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Maximizing student success: 9 principles for learner-centered course design

Nhi Nguyen
Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
|
March 1, 2023
Table of Contents

Without doubt, education is definitely not going back to “normal" for now and beyond. The continuation of online/ hybrid modality and the rise of new technology (particularly ChatGPT and AI) have prompted faculties to rethink the role of teaching and learning. 

Instead of focusing on accreditation and certification, education should always be about student learning. That is, education needs to generate an environment where meaningful interactions, real-world skills development, and lifelong learning can take place. And faculties have great responsibility in creating this learner-centered environment to nurture knowledge and skills essential for future success. However, this can be challenging due to diversity in students’ capabilities, needs, and preferences. So how can faculties address this pain point and create a personalized, growth-oriented curriculum. This article introduces 9 principles to create engaging courses that embrace the needs of all students regardless of their levels or backgrounds. 

These principles are shared by Marnie Roestel, Associate Director of Learning Systems Support at Central Michigan University in the webinar: “Growing student success through learner-centered course design”. 

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Teach for everyone: A challenge

With over 20 years experience of supporting CMU faculties in both LMS optimization and instructional design, Marnie placed great emphasis on the role of institutions in nurturing a learner-centered environment, at the same time acknowledging the challenge: 

“Faculty have the great responsibility of shaping students and instilling them with knowledge, awareness, and skills, all of which is going to allow them to embark out into the world and be successful in their careers which is quite a daunting task.”

The challenge of learner-centered education, according to Marnie, stems from the need to address the diverse student needs and levels present within the classroom.

“One in five individuals in the United States has a learning and attention issue. That's 20% of the student population. And of those with these challenges that enroll in college, only 41% of them successfully earn their college degree, which is 11% lower than those without a disability.”

Besides learning abilities, students differ in cultural and economic backgrounds, and especially executive function capabilities – the skill sets that help prioritization, time management, and organization. 

Addressing this challenge requires the execution of several small actions, as stated by Marnie. By taking multiple meaningful steps, faculties “can create a rich and robust learning experience for students”. These actions are summarized under the 9 principles, which will be elaborated in the upcoming sections. 

9 principles to design a student-centered learning experience

Infographic: 9 principles to design learner-centered course
(Full size infographic)

Principle 1: Provide a detailed course map 

The very first principle is to build and offer students a detailed course map. In this, faculties should give an overview of the course trajectory (learning objectives, activities, assessment, and grading criteria) broken down week by week or module by module. A well crafted syllabus would help students develop a thorough understanding of the course, and allow for easy reference when necessary. Furthermore, having transparency of course activities and the expected outcomes can significantly increase student motivation and retention over the entire learning experience. 

Marnie details 3 examples in which this principle is executed: 

  • Provide an overview of the topics, activities, and due dates divided weekly. Not only does the overview offer utmost course clarity for students, but it also helps them to arrange their time wisely throughout the course to complete the required activities. 
Example of course overview by week
Example of course overview by week

  • Include a point distribution table and grading scale to inform students of where the learning is occurring. According to Marnie, this is another effective way to let students know what is expected of them and how the learning activities are linked to specific course objectives.
Example of point distribution and grading scale
Example of point distribution and grading scale

  • Create an organized and easy-to-read weekly reminder consisting of that week’s topic, required readings, and to-do items. This checklist assists students in setting their priorities, keeping themselves on track and making sure nothing is overlooked. 
Weekly reminder of learning tasks
Weekly reminder of learning tasks

Principle 2: Utilize the KISS rule – less is more

Whether it is course guidelines, activity instructions, or assessment details, faculties should craft each of these with the KISS principle – Keep It Simple and Straightforward. In essence, instructors should make sure that “messaging doesn’t compete with itself for students’ attention” by: 

  1. Maintaining a minimal use of images and graphics in the course content to enhance the information being presented and direct students’ focus to the important information. 
  2. Avoiding overemphasis on information and use of different fonts, colors, highlights, or text indentation. Try to apply these elements as sparingly as possible. This will make the content easier to read and less distracting, thus guiding students to focus on the important messages.

For students with vision or attention issues, the KISS principle makes it much easier to follow and digest the course information. 

Below is an example in which Marnie applied the principle to transform the instruction of a case study assignment. In the initial version, the overuse of color and bold makes it quite tired for the eyes to look at. After iteration, the instruction feels much calmer, with ample whitespace to break up the message and minimal emphasis with bolding to draw focus on important items.

