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Community Team
Community Team

Simplifying Course Design

As we start the new year I am wondering if some people have decided to simplify their course design, cutting out content, activities or communications that do not contribute to the learning process or actually act to impede it?  As New Year's is often a time for cleaning and clearing away in other aspects of our lives, I'm curious...

47 Replies
Community Member

Funny you should mention that, because as our faculty return, I'm presenting a session I call "Canvas: Simplify!".

To be honest, though, it's more about simple hacks to their workflow (using certain settings and options to streamline processes, using rubrics to grade, organizing things in ways that make sense to them AND their students) than it is about paring down the content. That said, I AM actively pushing my "hide your unused navigation items" agenda Smiley Wink

Instructure, thank you for starting this thread.

I'm personally super interested to read what you all share, because the idea that one could help students by simplifying the course design, even reducing learning activities was something of an epiphany for me when I first started using Canvas.

I've told this story before, but my first semester teaching on Canvas was when it was still in beta -- 2010! The team had just barely added in Quizzes, but they hadn't built the QTI importer yet, and there was no way I was going to re-build 13 quizzes in my online course by hand in the weekend before the class started.

So I thought, well, this will be a fun experiment! My online course was primarily project-based, but I did have weekly low-stakes quizzes, too  -- in hindsight, I don't know why. To encourage them to read the lesson, maybe. To ensure conceptual understanding, probably. Tradition, yeah, partly.

So my first semester teaching this online course on Canvas was also my first semester teaching this online course without quizzes. I found three things:

1. In this course, quizzes didn't seem to matter in terms of student outcomes. Comparing the course to previous semesters, final grades were not significantly different, nor were project scores.

2. Students did spend more time responding to and acting on project feedback. Honestly, this was probably attributable just to SpeedGrader and Notifications, but I like to think that by simplifying the course design and reducing the number of required activities, students, therefore, focused on the projects.

3. Doing more with less was invigorating. That not having my quizzes didn't seem to matter (in this course, anyway) caused me to rethink my assumptions. Were my quizzes poorly designed? Did students benefit from the quizzes at all? Does the final grade actually represent what I thought it represented?

And most importantly:

What else in my course design do I assume is important, but really could be simplified?

Community Member

Oh, yes, very important question! And I remember your telling this story about the quizzes somewhere,‌ ... maybe at that ask-me-anything last year. 🙂

I teach writing, which is inherently complicated because you cannot separate out the different skills that are involved in order to stage and sequence them in isolation from one another. You can quiz students on comma usage, sure, but I gave up on that approach long ago because I just was not seeing any good skills transfer from what they did on quizzes and how they managed their own writing and revision process. With every sentence, as students compose even a short piece of writing (my students are writing stories that are usually between 500-1000 words long), there is a LOT that they have to be thinking about. It's not easy. Mistakes are made. So, there is lots and lots of iteration: feedback, revision, more feedback, more revision. It's open-ended, subjective, messy, complicated... and very fun and unpredictable as a result! 

So my design mantra, instead of simplicity, is usefulness. Is each learning activity useful? Useful to the student at that moment and, ideally, useful to them in the future? Is the work they are doing useful to the other students in the class? To students in future classes? Useful to me? Useful to other audiences? The idea of re-use is incredibly important to me, and it is also a powerful motivator for the students. I think putting an end to disposable assignments is a really good goal, and if you Google the phrase "disposable assignments," you will see a lot of educators grappling with this challenge in different ways:

Google search for "disposable assignments"

I also work really hard on making sure the feedback I give to students is useful. I know I've gotten better at that, and it is a constant challenge to me, one that I really enjoy. It's worth the time I put into giving the feedback BECAUSE I am confident it is useful.

I've also been trying to help students learn how to give each other useful feedback. That is also a big challenge, but most of the students are pretty motivated to work on learning how to give good feedback: it's a generally useful skill, and not obvious or easy. Like writing, feedback is complex, multidimensional, not simple. But I keep working with students on that, finding good resources and strategies to share with them about feedback. We are colearners about the feedback, just as with the writing; I'm trying to improve both my writing skills and feedback skills side by side with the students. 

