Online learning requires attention to curriculum design to ensure that students are engaged with course content and instructors are able to evaluate them accurately. Wiley Fellow Ginny Focht-New presents an overview of a framework for effective teaching and learning in the online environment.
Course design involves developing effective methods of delivering information to students and assessing their learning. In the online environment, instructors and course designers must design and adapt coursework for a format that is remote and often asynchronous. Without thoughtful course design, online students may become overwhelmed and struggle with their confidence to learn, integrate, and apply knowledge. They may become disengaged when challenging content is not delivered in an effective manner. On the evaluation side, instructors may struggle with identifying where a student’s understanding begins to falter or whether they truly grasp concepts.
Sequencing and scaffolding of assignments and evaluation ensures students have opportunities to add to their knowledge and instructors have a way to assess multiple levels of learning. In this way, instructors can track students’ mastery of a subject as they work through a course while supporting their competence and confidence at every step. In this article, I walk through techniques for sequencing and scaffolding and provide an example of how I use them in a course.
Sequencing refers to designing assignments that stimulate student learning by introducing concepts and knowledge and then building on them. Assignments can move from conceptual knowledge to progressively more complex tasks, such as analysis, application, and synthesis. The purpose within and between assignments must be coordinated with the overall course purpose and program objectives.
This is a thoughtful process that requires mapping out material to be covered in classes and how learning will be assessed. Creating a balanced workload is necessary to avoid overwhelming students and instructors, which can interfere with rich understanding.
Some practices for sequencing are as follows:
- Begin the course with a foundation of content and add increasing detail about components as the course goes on. Initially asking for student feedback about the material helps them to connect to and engage with it. For instance, ask what the reading or other material means to them, or ask about their experiences (or lack of experience) with the subject in question.
- Develop a visual outcomes map and/or a course and assignment overview video for students to help them better understand the purpose of both the content and process of completing course assignments.
- Engage students in course content by offering a range of learning activities, such as watching and responding to videos, reflecting on reading material, taking quizzes, applying material to real or hypothetical situations, discussing ideas with fellow students, researching topics, and so on.
- Offer students opportunities to make choices according to their interests throughout the course (e.g. articles to read, assignments to complete, topics to present, and more).
- Spread out the workload so that students have a better chance of learning rather than just getting assignments done.
Scaffolding provides a framework for the evaluation of learning. In this way, instructors can assess students for conceptual knowledge as well as for their ability to analyze, synthesize, and apply information at every stage of a course, alerting them to when additional guidance is needed. In addition, assignments can be designed to assess multiple levels of learning. For instance, group assignments, peer feedback, and presentations can provide instructors with different perspectives into students’ comprehension and ability with new skills and knowledge.
Instructor feedback is a vital element of scaffolding and should be incorporated throughout a course. Without it, students may misunderstand central concepts, impeding their progress. Student self-evaluation and self-reflection is also critical to their advancement. Increasing the depth of such self-perspective—such as having students offer examples of their participation and ways in which their contributions have influenced others—can further their learning and also provide instructors with additional avenues of evaluation.
Suggestions for incorporating scaffolding into evaluation include:
- Grade assignments with a balance of critique and positive feedback. Students need to know what they did not understand and also what they did well. Instructor feedback can also serve as a model for offering feedback to classmates in peer review assignments.
- Ask students to apply what they learn through case examples during the course as a way to assess student knowledge and abilities for critical analysis and self-reflection.
- Course material should be presented using a range of formats and learning strategies such as videos, reading, PowerPoint presentations, websites, triad/dyad/group work, case examples, self-reflection, self and peer grading, discussions, and teaching back. This variation supports instructors’ ability to assess learning. For example, having students “teach back” via a presentation or video to demonstrate more complex and interrelated concepts can indicate what they have digested and what they might need to work on.
- Respond to students regularly in a discussion post or video to go over what they are learning and to address any concerns or confusion about the course content and concepts.
- Consider allowing students to submit a draft assignment before the due date, which allows instructors to provide helpful feedback.
Sequencing and Scaffolding Course Example
The example below reflects an eight-week online course I teach about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) for a social work program. The course uses a variety of articles, films, and videos rather than a textbook. Most weeks I include a PowerPoint presentation with “Food for Thought” slides. Students are graded via weekly discussions, self-graded journals, one individual assignment, and a final group presentation.
Developing an empathetic connection involving people with IDD by emphasizing their voices is a central concept integrated throughout the course. I make a weekly video to highlight important elements, course activities, and assignments. I also respond to the students weekly in a post or video to emphasize what they are learning and to straighten out occasional misunderstandings.
Week 1: Introduction
The focus of this week is on becoming familiar with the online environment and course expectations. Students make an introduction video and talk about their experiences taking an online course; I do the same with an overview of my experiences. Students watch a video that outlines expectations for the course, and they choose a book about autism to read for a future assignment.
