As many of you transition our courses online, we encourage you to think of how you can create units for your course content. Rather than having your students watch a series of lectures and then take an exam—a less structured and much harder approach for online learners—we offer some ideas on how to package the content into a unit with multiple lessons, in order to help with student learning.
In our context, a unit likely covers a few weeks and addresses concepts and learning goals that are woven together by a common theme. A unit is made up of multiple lessons. A lesson consists of everything you and your students do as they learn about a specific concept, topic, skill, or process. To help you identify the lessons in your course, you might look at the “class schedule” part of your syllabus. That schedule probably includes a list of topics and corresponding dates; some topics (let’s call them A, B, and C) are given single class periods, while more complex topics (D and E) are spread over two or three class sessions. You can think of each of these topics as a lesson. Each lesson includes whatever you do in class (lectures, in-class activities), as well as what students do outside of class (readings, homework). At the end of the unit comprising of lessons A, B, C, D, and E, in your face-to-face course, you likely have students take a test, write a paper, or do some other major assessment.
As you pivot to online teaching, the content you teach in your course might not change in the online environment; students still learn about all the major topics or concepts. However, there are two important differences between the online environment and a face-to-face class: 1) how much you overtly structure those lesson sequences, and 2) how you can best assess your students’ learning. Rather than scheduling a single major assessment after students have gone through (the face to face equivalent of) five lessons, in an online course it’s a good idea to plan smaller assessments that check students’ understanding of each lesson before proceeding to the next. That is, instead of teaching “A – B – C – D – E – major assessment,” you might want to think about your online unit as “A – small assessment – B – small assessment,” and so on. This more frequent feedback is essential in online classes where students need additional practice and feedback to keep them engaged and on track.
Organizing the lesson
To plan a lesson, think of it as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. The table below describes the instructor’s goals for each part of the lesson, lists some teaching strategies, and provides further resources.
|Part of the lesson||Instructor’s tasks / goals||Learning strategies||Resources|
|Beginning||Activate students’ prior knowledge about the topic
Connect the topic with previous course content
Identify preconceptions or misconceptions about the topic
|Preliminary reading or video to introduce a topic and/or set its context or relevance
Diagnostic assessment: Background Knowledge Probe, Preconceptions/ Misconception Check, etc.
|Teaching for Student Success module on assessment|
|Middle||Explain the topic
Have students engage in activities to aid their learning
Gather formative feedback to gauge students’ understanding
|Mini-lectures recorded via Kaltura to explain new content
Formative assessments or Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)
Activities to engage students, either individually or in groups (such as Canvas discussions)
Homework (e.g., problem sets)
|Webinars on Kaltura and Zoom|
|End||Assess students’ understanding of the topic
Have students write a paragraph explaining the topic
Have students write 1-2 exam questions on the topic, with correct and incorrect answers
|Alternative assessments blog
Teaching for Student Success module on assessment
Putting the lesson online
Once you’ve planned your lesson and decided on all its components, you’ll want to put it online in a way that helps students understand the lesson’s organization and what they’re expected to do. One way to do this is to use Canvas modules. You can put all the readings, recorded lectures, activities or discussions, and assignments related to a particular lesson and unit into a single module in Canvas. Then students will see that all these items are connected and can also make sure they have completed all the required items. That structure is very useful to online users, especially if the structure repeats in each lesson; they don’t have to expend cognitive resources figuring out what they need to do for each lesson, focusing instead on learning. Add some directions about due dates and processes, and you have set up a structure that will help students succeed.
Pro-tip: If you are using technologies that may be new to your students, you can import a module that explains the technology. That way, you don’t have to create tech instructions for them, just import and tweak that module for your context.