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January 29 2009 

E-Coaching Tip 63 (#2 Spring)

Best Design Practices for Quality Course Experiences  — “Designing with Threes”

Our tips for this spring are reviewing some of the basics of designing online courses. This tip reviews a set of basic design questions and practices for designing a quality course. This tip is probably most useful to use as you are designing a new course, but you can use it also as a self-scoring rubric while updating or refreshing an existing course.

 Being “Pretty-Good” is Actually Pretty-Great

Just as many of our new tools enable everyone to be a “pretty good” at lots of things, such as photography, preparing presentations, and cooking (except for me!), today’s learning systems are so well-designed that most of us can be “pretty-good” at instructional design and thus “pretty-good” at designing courses that support quality and significant learning by our students. But we can always do better. 

This tip has three parts. The first part provides a set of four instructional design questions that can guide your analysis of your course. These are the basic questions that any instructional designer would use if you had a designer working with you. The second part of the tip is a “Designing with Threes” rubric for reviewing the design of your series of course experiences.  These practices cover the range of types of experiences, and ways of collaboration, assessment and being present. Your task: Use these five practices as a rubric for your course and check to see if you use all “Designing with Threes” practices!  You might even ask your students to help and use this as part of your informal early feedback.

First Steps in Design — Instructional Design Questions

First of all, let’s review why the process of instructional design is important.  Instructional design is a process for improving the probability that students will learn what they are intended to learn from a particular learning experience. (Reigeluth, 1999) Obviously, it is the learner, by virtue of time and effort who changes his or her internal knowledge structures; but the course design helps learners by being well-structured, thoroughly planned and a variety of individual, collaborative, and social experiences.

The instructional design process ideally happens a few weeks or even months before the course begins.  The instructional design process is an analysis process focusing on the learner, the content, the environment, and you, the instructor!  This set of four instructional design questions can guide this analysis. This week is not too late to tweak your course a bit if you are so inspired.

  • Instructional design question 101:  “What knowledge, skills and attitudes do you desire your students to develop over the weeks of the course?”  Note:  I have started calling these performance goals.  You may be accustomed to calling them course outcomes.
  • Instructional design question 102: What knowledge or skill does the learner already have in this knowledge/skill area? In Vygotsky’s words, what is the learner’s Zone of Proximal Development?  Note: Again the purpose of learning is growth; so you want each student to build and grow from where they are starting.
  • Instructional design question 103: What are the three levels of course knowledge, skills and attitudes for this course? 
    • What are the core knowledge concepts that are the building blocks for the course knowledge?
    • What is the knowledge that can usefully applied in the short term? In the long term? What kinds of problems or challenges can learners develop confidence in during the course?
    • What is the customized or advanced knowledge, including challenging unsolved complex social problems that learners might identify in the course and carry forward?
  • Instructional design question 104:  “Where is the learner doing the learning? With what tools, resources, and with whom — including other learners and the instructor ‑ is the experience happening?

Second Steps in Design — “Designing with Threes”

Designing a course means that you are actually designing a series of learning experiences.  In fact, one definition of a course is a series of about 40 learning experiences. As with much of life, variety adds spice and interest.  We know that humans in general are drawn to the spontaneous, the unexpected and even the unexplained!  So when designing your course, keep in mind that you want to provide consistency and predictability as a frame for your course.  Then within that frame you want to ensure that wondrous things can happen with your learners.  Accommodating the individual learner’s minds and goals is the reason that courses are so different from one term to another! 

Here are a set of five design practices that help you to structure your course while leaving it open for the creation and integration of both old and new knowledge, and for the unique learning community of a course. 

