Section 1: Course Structure and Content

Symbol Key


Computer/Web Learning One or more of the references addresses an online, computer-based, or web-enhanced teaching environment.
Many Applications Best practice applies to a wide range of subject areas and teaching methods.
Best practice has been used or observed by Collegis staff, and comes highly recommended.


Set clear course goals.

The Teaching Goals Inventory, found on pages 13-24 of Angelo and Cross (1993), is “a simple, effective tool for identifying and clarifying…teaching goals.” This inventory had the input of “nearly five thousand college teachers who took part in three separate TGI survey administrations.” It has also been extensively field-tested. An online version is available from the Center for Teaching at the University of Iowa.

Design an effective syllabus.

McKeachie (1991) provides some practical tips for teaching and learning in the college classroom, including guidelines for creating a useful and informative syllabus. See also McKeachie, Pintrich, Lin, and Smith (1986) for practical teaching tips based on educational research.

Palloff and Pratt (1999) provide an extensive discussion effective practice with respect to online syllabi, examples of online syllabi, and guiding questions for syllabus preparation, in Chapter 7, “Building Foundations” (pp. 87-109) and Resource A (pp. 169-188).

Recognize that students may have different learning styles, and make an effort to match your teaching to multiple learning styles.

Grasha's (1996) work suggests that preferred learning style and preferred teaching style is only one part of the dynamic of effective instruction. Many other factors impact the outcomes, such as learner preparedness, motivation, and study habits. Grasha suggests that instructors may not be as effective as possible if they go too far beyond their preferred teaching style, and as such recommends instructors not try to affect styles that are not suited for them.

Pulsinelli and Roubie (2001) describe a virtual learning environment based on a diversity model developed at George Mason University for students with learning disabilities. Research suggests that serving a range of learning disabilities opens the potential for user-interface confusion. As such, diversity modeling can serve as a powerful design tool.

Design learning environments that support a variety of learning styles.

Martinez (2001) has documented some key design considerations for personalized learning on the web. Martinez makes the following suggestions:

  • “For transforming learners, design environments that are sophisticated, discovery-oriented, mentoring environments where learners who want to be assertive, challenged by complex problem solving situations, and able to self-manage learning and self-monitor progress can attain higher standard, long-term goals.
  • For performing learners, design environments that are project- or task-oriented, energizing, competitive, interactive (hands on) environments, which use coaching, practice, and feedback to encourage self-motivation, holistic thinking, problem solving, self-monitoring progress, and task sequencing, while minimizing the need for extra effort and difficult standards.
  • For conforming learners, design environments that are simple, scaffolded, structured, non-risk environments that use explicit, careful guidance. They should help individuals learn comfortably in an easy, step-wise fashion. These environments should also encourage learners to take assertive, challenging steps towards more independent, self-motivated achievement.”

Available online.


If teaching online, create course content pages so that they support web user reading techniques.

Jakob Nielsen has one of the classic web design columns. Nielsen (1997) recommends that pages be set up newspaper style with the conclusion stated first. He also advocates highlighting keywords, creating meaningful subheadings, using bulleted lists, and being terse. This article can be found online.

Give students significant control over navigation of course materials.

Ford and Chen (2000) conducted an empirical study of individual differences in hypermedia navigation and learning. Excerpts from the abstract: “From this and other research, there would appear to be considerable evidence that people with different cognitive styles display characteristically different learning strategies. However, the extent to which and the conditions under which such different strategies affect learning outcomes can be affected…However, when students are allowed more control over navigation in relatively nonlinear learning environments (including hypermedia), the evidence is less consistent, and a number of studies have reported no significant differences in learning outcomes despite learners displaying characteristic learning strategie...The present study also found no significant interactions between learning strategies displayed by learners of different cognitive style and learning outcomes.”

Provide learners with some control over the sequence of learning activities.

Dillon and Gabbard (1998) conducted a review of research on hypermedia as an educational technology. They were interested in effects of variables such as learner comprehension, control and style. Hypermedia offers users more control over access and exploration than traditional formats (such as paper). Although the effects of increased control do not significantly affect low and middle performing students, there is some research that shows promising results for improving the learning of high performing students.

When using technologies, provide content in multiple media to support the formation of more robust mental models.

Kozma (1991) draws several conclusions about learning based on a literature review of learning with media. Two of the more important conclusions were:

  • The combined use of audio and visual representations “resulted in more recall than visual-only and audio-only presentations.”
  • “..the bushier nature of representations derived from the visual symbol systems are better for building mental models of the situation than are representations based on audio-linguistic information.”

