor to be present and help build the class community. An increased faculty presence can help the students feel supported as they progress through the course.
  • Course Content: Technical Difficulties, Social Interaction, and Lack of Structure. Technical difficulties (e.g. submitting an assignment, accessing a program, and using Excel) are a top struggle expressed by online students and can lead to them feeling frustrated and upset. While technical issues are bound to happen in any situation, course designers can set the students up for success by making sure they have all the information they need – including ensuring they know where to go for help.

It is also important to add social interaction elements, such as discussions, group assignments, video, etc., into the course design to build a sense of community and prevent feelings of isolation. Course organization and structure is also important as it aligns with the students’ need for clear expectations. If the course is disorganized and not designed with a structure in mind, students can feel lost.

What Can Faculty Do to Incorporate This Student Feedback?

"Educational practitioners should be aware of their own learning-style preferences. Knowing our strengths and weaknesses as educators helps us to know where we will be strong and weak in terms of instructional design and delivery" (Aragon, Johnson, & Shaik, 2000).

In online course design, it is important to remember that we’re creating an experience for students with different learning styles. To develop an effective and engaging course, we should switch our focus from the individual professor's preferred approach to what research shows best meets students’ needs. To keep the focus on the student, faculty can do the following:

  • Keep student-faculty conversation open; let students know you are available for questions and comments
  • Provide prompt and detailed (when needed) feedback
  • Provide clear communication around expectations
  • Establish course procedures early on

Make an Effort to Obtain Student Feedback

"The most positive impact with online learning experiences is the class structure that supports flexibility, organization, and clear expectations" (Crews & Butterfield, 2014).

"Students can learn equally well in either delivery format, regardless of learning style, provided the course is developed around adult learning theory and sound instructional design guidelines" (Aragon, Johnson, & Shaik, 2000).

When an online course is designed well and the instructor has a great presence, the students are more likely to have a positive experience – this is backed up by student feedback. I challenge all faculty reading this article to think about the student during course development and, if possible, to get ahold of pre-existing online student course evaluations. I have found that student course evaluations are very meaningful and beneficial to guiding course revisions, and have even read the evaluations after the second run of a course to see where there may still be a need for additional tweaking.

In sum, good online course design is all about recognizing and understanding the students’ needs. Their voice matters – we just need to take time to listen.

To learn more from our Learning Designers, including how to engage students with media and moderate large online discussion boards, visit our Resources page.

Authored by Loreli Smyth - Learning Designer at Wiley Education Services


Research Resources:

Aragon, S. R., Johnson, S. D., & Shaik, N. (2000). The influence of learning style preferences on student success in online vs. face-to-face environments. American Journal of Distance Education 16 (4), 227-243. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15389286AJDE1604_3

Crews, T, & Butterfield, J. (2014). Data for flipped classroom design: Using student feedback to identify the best components from online and face-to-face classes. Higher Education Studies, 4 (3), 38-47.http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/hes.v4n3p38

Crews, T B., Bordonada, T. M., & Wilkinson, K. (2017). Student feedback on quality matters standards for online course design. Retrieved from: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2017/6/student-feedback-on-quality-matters-standards-for-online-course-design

Flaherty, C. (2015). Flawed evaluations. Retrieved from: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/06/10/aaup-committee-survey-data-raise-questions-effectiveness-student-teaching

Hansen, W. L. (2014). Rethinking the student course evaluation: How a customized approach can improve teaching and learning. Liberal Education, 100 (3), Retrieved from: https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/rethinking-student-course-evaluation

Ryalls, K. (2016). From futile reviews to meaningful student feedback. Retrieved from: https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-04-22-from-futile-reviews-to-meaningful-student-feedback

Stewart, S. & Kogan, L. (2015). Evaluation of online courses/teaching in the department of clinical sciences. Retrieved from: http://csu-cvmbs.colostate.edu/documents/clinsci-eval-online-courses.pdf

Using student feedback teams for course improvement. Retrieved from: https://www.northeastern.edu/learningresearch/teaching-support/earlymidterm-student-feedback/using-student-feedback-teams-for-course-improvement/ 

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