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Teaching Tuesdays: Organizing an Effective Course Structure

The P3 Collaboratory is pleased to continue “Teaching Tuesdays,” our summer weekly series centered around best practices for remote instruction and teaching effectiveness.

The preparation that supports effective and engaging online learning looks very different than that which goes into planning for a face-to-face course. In face-to-face teaching, after the syllabus is developed, the bulk of faculty labor is spent “prepping for class,” meaning preparing for individual class sessions. But in an online framework, it is much more challenging to define a single class’s worth of material or time. What once made indisputable sense – that “class” is defined as a single scheduled meeting of instructor and students -- is a slippery digital conceit. For instance, do synchronous course meetings stand alone as “classes,” or are they necessarily augmented by materials and activities on the course LMS platform? What is a “class” in terms of asynchronous or hybrid online formats? While much of the behind-the-scenes preparatory work remains the same (e.g. reviewing your assigned texts, making lecture notes and slides, and thinking about the “flow” of your lesson), the presumed base unit of teaching -- i.e. the single class – shifts in an online environment.

That’s because the overall structure of online courses markedly differs from than that of a face-to-face course with regularly scheduled bursts of in-person learning. Online student learning tends to happen more independently and over a longer sequence of shorter engagements. Consequently, “prepping for online class” means deeply thinking about the structure, patterning, and rhythms of your course during the initial building phase. This more architectural planning work provides a necessary scaffolding for the content you hope to deliver in “class,” however you define it.

Over the next several weeks, we’ll be covering various ways you can effectively deliver content to your students, including micro lectures, online discussions, and group learning activities. But undergirding all of those engagement techniques must be a trajectory and internal logic that students can grasp. Two of the best ways to build a navigable and cohesive course are signposting and providing consistent module roadmaps per unit of study.

A note on the word “module”: A module, per the language of Canvas (one of the two supported LMS platforms at Rutgers-Newark), encompasses the all the material and activities for one unit of study – one lesson, week, or section of your course. Modules can vary greatly in length and scope and depending on the way you’ve structured your syllabus and schedule, a single module may include one synchronous group meetings, multiple synchronous group meetings, or none at all (all student work being completed asynchronously). What follows is a series of suggestions meant to help structure a module or discreet section of your course, whichever LMS or format (synchronous, asynchronous, hybrid) you are using.

For clarity of navigation and formal consistency, each module in your course should include:

  • An Identifier: week or module number, beginning and end dates, unit name or topic

  • An Introduction: How does this topic fit in with course learning objectives? How does it connect to what the course already covered and what it will be covering in the future?

  • Module-level learning objectives (not the course objectives): “At the end of the module, students should be able to…”

  • A sequence or order of tasks to complete

  • Activity and assignment deadlines for the module. Try to keep deadlines consistent throughout the term, i.e. discussion board posts are always due on Wednesdays.

  • Video, audio, and/or text resources associated with the module and links or embedded material

  • Reminders of upcoming due dates.

Together, these signposting elements help create a roadmap for students to clearly navigate each unit of study within the greater whole of the course. By repeating these elements in each module, you create a predictable layout for students that reduces student anxiety, supports learners’ confidence, and lays a groundwork for deeper engagement.

The structural predictability of your online course should bear out in other ways as well, for such as predictable materials and students’ weekly time commitment to your course. As much as possible, structure each module with the same basic elements: for example, assigned reading, a mini-lecture to watch, an interactive exercise, and a summarizing response from the instructor. While individual elements might vary from week to week, the number, type, or/and sequence of course requirements should remain familiar. And, just like in a face-to-face class, the amount of reading as well as should remain as uniform as possible throughout the course. This helps students manage their time wisely.

Just as you might end each face-to-face class with “Any questions?” be sure to also provide ample opportunities for students to ask questions and/or get clarification within each module or unit of study. This could look like:

  • Embedded or sequenced discussion boards immediately following complex content for students to ask questions, get clarification, or confirm that they understood key points.

  • Synchronous virtual office hours to go over assignments and answer questions.

    • Consider recording your office hours to share with attendees or the course as a whole.

And finally, each module should close with a summarizing activity. In a small class, you could assign a student or team of students to lead a summarizing discussion of the material covered. In a large class, the instructor might send a group email or post an announcement at the end of each module, repeating the module-level learning objectives and highlighting key points of the unit. Including a sample of your students’ comments and questions in a unit summary is a great way to demonstrate instructor presence.

Additional Suggestions and Resources:

  • For those RU-N faculty already converted or interested in converting to Canvas, we recommend requesting a sandbox site and playing around with the “TLT Course Template,” which can be easily found by searching the Canvas Commons feature on any Rutgers Canvas course site. Here’s why:

    • A sandbox site is a completely empty course shell, meaning it is not attached to any student roster. Faculty can request any number of sandboxes and use them to experiment with formatting and develop course materials over time.

    • The TLT template provides a robust example of a transparent and consistent course layout.

    • Graphic and text content is fully customizable.

    • The template includes links to many useful campus resources and student guides (i.e. how to use Canvas as a student).

    • The template is formatted according to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principals, meaning, for instance, it can be read by the optical readers used by some students. You can learn more about UDL here

  • We’ve written before about “Course and Half Syndrome.” Here is a recent presentation from senior designer Ruth Ronan (Office of Instructional Design, Rutgers – New Brunswick) that provides an excellent overview of the subject as well as strategies for accurately gauging weekly workloads.

  • Warning! Although this post has emphasized predictability, do not conflate predictability with sameness. There are endless ways that instructors can vary materials, assignments, and types of interactions that do not upset the general balance or trajectory of an online course. Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction offers a wide variety of ideas for module level components.

  • A reminder that the P3’s workshop on using FlipGrid and VoiceThread in your online courses is THIS THURSDAY (July 16) from 10-11am.Register here.

As always, a snapshot of the synchronous Teaching and Learning with Technology workshops being offered this coming week (July 15-21). Visit the links to register!

July 16, 12pm (1 hr): “Creating Accessible Online Content: Text Documents, Images and Video” (Learn about UDL!)

Browse upcoming Center for Teaching Advancement & Assessment Research (CTAAR) workshops here. For instructors of large classes, note the “Managing Large Class Online Session” on July 16.

Brought to you by the P3 Collaboratory for Pedagogy, Professional Development, and Publicly-Engaged Scholarship at Rutgers University-Newark

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