Kozma also reviewed the literature on hypermedia up to 1991, pointing out many pros and cons of learning in this medium that are still relevant today (pp. 202-205).

In online environments, be aware of the effects of download time for varying multimedia file sizes.

A study by Davis and Hantula (2001) hypothesized that there would be increased student dissatisfaction with increasingly long download delays. The results pointed to a more complex state of affairs. The effects of download delay may be greater when the material is more complex. There may be a timeframe in which a delay is beneficial because users take the time to study the other material on the page more thoroughly. After a certain amount of time elapsed, users did stop studying. If graphics are highly pertinent, users will view them as suitable despite lengthy download delays.

Recognize that learners will approach the course from different perspectives.

Wilburg (1994-95) found that men and women approach technology differently for learning purposes. Findings include that men have a more random approach to technology, whereas women are more goal-oriented. Wilburg wrote that men, "see a computer as a machine that extends their power and get excited about the computer itself, while woman (sic) approach the computer more relationally, seeking ways to use it to relate to other people" (p. 8).

In addition, Shuell and Farber (2001) found that undergraduate and graduate students’ perceptions of technology were driven by their active engagement and personal characteristics. They wrote, "The data suggest that students' perceptions depend on the way technology is used in the course, on the students' learning preferences, and on students' gender. Those students actively engaged with the technology were more likely to perceive positive effects of technology as a learning tool, reflecting the importance of active learning" (p. 134).


Design activities that encourage “active” learning in which students are expected to participate.

A study by Zoller (1999) compared large and small chemistry classes at two different institutions in order to challenge the traditional approach to chemistry education in which the instructor covers material that will appear on an examination. This study applied an inquiry-oriented approach to class discussion requiring more active learning on the part of the students. The author concluded that an active learning approach to class discussions is "feasible and effective" (p. 593) even for large classes.

When using case studies, write interesting and effective cases.

Paraschos (1991) discusses the elements of good cases and bad cases in teaching. Written from a diplomacy perspective, this paper provides a very good description of the characteristics of a well-written and effective case. In this paper, a case also includes teaching notes about how to effectively moderate a case discussion. Their recommendations include the following:

  • write good teaching notes that will help you teach the case to students
  • keep your own analyses out of the case - leaving analysis up to the students
  • keep personal opinions out of the case
  • capture the human element
  • hook the readers by making it interesting
  • give attention to the structure, or “plot” of the case
  • avoid sweeping generalizations and excessive detail.

Available online.

Simmons (ND) provides a good introduction to using case studies in teaching. This article defines four phases in teaching a case and suggests six questions to use to structure a case discussion.

In addition, Barnes, Christensen, and Hansen (1994) have authored a classic book on case method in the Harvard School of Business.

Use problem-based learning to apply course concepts.

Sage and Torp (1997) demonstrated that student learning is greater with a problem-oriented approach compared to a fact-oriented approach. They also suggest that student motivation, development of critical thinking skills, and a deeper understanding of content are all improved using a problem-based learning approach.

Adequately prepare students for problem-based approaches to learning, and provide feedback to students during the process.

Oliver and Omari (2000) found that while students perceived valued and gained from learning in a collaborative, problem-based environment, many expressed a preference for a more conventional teacher-directed form of learning. The study's authors felt that merely participating in problem-based learning was not sufficient for student development of problem-solving skills. Rather, students needed guidance regarding the group and the problem-solving process. According to the authors, "The development of these skills it would appear must come from some deliberate strategy aimed at helping students to reflect on their learning processes and through feedback which informs and encourages their progress" (p. 45).

When using problem-based learning, provide adequate structure for group work.

Oliver and Omari (2001) explored satisfaction and outcomes of 240 first-year students doing problem-based learning in a web-enhanced environment. Recommendations from this study include creation of stronger guidelines for group work, the need for reliable technology, and the need for teaching problem-solving and metacognitive skills to this population.


Provide appropriate individual and creative problem-solving opportunities.

For individual work, provide more alternative solutions. For group work, provide a common mental model that is appropriate to the task, and provide a more limited range of alternatives that the group can then evaluate and refine. Mumford, Feldman, Hein, and Nagao's (2001) study of individual and group creative problem solving performance involved undergraduates who were assigned randomly to work as individuals or in 3-person groups. Some individuals and groups received advanced training to provide them with a common mental model that may or may not have matched their problem. Some were given a survey that presented an increased number of alternative solutions to the problem. They found that:

  • Individuals did not outperform groups.
  • Shared mental models are important to groups because they support group coordination and effective exchange.
  • Groups “produce more workable, but not necessarily more original solutions to novel problems.”