I hope others will chime in here in response to's question! This is such a great topic to ponder as people are (re)designing courses for the Spring. I'll be doing the soft launch for my classes already on Monday, eager as always to see if the changes I've made for this semester will be keepers or not. 

Community Coach
Community Coach

I’m working on something kinda crazy right now that sorta fits with this theme. Background: This semester I’ve got an online math 113 course and a hybrid math 113 course that I’m teaching as one big course (40+ students) and allowing the students in either course to decide on any given week if they want to come in during our class meeting time (this traditionally is the hybrid meeting time) or not. So online students can come in if they want help and hybrid students don’t have to come if they don’t need the help or if life has happened that week. This is my attempt of meeting the students where they are and giving them the support they need to be successful. Class time won’t be traditional and will focus on the needs of the students who came to class that week. So this could include mini lecture, board work, working through a data set, breaking off into groups with similar questions so students can help each other, me bouncing around from group to group or person to person seeing what they need help with. 

The change in the assignments for this new type of course is because I realized I needed to go through and simplify things for their sake and mine! My first step was taking out my beautiful tabbed pages - I love them, but I don’t think they are working as well for the students. Too much “stuff” and not enough focus.

The next step and the one I’m working on/struggling with is trying to figure out what the students “really” need to know and how I can achieve that they best way possible without having too many assignments. Right now I have quizzes, discussions, homework, projects, and feedback exchanges. Yes, a little of all of these types of assignments every week! It’s a lot to grade and I often wonder if all of it is really necessary. So back to the basics I go... or at least I’m trying...

I love the projects - this where students really have to understand and “get” the material in order to analyze the data and write up their results. There are 4 of them, they are all application based, have multiple parts that get turned in along the way, and we are always working on one of them during any point in the semester. In general I get good feedback from students that they like the projects. 

I also really like most of my weekly discussions and feel strongly that they contribute to the big picture learning of the class, conceptual understanding, and help keep students engaged with each other and me (because yes, I participate in my discussions!). I normally get good feedback from students on these as well. 

I’ve just started adding “homework” to the course over the last few semesters. These are worksheets in as untimed Canvas quiz. I addded them because it seemed like students needed the extra experience with Minitab (Statistical software we use) and working through a data set. It also seems to help them do better with the projects and students have indicated that the homework has helped them understand what they are doing. 

Feedback exchanges are something new I’m formally adding this semester. I’ve been informally doing it to increase engagement and I’ve seen some wonderful results and gotten great feedback from the students. I could write a lot about it, but the gist of it is that for this semester I’m going to have a weekly survey where I ask students for feedback on the class materials, class assignments, and then for the student to reflect on how they are doing in the course and where are they having problems and where do they think they could improve. I’m going to review this feedback and the students work/grades and then respond with my own feedback on what I’m seeing and my recommendations for what the student could be doing to get more from the course. I’ll also take into account the feedback on the course materials and assignments and use this as a way to improve the course, if not for this semester then for the next. I’m also going to have students respond to my feedback with some type of acknowledgement so I know they at least saw my feedback. And if a real conversation comes out of this, then bonus!

Quizzes... quizzes were originally put in place because they cover the main “big” concepts of the course, and we - me and the other person who teaches Math 113 ( - felt it was important that students were assessed on these concepts that we cover, but might not get assessed directly in a project or discussion. If I remember correctly the quizzes were also added because overall course grades had gotten disproportionately higher without the feeling that students understood the material as well. This was after the course went from a traditional exam based course to a more project based course. Right now quizzes are untimed, open for 1-2 weeks before the due date, and students are normally given 5 attempts on each quiz with the average used at their score for the quiz. So not traditional quizzes and more like homework. Yet, students tend to not like them and in some cases I wonder if some of the quizzes are focusing on things that don’t really matter as much anymore - ex: hand calculations. 

My plan is to review all of my assignments and try to tighten things up and see where I can cut, and I’ll be honest, quizzes were the first place I was going to look. Yes, they are the easiest for me because they all autograde, but are they helping students as much as they could? Or, is it just another thing they have to do and they aren’t really focusing on it anyway? Decisions, decisions, decisions...