Assignment instruction before applying the KISS principle
Assignment instruction before applying the KISS principle

Assignment instruction after applying the KISS principle
Assignment instruction after applying the KISS principle

Principle 3: Summarize and bulletize 

Students with learning challenges often have difficulty filtering out content that is irrelevant to their learning goals and objectives. With the third principle – Summarize and bulletize, instructors ensure transparent and well-organized presentation of course content to help students stay on top of the tasks and maintain clear mental focus. In practice, students are presented with a brief summary or overview of each learning module with key takeaways, critical aspects and learning objectives. This simple, bulleted form of information would increase readership and direct students to what is important.

Marnie provides two examples of applying the third principle: Weekly reminder and Assignment overview.

In the weekly reminder, all learning objectives and required tasks are placed into two columns and arranged in bullet points, making it easier to identify what is to be done and the benefits of each task. 

Weekly reminder
Weekly reminder with learning goals and tasks

For the assignment of Job analysis, Marnie starts with an overview to inform students of the required tasks and their purposes. This is followed by group project requirements and suggested timeline to complete each task. All the information is arranged in bullet points or tables, and presented with minimal use of colors, which make it much straightforward for students to grasp the core requirements of the assignment.

Assignment instructions written using the Summarize and Bulletize principle
Assignment instructions written using the Summarize and Bulletize principle

Principle 4: Ensure messaging is clear and concise 

Besides arranging the course information in an organized manner, crafting a clear and concise message is equally important in learner-centered course design. A straightforward, to the point course guideline will help “eliminate potential ambiguity and misinterpretation, while defining the tasks and expectations” for students. And here is how instructors can implement the Clear and Concise principle in creating course messages: 

  • When crafting course instructions or descriptions, try to omit extra words and repetitive information, also use consistent naming conventions for assignments, files, and content throughout the syllabus to ensure comprehension and reduce cognitive demand for students
  • Develop an intuitive, well-organized course menu with clear placement and grouping of information in suitable categories. According to Marnie, “your Course Menu is the anchor by which students will navigate among topics and tasks. The course menu should be intuitive, and that it clearly indicates what is housed within it.” This involves putting everything students need for content comprehension and task completion in one centralized location to avoid having to eliminate time spent searching and risk of overlooking information.  

Marnie also presented a concrete example of how she applied this principle in creating an intuitive course menu. In this, similar items are grouped together under header categories in the goal color; the menu buttons have clear labels and follow a chronological order. Overall course information is presented at the top, followed by topics and learning activities to be completed, and a collection of reference resources at the bottom. 

Intuitive and well-organized course menu
Intuitive and well-organized course menu

Besides providing a consistent course menu, it is important to make sure each activity allows students to comprehend easily and complete everything within one place. 

Marnie again provided an example of how she achieved this goal, by combining three principles: KISS, Summarize & Bulletize, and Clear & Concise to curate straightforward assignment details. In her Research presentation instruction, the following layout rules were applied: 

  • Moderate and consistent use of colors to indicate categories and emphasis
  • Bulleted lists to increase readership and comprehension
  • Centralization of the most important content to stimulate transparency and clear understanding of task requirements

This assignment was also curated to offer a streamlined learning experience for students. Originally, it consisted of two main phases: submission of presentation into a discussion board and peer review. However, this process can be complicated since it requires two separate platforms for each step. That’s why Marnie decided to use FeedbackFruits Peer Review, which allowed for streamlining the entire activity process, from submitting the presentations, designing peer feedback rubrics, assigning students for peer review, to monitoring learners’ progress. The result was that students enjoyed a more robust and collaborative learning experience, while instructors also could easily manage and grade their components. Marnie then concluded: 

“This is a great example of making technology work for you. So the final takeaway from this assignment example is to look for ways to make your course more efficient for you to manage and then streamline the experience for students as well.”

Principle 5: Break down high stakes learning activities into smaller tasks

A semester-long project can be an overwhelming task for students, especially for those who struggle with time management and lack organizational skills. Furthermore, such a huge workload can leave the learner feeling overwhelmed and unmotivated before they even start. That’s why breaking it down into smaller activities is an effective approach to address this problem. For instructors, issuing multiple small assignments that contribute to a polished final product allows for multiple feedback opportunities and holistic evaluation of student learning. For students, this will significantly reduce the feelings of overload, direct their focus on the task at hand, and provide them with meaningful feedback for improvement. 

