Organizing Instructional Materials to Maximize Student Engagement

Instruction is a critical component of any educational endeavor. Your learning objectives guide what students will do, and your assessments measure their progress along the way, but it’s your instruction that shapes the journey. It’s the material students engage with to better themselves, meet their goals, and ultimately succeed in your course. In the online environment, this can take multiple forms: written e-books, video lectures, interactive lessons, and more. When we talk about instruction, we’re referring to any course element students use as a vehicle to move from unfamiliarity to familiarity.

Whatever form your instructional materials take, it’s critical that they engage your students. In the face-to-face classroom, observing engagement is easy—your students are viewing your lecture, taking notes, or showing other signs of attentiveness—but that isn’t always the case online. Online, you can’t see your students, meaning it’s important to structure your materials in a way that’s likely to keep their attention. While your assessments will ultimately show how well students have paid attention to the instructional material, by shaping your materials in a way that sets them up to succeed, you maximize the chances they’ll do what they need to successfully master your learning objectives. With that in mind, this article will outline a number of strategies you can employ to maximize the efficacy of the learning materials you use in your online course.

Fundamentals of Online Instructional Materials

While engagement is an important aspect of your instructional materials (and any element of your course, really), it’s equally important that your instruction is structured in a way that’s professional and appropriate for the online environment. First and foremost, as a course developer or instructor, it’s critical that your instruction is aligned with your learning objectives and assessments. If your learning objectives state what students will be able to do by the end of a course or module, and your assessments are what will measure student progress toward mastery of those objectives, the instructional materials should prepare students to succeed on those assessments. By writing or selecting your materials with these other course elements in mind, you help ensure that they are relevant and appropriate for your course.

Additionally, it’s important that your instructional materials are both accessible and copyright compliant. When you create materials that are accessible, you ensure that students who require the use of assistive technology can access them without barriers. On a similar note, creating or selecting materials that are copyright compliant helps ensure that your course doesn’t violate the copyright protections of any content you choose to use. This isn’t just a legal concern; by doing this, you set a good academic example for your students.

Lastly, make sure your instructional materials are reader-friendly on multiple devices. Aslanian, Clinefelter, and Magda (2019) note that “fifty-six percent of online college students use a smartphone or tablet to complete at least some of their online course-related activities” (p. 32), making it more important than ever for your instruction to be designed with multiple platforms in mind. By ensuring that students can access your instruction on their smartphones, tablets, and across different operating systems, you help eliminate any barriers to entry that might exist. Furthermore, by making your instruction available across these platforms, you give students more opportunities to study, hopefully setting them up to succeed.

Chunk Your Materials

One of the easiest strategies you can employ to maximize student engagement is to “chunk” your instructional materials. This refers to breaking larger pieces of instruction into smaller, more manageable components for students to consume. You likely already do this without thinking about it. As we discuss elsewhere on the site, one common example of chunking is how we memorize phone numbers. A number like “(216) 555-0413” is much easier to recall than simply “2165550413.” By taking a similar approach to your instructional materials, you help students focus on your content one step at a time.

There are a handful of benefits to taking this approach to your instruction. Bodie, Powers, and Fitch-Hauser (2006) note that chunking can increase the amount of information students can remember and improve their ability to recall it. In addition to these cognitive benefits, chunking your material also creates natural stopping points for your students. In their annual study of online college students, Aslanian et al. (2019) note that 59% of online students are employed full time, and 41% have at least one child. When you consider the responsibilities your students may have outside of class, you can start to see the importance of helping them to identify how much information they’ll have to consume. Breaking up instruction into smaller, more manageable pieces gives your students the opportunity to more easily work it into their day-to-day lives.

Additionally, chunking helps you ensure that you’re addressing your learning objectives. By thinking in terms of smaller pieces of instruction, you increase the likelihood that you can map those pieces to the individual micro-objectives in your online course. This might seem administrative or superfluous at the surface level, but one benefit to working with this kind of alignment in mind is that it ensures that each piece of instruction is tied to an objective, thus cementing its necessity to the course and students’ achievement.

Lastly, chunking takes advantage of cognitive load theory. Cognitive load theory is based on the idea that schemas (organized chunks information) allow individuals to remember large amounts of information better. By chunking your materials, you can help eliminate what’s known as extraneous load; that is, you set yourself up to prioritize information that’s necessary for the learning process. Each chunk, when tied to a learning objective, contributes to the overall big picture of a student’s path toward mastery of learning objectives.

Create Opportunities for Interaction

When you begin developing online courses, it can be tempting to include written lectures, recordings of live lectures, and so on—everything that’s worked well in the face-to-face classroom, if you’re coming from there—but that doesn’t have to be the case. While there’s nothing wrong with these sorts of materials, it’s important to note that, unlike in a face-to-face classroom, you can’t be certain that students are engaging with the materials. For instance, a teacher delivering a lecture in a classroom can see if his or her students are paying attention. Give online students a comparable video, and they might be doing any number of other things while it’s playing. Because of this, creating opportunities for students to engage with the content in a way that you can observe is critical.