- Students learn about each other and identify students with experience in the online environment who may be able to provide information or assistance.
- They have a chance to prepare, read, and organize themselves for the rest of the course.
- The book assignment provides them with options to increase their engagement with the topic.
Week 2: Overview of People with IDD
This week’s material includes a film that reviews the history of stigma and discrimination related to IDD as well as stories from affected individuals. Students have assigned reading and also choose an article of their interest. Discussion focuses on students’ experiences and knowledge about people with IDD, and they make a list of personality characteristics they think are important to bring to a therapeutic relationship with such individuals. They also respond to a “Food for Thought” slide and choose a presentation topic for later in the semester.
- Students connect with each other by sharing their basic knowledge and extended or limited experiences with IDD.
- A foundation of conceptual understanding is created, and they begin to analyze topics in the discussion.
- Offering a choice of presentation topics encourages engagement with the content and is the first step toward a group presentation assignment.
Week 3: Historical Overview
Students read selections from a book by a man identified with an IDD and watch a video in which I speak about my own 40-plus years of experience in the field. Discussions focus on the reading from the book and ideas on how to empower people with IDD. Students also respond to a “Food for Thought” slide. The first self-graded reflective journal entry is due.
- Students develop an empathetic connection with the course content, increasing their interest in the course and further analysis.
- The discussions ask students to relate ideas about people with IDD to their own everyday life experiences, increasing confidence in their connection with the topic and their ability to apply concepts.
- The journal entry helps reinforce the strength and importance of students’ contributions and helps demonstrate what they learned from classmates as well as how they apply new knowledge.
Week 4: A Positive Perspective
This week provides a holistic view of the lives of people with IDD. Students read two articles for a discussion about caregivers, one assigned and the other selected by the student. A second question in this discussion asks students, “What do you imagine that people working with individuals with IDD might be doing now that we could regret 20 to 30 years from now?” In addition, students upload an article they will annotate for approval as part of their group presentation.
- Students increase their mastery of the content by applying and synthesizing knowledge gained from the reading to a discussion question.
- The second discussion question requires critical analysis and evaluation.
- Choosing an article for annotation requires planning and interaction with the group, offering more chances for connection and learning.
Weeks 5-7: Focus on Content and Group Presentation
Each content-focused week (on topics affecting people with IDD) has assigned readings, options to select articles, videos, and a brief instructor PowerPoint presentation. Students also review a case example, to which more information is added each week. They weave the reading material into the discussion through citations and references. In the second part of the discussion, they integrate aspects of the presentations they are working on, focusing on how what they have learned could be applied in practice. Each student turns in the annotated article and another self-graded journal entry.
A “group work week” is included in the course to give students time to organize their presentations. Reading focuses on creating interesting presentations. There are no discussions due that week.
For their presentations, students use PowerPoint, videos, websites, and more. In addition, each student must develop a question to pose to the class. Each presenting group member turns in their self-graded journal reflecting on the presentation and the process of putting it together.
- Incremental learning takes place with the addition of new details to the case example.
- Reading material, weekly videos made by the instructor, group presentations, and the instructor’s presentation are all analyzed, evaluated, synthesized, and applied in the discussions.
- Students acknowledge and explain what they learn from their classmates’ discussion posts.
- The presentations allow student to “teach back” information that they have learned.
- Students develop increased confidence and competence with the course content.
In the final week, students focus on how they can use what they have learned to support a person with IDD. The last details of the case study are presented along with my own plan of support for the individual so students can compare and evaluate their own ideas. Students discuss what they would do to address stigma and discrimination of this population, a topic introduced at the beginning of the course. Students also review the original therapeutic characteristics they identified in the first week and add to or change them based on what they have learned. They submit the final self-graded journal entry reflecting on engagement with the overall course and respond to a final “Food for Thought” slide.
- Students synthesize what they have learned and cite examples from course materials and group presentations, demonstrating their mastery of knowledge, analysis, application, evaluation, and synthesis.
- They reflect on the beginning of the course to review how their understanding has evolved.
Sequencing and scaffolding provide a framework for learning and evaluation that is especially valuable in the online format, where additional structures can help support engagement and connection. This approach also allows for the teaching and assessment of multiple levels of learning, which prepares students for the complex demands of today’s workplace and supports their career goals. Further, sequencing and scaffolding creates a loop where learning an evaluation build on each other throughout the course, building students’ competence and confidence and enhancing instructors’ confidence as well.
For more information of the Wiley Fellows program and their individual research projects, click here. Or, visit our Resources page to read other Fellows’ general insights, opinions, and experiences with online learning.
Ginny Focht-New, PhD, PMH-CNS, BCB
Clinical Assistant Professor, Widener University