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January 21 2012

eCoaching Tip 95: Learning Guides – Expanding Your Teaching Presence

In the last tip just before Christmas we focused on reinventing the syllabus — infusing the normally long, contractual document with stimulating questions, a graphic overview of the course content and learning outcomes. An often-asked question is what is the difference between a syllabus and a learning guide. That is easy. The syllabus is an introduction to and learning guide for your full course; a learning guide guides the learner through the expectations and requirements for a module.

This tip focuses on learning guides and how they can bring a useful— and very appreciated — level of organization and stimulation to each of the modules in your course.  
The first part of this tip defines a learning guide and its benefits for you and for your learners. Each of the elements of a learning guide is described with occasional examples of those components. The tip closes with a few suggestions to help in creating learning guides. If you really like the idea of a learning guide, but shrink at the time and energy in developing them, just select one module and try it.

What is a Learning Guide?

The simplest definition of a learning guide is that it is a “checklist that contains everything students need to do for a module.” (Smith, 2008, p. 48).  Learning guides are also often described as learning paths (Henne, 2009), aids for navigating and completing a unit (Luck, 2009) and module summaries with instructions for the module’s learning experiences (Boettcher, 2010). These definitions all illuminate some of the uses and purposes of learning guides. 

What are the Elements of a Learning Guide?

Just as there are various definitions of a learning guide, recommendations for the essential components of a learning guide can vary.  Here is a recommended set of elements, modified slightly from Smith (2008).  Obviously you can adapt this to meet your own particular content, teaching style and preferred teaching strategies.  

  • Module Introduction – Inspiring, yet focused

The module introduction is a brief paragraph or a sentence or two that places the module within the context of the whole course. This introduction both inspires and yet serves to focus on how and why the module activities within the module can support the building of knowledge, a skill or perspective.

  • Learning Outcomes - In friendly, accessible learner language

Many learning outcomes sound as if they were generated by a pedagogical outcome generator, best suited for curriculum review committees.  Here is where you want to rephrase your learning outcomes as if you were talking to your learners over coffee, or in a classroom.  Of course you want to leave room for your learners to customize learning outcomes to their particular contexts of family and career.  A good example of a more “accessible” learning outcome is: You will be able to talk through with your friends and colleagues how your personal leadership practices help your personal problem-solving and decision-making. Keeping learning outcomes front and center is one of the key attributes of quality courses (Sloan C, 2011; Quality Matters, 2012)

  • Learning Resources - Core required resources plus recommended resources

All learning modules should build on a core set of learning resources, such as a chapter in a textbook, a journal article, an audio or video podcast, or a multimedia presentation from the web. The core learning resources are “shared” experiences that are foundational to building community.  Core learning resources also are essential to the building of and acquiring required skills.  Additionally, we always want to have optional and recommended resources for students to branch out to customize their learning and to have ideas and examples to contribute to the community.

  • List of learning and assessment activities - Descriptions of required and optional activities

This is the most important part of the learning guide.  It is a list of learning and assessment activities, generally in the recommended order of completion, but not necessarily so. Notice that this list includes both “what the student is to do to learn” as well as the assessment or assignment activities that provide evidence of “what the learner has learned and is now able to do.” 

  • Schedule for learning and assessment activities - Overlay of activities on a calendar)

This is the schedule for when these activities are to be completed.  It might be cut and pasted from the schedule you include in your syllabus.  Or you might integrate dates with the list of activities.  Another useful option is to add the dates as to when you will provide feedback on the assessment activities, anticipating questions such as, “When will I get your feedback?”

  • Module wrap-up and transition – Summary, close and transition to next module

When we transition from topics In a F2F context of any kind, we generally use “wrap-up” and “what’s next” statements. These are similarly very useful in online courses. What works very well is to provide summary wraps of discussion forums, as described in an earlier Tip 25.  The announcement tool and audio formats also work very well for such wraps and transitions.
As you can see, the elements of a learning guide map to the elements of a syllabus.  The difference is in the level of detail, as well as the coaching and energy contained in the intros, learning activity descriptions and transitions.

How Long is a Learning Guide?

This is a great question. The answer is that it is as long as you and your students would like it to be. I like to remind myself that the purpose of a learning guide is to give an overview of the module with a checklist of activities for the student.  This suggests that a learning guide is best only a page. Yet another purpose is to guide the learner through the module, so a little more expanded guide of one to two pages can also work well. Particularly with online courses, a learning guide is great for anticipating questions about,  “What am I to do now, next?” and “Why is this important?” and “Where can I find the directions for the assignments again?”

So a good approach is to look at your learning guide with the perspective of a busy, harried working student or professional with perhaps a window of 30- 60 minutes to make progress and do something useful on the course work.  Then ask yourself, “How can this learning guide help?”

Thinking through Your Module

One advantage of creating learning guides is that it helps to step back and “talk” through your module as if it were a project. This often helps to see how the various pieces of your module fit together and what a step-by-step sequence for the learners might be.  Ideally you could provide an estimate of the amount of time and effort that each step might require. This step-by-step becomes a handy reference and planning tool for the students. With the time and effort estimates, students might be able to complete some items out of sequence — if it is flexible in that way  — and do a piece or section when they can find that segment of time.
The “talking through” of your module also inevitably integrates your expert teacher presence voice.  You see where you want to be encouraging, where you want to challenge and where you want your learners to be as they acquire the knowledge base and skills intended by the module design.


Here are a couple of links to some learning guides. Unfortunately these learning guides are very long and use a different organization than the template recommended in this tip.  The good news is that they are very detailed and thus might be just the detail you personally will find useful.  One reason they are so long is that they include activity descriptions and rubrics that you will probably link to from your learning guide.

Here is a link to a toolkit for creating a learning guide used at the University of Western Sydney

Here are a couple of examples of learning guides at the University of Western Sydney.


You may be wondering now if it is too late for you to develop a learning guide for one of the course modules for this spring. It is not too late! Look ahead to a module that can sometimes be a bit confusing for your students and then envision the path that you want your learners to complete as your students proceed through the planned activities.
Here is an opportunity. 


Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. M. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Boettcher, J. V. Tip 25: Discussion Wraps — A Useful "Cognitive Pattern" or "Collection of Discrete Thought Threads?"  Retrieved January 18, 2012 fromlhttp://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip25.html

Henne, A. (2011). Recommended Components of a Learning Module. San Diego Community College District.  Retrieved January 16, 2012 from www.sdccdonline.net/faculty/resources/recommended_components_of_learning_module.doc.  More resources are at the main faculty resource page at http://www.sdccdonline.net/faculty/resources/index.htm

Luck, L. (2009). School of nursing and midwifery learning guide template. Retrieved January 16 2012 from http://www.uws.edu.au/learning_teaching/learning_and_teaching/sample_learning_guides

Newberry, B., & Logofatu, C. (2008). MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 4(4). Retrieved January 16 2012 from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol4no4/newberry_1208.pdf

Quality Matters Program (2012).  MarylandOnline. Retrieved January 12, 2012 from http://www.qmprogram.org/about

Sloan C Quality Scorecard. (2011) Sloan C Consortium, Retrieved Jan 16 2012 from http://sloanconsortium.org/quality_scorecard_online_program.

Smith, Robin M. (2008) Conquering the Content: A Step-by-Step Guide to Course Design. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2010 in a book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at judith followed by designingforlearning.org.



Ecoaching Table of Contents



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