One way you can do this is by creating interactive lessons. There are a number of tools to assist you with creating interactive activities (some of which are built into popular learning management systems, even), and most are customizable to suit your purpose. Mayer (2009), in a book on principles of multimedia learning, notes that “People learn better when a multimedia message is presented in user-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit” (p. 175). With that idea in mind, consider replacing e-books that students can scroll through with interactive lessons that they can click through. Better yet, supplement lessons with self-check questions, click-to-reveal notes with supplemental materials, and other strategies for letting students check their progress, interact with the content, and more. In addition to helping students stay engaged by giving them something to do, these kinds of activities also help to ensure that students are ready to move from one topic to the next. Because a self-check asks students to monitor their progress, activities like these serve as a valuable form of formative assessment.

Another benefit of interactive lessons is that you can create them in such a way that they ensure student mastery of the assigned learning objectives. The aforementioned types of questions can be used as a self-check, of course, but students’ direction based on their response can point them to information like remediation material, the next lesson, etc. In this sense, these types of activities can help individualize instruction and ensure that students are getting the attention and experience they need to be successful.

Ultimately, replacing standard lectures and e-books with interactive activities can take instruction from being a passive process to an active one where students engage in the content, control the pace of their learning, and more. However, when creating these types of activities, it’s also important to ensure that accessible options exist for students who require the use of assistive technology in your course. For more on this, feel free to explore the following:

Utilize Multimedia

One popular strategy for increasing engagement with instructional materials is to utilize multimedia. While this can take multiple forms, for our purposes, we’re going to look at the use of things like images, graphs, and charts that work alongside your written materials. As you might imagine, supplementing your text with these types of media can help engage students by drawing their attention to and reinforcing major points. For instance, if your written lecture for an education class includes a discussion of one teacher’s experience using pre- and post-assessment data to measure student achievement, including a graph illustrating that data can prove helpful. Or, for example, if a video lecture for an architecture or construction course includes a discussion on the Greeks’ use of the pediment, showing examples of a pediment can help reinforce the concept being discussed.

While using multimedia in this manner can help reinforce these important points, it’s important to note than if you’re going to use them, you need to make sure they’re used strategically and not whimsically. That is, any image used in your instruction should have a specific purpose. Including multimedia that isn’t instructive in nature—such as decorative images in PowerPoints and Word documents—can actually hinder students’ ability to retain the information. This goes back to the idea of cognitive load theory. Whereas chunking helps eliminate extraneous load, unnecessary or decorative multimedia does the opposite—it increases it because, well, it is extraneous load. Ultimately, when using multimedia in your instruction, you want to make sure that it has a clear instructional purpose.

In his seminal book, Multimedia Learning, Mayer (2009) outlines a number of principles based on his research on the subject. If you’re considering including multimedia in your course, here are a few of his principles to consider:

  • The Multimedia Principle: This principle states that people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. It’s important to note that when Mayer uses the term “words,” he’s referring to both written and spoken words.
  • The Spatial Contiguity Principle: This principle states that people learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near one another. This can refer to pages, screens, and so on. Essentially, he suggests that text (labels, captions, descriptions, etc.) remains close to the image it describes.
  • The Temporal Contiguity Principle: Lastly, this principle states that people learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously, not successively.

For more information on Mayer’s principles, feel free to check out our summary of them, “Principles of Multimedia Learning.”

Conclusion

Instruction plays a tremendous role in your online course. It’s the vehicle students use to gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence they need to succeed on your assessments, making it critical that these elements are designed in a way that hooks students’ attention and prepares them for what’s to come in your course and beyond. With that in mind, here are a few takeaways from this article:

  • Above everything, your instructional materials should be aligned with your learning objectives and assessments. Additionally, they should be both copyright compliant and accessible to assistive technology.
  • Chunking your instructional materials can be a great way to break them up into smaller, more manageable pieces that students are more likely to remember and retain.
  • By creating opportunities for interaction (using self-checks, branching activities, etc.), you allow students to become active participants in the instruction.
  • Multimedia can be an effective way to promote engagement and draw attention to key content, but superfluous multimedia can actually detract from your students’ ability to retain information.

References

Bodie, G. D., Powers, W. G., & Fitch-Hauser, M. (2006). Chunking, priming and active learning: Toward an innovative and blended approach to teaching communication-related skills. Interactive Learning Environments, 14(2), 119–135.

Clinefelter, D. L., Aslanian, C. B., & Magda, A. J. (2019). Online college students 2019: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: Wiley edu, LLC.

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning (2nd ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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