Marnie implemented this principle in issuing a group project, in which teams developed a training programme for an organization. Instead of submitting one final product at the end, the assignment is broken down into smaller elements, allowing students to become familiar with all the steps needed to develop a comprehensive training that meet user needs and negates performance issues.

Example of project assignment broken into smaller steps
Example of project assignment broken into smaller steps

Principle 6: Variety is the spice of life 

Using repetitive activities in your courses, like reading then taking a test is an absolutely passive teaching approach that demotivates, rather than keeps students engaged. For those who struggle with attention, have dyslexia, or suffer from exam anxiety, this approach can be even more daunting. It is therefore important that faculties introduce a variety of learning activities that address classroom diversity and offer students different opportunities to showcase their acquired knowledge and skills. 

Again, Marnie provided several examples of different learning activities that can activate engagement and deep learning. 

  • Case Studies | Scenario-Based Activity: Students critically analyze a real-world scenario, which encourage hands on analysis, stimulate real world events
  • Simulation of Real-World Activity: Students can experience the expected tasks or projects in their future profession. Tying an assignment to an essential real life skill creates relevance for the student and helps to gain their investment in completing the activity.
  • Interviews: By interviewing someone from a different generation or those working in their study domain, students gain valuable insights and experiences regarding what is expected of them in their future career. 
  • Adopt-An-Organization: Have students adopt an organization and analyze the company structure, market presence, fiscal responsibilities, or the binding legalities. This stimulates deeper understanding and informs students of the skills and knowledge needed to function in an organization.
  • Community event participation (Visit local organizations): Students participate in local community events or visit a local organization to learn more about the setup and operations of companies, then share their experiences and what they learned with each other. This activity has the same benefits as the previous one. 
  • Presentations | Share-N-Show: Having students do the teaching and the learning from each other is a great way to exchange different experiences and perspectives. 
  • Make use of different digital tools to present the subject matter in an engaging manner, offer students different ways to demonstrate their learning, and save time from manual set-up tasks. Marnie emphasized the value FeedbackFruits solutions add to diversifying the learning activities: “The wide variety of tools offered through FeedbackFruits aims for just this, keeping students engaged with the content and with each other through the setup of simple user friendly activities.” 

This principle is a critical component of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and Inclusive Course Design, which focuses on creating a personalized, accessible and responsive learning environment. For details on these two frameworks and how to implement them in your classroom, our article series on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will provide you with ample input. 

Principle 7: Ensure there is sufficient time for content engagement and task completion

When facilitating multiple small taks, make sure the time frame for completion is manageable and flexible for students. The more deadlines to be met, the more time students will need to complete everything. In the 7th principle, faculties are encouraged to: 

  1. Allocate enough time for students to assimilate the content and complete the required tasks
  2. Emphasize quality over quantity. Students should be instructed to focus on delivering a product that meets the assignment goals, rather than trying to cross out all the tasks at hand. 
  3. Embrace students’ differences in processing time, by having flexibility in time required to complete each task. 
  4. Identify multiple ways to supplement students' learning, such as organizing clarification sessions, providing more resources, or presenting examples of good performance.

Principle 8: Provide ample resources

One critical element of a learner-centered course is the presence of opportunities for independent and autonomous learning. Therefore, it is important that students have constant access to self-help resources which allow them to gain deeper understanding and learn at their own pace. Faculties can easily curate a sufficient resources library based on free online archives, or the existing support content already available at the institutions. Most importantly, Marnie suggested having a dedicated faculty member to gather and curate the resources, then promote these throughout the course to generate awareness and encourage usage among students.

Principle 9: Always keep students in mind

The last and perhaps most important principle when designing a learner-centered experience is to be mindful of your students. Keep in mind that students: 

  • Have varying levels of comfort and confidence in advocating for themselves
  • May not always fully grasp how their disability impacts their learning
  • Look to the instructor for support and suggestions during the course
  • Learn with more digital tools, both within the LMS and outside classroom 

As long as faculties are aware of these factors and transcend them throughout the course, students will enjoy a meaningful learning experience that focuses on their personal growth. 

Conclusion

With these 9 principles, we hope you and your faculties will be able to create a collaborative environment that nurtures student learning and provides them with resources and reminders that they need for academic success.

Again, we want to thank Marnie Roestel for sharing your valuable insights that culminate in this article. If you want to know more about the 9 principles, check out Marnie’s full presentation or send her a quick email at roest1m@cmich.edu

Further resources for learner-centered course design

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