The study also found that individuals with a wider range of alternative solutions available to them performed better. Groups who received advanced training pertinent to their problem performed better. Also, groups with a limited number of high quality alternatives performed better.

Provide activities such as summarizing or generating questions that will encourage students to think critically and generate their own meaningful connections with the materials.

Radmacher and Latosi-Sawin (1995) found that students who used summary writing in one class performed 8% higher on than the mean score of a class without summary writing.

An article by King (1995) provides a model in which student questioning can be used within the curriculum. King’s article provides an inquiry-based model for promoting critical thinking in psychology, and provides research findings to substantiate the model.

Insert questions, charts, and/or diagrams into text to help students better regulate their own comprehension or visualize a concept.

Richards and Denner (1979) conducted a review of the research on inserted questions as aids to reading text. They reviewed studies on type, placement, and processing of questions. Findings from several studies suggested that inserted questions can have a significant impact on reading comprehension and other outcomes. In addition, there is evidence that poor comprehenders may benefit more from inserted meaningful post-questions than good comprehenders.

Encourage students to use good learning strategies, such as re-reading, note-taking, distributing learning over time, and time management.

Weinstein and Mayer (1986) discuss the importance of several kinds of learning strategies, such as rehearsal strategies, elaboration strategies, organizational strategies, comprehension monitoring strategies, and affective/motivational strategies. They present research findings on the effectiveness of these strategies, as well as ways in which instructors can encourage the use of these strategies in their classes.

Encourage critical thinking by presenting students with tasks that require analysis, synthesis, and problem recognition, and problem solving, inference, and evaluation.

Kurfiss' (1988) review of the literature on critical thinking provides some recommendations for activities to promote critical thinking. Included are recommended activities that require students to analyze, synthesize, and recognize problems.

See also, Angelo's (1995) Classroom Assessment for Critical Thinking for additional information on problem solving, inference, and evaluation.

Provide adequate support for students so they can perform course activities successfully and efficiently.

Jones and Laffey (2001) conducted a study to identify the components that supported the transition of MBA students from classroom to online instruction. They found that the following issues impacted the ease of transition: perceived advantage, computability with tasks, complexity of tasks, training, observability of tasks, and institutional culture. When these elements conflicted with the goals for online learning, the adoption process slowed down; conversely, when these elements were in synch with online learning, they supported the process.


Provide frequent and prompt feedback to students.

Kolb's work (1982) identified providing learners with the opportunity to reflect upon feedback and trying again as a key component of the learning process.

Ramsden (1992) did work that is based on an Australian study in which learners consistently ranked feedback as the most important issue in teacher quality. In Ramsden’s study, those teachers who gave prompt and meaningful feedback were perceived as better teachers by their students.

Provide opportunities for frequent interactions between yourself and your students.

A study by Zack (1995) found that the use of e-mail and computer conferencing resulted in the instructor being more accessible. As such, the students perceived the instructor as more responsive and committed to their learning.

Convey high (but reasonable) expectations of your students; be careful to hold the same expectations for all of the students in your course.

In a review of the research on teacher expectations, Good (1987) highlights the Brophy-Good model of teacher expectations, which describes how an expectation communication process might happen in the classroom. The model describes how differential expectations can lead to differential treatment of the students. This treatment tells students something about how they are expected to behave, and leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy which then reinforces the teacher’s expectations. The differential treatment of high and low achievers has been well-documented in research. Examples include:

  • Waiting less time for lows to answer questions
  • Giving lows the answers or calling on someone else to provide the answer
  • Criticizing lows more often for failure
  • Failing to give feedback to the public responses of low achievers
  • Seating low achievers farther away from the teacher

Although much of the research in this area has been done in middle and secondary schools, there may be evidence to suggest a continuation of these findings into college teaching.

Observe copyright and fair use policies and guidelines.

Your institution will likely have its own resources and policies regarding copyright and fair use.Smith, Eddy, Richards, and Dixon (2000) conducted a multiple case study of ten Research I and II institutions and found that 90% of the respondents had centrally controlled distance education administration and related copyright and intellectual property polices. Abstract available online.