Wow,‌, this is all so fabulous... and I am sure you are going to get really good, and maybe even surprising, ideas back from the students as part of that course feedback process. Plus you will get to see one of the biggest problems that we face teaching big groups of students like this: there is a real variety among the students in terms of what works (or doesn't work) for any individual student, what they like / don't like, what is / isn't convenient for them, motivating for them, etc. etc. That is one of the biggest design challenges of all, and by building in that feedback from the students you will get really important information you need to face that challenge.

Even better: it will also create a real bond of trust with the students. When you ask for feedback and rely on their feedback, the students can tell you really care about doing a good job, and I think that really inspires students to care right back. After all, if they are taking four or five courses, and they can tell one teacher really cares and another honestly doesn't seem to care all that much, it just makes sense to invest in the course with a teacher who clearly cares!

Something I keep trying to do is to get students to be more self-aware of themselves as learners so that they can make good choices about the strategies they use, and also making sure I introduce them to LOTS of strategies since you never know what will click with one student as opposed to another student. One big new experiment for me this semester is promoting different kinds of note-taking strategies. When I look at my students' blogs, the weakest part for many students is their reading notes, and I think that for at least some of them it is because they are so used to "reading-to-take-a-quiz" in all their reading for school, they are not good at "reading-for-curiosity" which is the goal in my classes: being curious, and learning new things they can use in their own writing. I don't decide what's useful or important in the reading; they do. Some students totally get that, but other students really struggle, so I have prepared a long list of different note-taking strategies, and I am going to try to get them to at least TRY one or two new strategies every week and then see what strategies work for them. This is totally new; I've always taken a pretty much hands-off approach to their note-taking because I definitely don't want to dictate what they do, but some students need to be encouraged to experiment. I am excited to see what happens! This will probably take a few semesters for me to get right, but here's the list of strategies I am starting with:

Online Course Wiki / note-taking styles 

It's always a little scary but mostly fun to try a totally new experiment for the semester and then see what happens!

Anyway, all the stuff you are doing in your classes sounds wonderful, and I hope you will report back on what is working / not working and any surprises along the way. Thank you for sharing all your great ideas here!

Thank you for the feedback and encouragement!! This all got started over last summer when I was reading through all your growth mindset stuff!

It's contagious! We can pick it up from each other, and then of course there is all the great back-and-forth with students when we are learning/growing together. 🙂

Community Team
Community Team

Personally I am not an instructor and haven't ever taught a fully online course so I hesitate to share opinions on that experience.  I am however currently taking an LMS-based fully online graduate level course.  The course format is about as tradition to online as you can get - post to the discussion by Wednesday and drop off your written assignment as well as respond to two classmates by Sunday at midnight.  When I first logged in and reviewed the format I was disappointed that we wouldn't be doing something more novel but I have found that I'm very much enjoying the course and getting a lot out of it.  The online publisher provided content is really easy to use - the periodic self-checks really do help me check my understanding of concepts and the book wasn't expensive.  I pretty quickly learned which of my fellow students are actually researching to find good sources that add to the course text and their own experiences as opposed to the students who appear to be randomly grabbing the first source whose title kinda, sorta matches up with the discussion topic.  Having only one written assignment per week allows me the time to really dig into it and return to it several times throughout the week. 

As a side note; It feels somewhat heretical after having spent as much energy as I did in the past trying to convert people to the open content movement but after buying an online textbook from a publisher for thirty eight bucks that is actually good content in a convenient platform, maybe the movement has had the effect on the industry that we all wanted for so many years?, thank you for this valuable insight! I really do wonder what my students think... and then wonder where their thoughts/opinions are coming from... Do they just not want to do as much work? Do they not want to think? Do they really want to dig in deeper with the content? I have lots and lots of questions, which I'm hoping to address in my Feedback Exchange, but it's good to hear from an adult learner that I trust is taking the course to really "learn" and expand his knowledge.