  1. Design for a balance and variety of learning experiences
    • Individual study and reflection with readings and other forms of knowledge interaction, such as listening via recorded mini-lectures, podcasts, and doing research
    • Teams of 2, 3, or 5 for small collaborative work, including peer assessment and course projects
    • Large group experiences, including synchronous sessions, problem-solving or demonstrations and external experts 
  2. Plan for a variety of  "time" tools
    • Synchronous meetings which can be small and optional, even open office hours
    • Recorded/archived events
    • Asynchronous events, such as discussion boards, blogs, wikis and projects.  Projects, of course, are ‘multi-experience” events, using a variety of communication tools and time events.
  3. Strive for a balanced approach in assessment practices while designing for students’   individual performance goals
    • Fact-based knowledge acquisition, such as you might use in self-check practice quizzes. Many core concepts have fact-based elements that students must master.  Short practice quizzes can be a tool for students to practice these fact-based components and even apply them in simple scenarios. 
    • Thoughtful and critical contributions to the learning community are another level of assessment.  The discussion board forum discussions and other assignments, such as weekly summaries, podcasts are good tools for this level of content engagement.
    • Performance-based course projects that can be customized and personalized to the learner
  4. Share the assessment and review processes
    • Self-review – Part of the assessment process can include students applying the rubrics for an assignment or exercise by themselves and simply self-reporting their score with their assignment.  This encourages critical review of their own work and means you the instructor, simply needs to affirm the learner’s own rating.
    • Peer Role – Peer assessment is another good technique that encourages both critical reviews of peers’ work with supportive and constructive help.  One strategy is to have your learners do the step of affirming the self-review while offering constructive suggestions. 
    • Expert role – The expert role is usually the role of the instructor, and is generally reserved for final assessment and review processes.  However, inviting an external expert to assist and to provide feedback to the students is an attractive option, particularly for capstone experiences.
  5. Design with the “three presences” in the Community of Inquiry model (Garrison, Anderson, Archer, 2000) Here are short definitions of these three presences in case you don’t have them on the tip of your tongue yet.
    • Social Presence - Social presence is achieved by faculty and students projecting their personal characteristics into the discussion so they become "real people."  This means planning experiences and events so that students can get to know their fellow students as individuals in real-world home, personal, and work environments.
    • Cognitive Presence - Cognitive presence is the extent to which an instructor and students are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained discourse (discussion) in a community of inquiry. This means designing for extended discussion and analysis of topics as the learning community develops.  You don’t want to jump too quickly on to the next topic.  This means you do want to have a certain flexibility in your course plan.
    • Teaching Presence - Teaching presence in an online course consists of at least two major categories: (1) All the course materials that are prepared before the course begins, such as the syllabus, concept introductions, discussions, assessment plans, resources, and (2) all the monitoring, mentoring, and shaping of leaner’s understandings based on the particular students in a course.  Be sure to have your course ready and then ensure that you plan your time to be the coach and mentor of your individual students.

Classic Resources on Instructional Design

Here is a set of resources on instructional design that you may want to explore.

  1. This website — Instructional Design Models — is maintained by Martin Ryder from the College of Education at the University of Colorado at Denver. It is a good ‘first place” to start when exploring instructional design processes.  It answers questions such as the following:
    • What is design
    • What is Instructional Design?
    • History of Instructional Design
    • What is Instructional Design Theory?
  2. Another favorite site is Explorations in Learning & Instruction:  The Theory Into Practice Database that is maintained by Greg Kearsley. The Theory Into Practice (TIP) database contains descriptions of over 50 theories relevant to human learning and instruction.  For example, it has entries on Vygotsky, Bruner and Lave (Situated Learning).
  3. An example of a structured design model is ADDIE that stands for the five phases of instructional design: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation.  More on ADDIE and other design theories and models are at a site called Learning Theories.


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105. http://communitiesofinquiry.com/files/Critical_Inquiry_model.pdf.  Accessed on December 11, 2008.

Learning Theories Knowledgebase (2009, January). At Learning-Theories.com. Retrieved January 29th, 2009 from http://www.learning-theories.com. Accessed on January 2, 2010.

Reigeluth, C. M. (1999). What is Instructional-Design Theory and How Is It Changing? In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-Design Theories and Models, Volume II:  A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory (pp. 5 - 29). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Best Design Practices for Quality Course Experiences — “Designing with Threes”



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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013