Field Notes | Week Three – Course Design and Organization

Perhaps not the ‘sexiest’ topic in virtual learning, but arguably one of the most important for student success (Joosten & Custis 2019). Simply put, navigating an online course is different – literally.  Compare a student’s first day of all ‘online’ courses with their first day of ‘on ground’. Whether enrolled in Statistics or English; the routine is largely the same and navigating the learning environment (the classroom) is practically identical. Likely minimal cognitive energy is spent figuring out ‘what to do’ or ‘where to go’ upon entering the physical classroom. Students can reasonably expect to take a seat among their classmates and listen to the instructor explain ‘how this course works’ and respond to students’ questions.

But what about all online learning? If you’ve ever created an online course from scratch, you can appreciate the shapeless void of the course shell that is to become your virtual classroom.

Compare this to a physical campus where each instructor builds her own classroom. Does Whoville come to mind? So for a student in all virtual courses, in addition to managing content and assignments, they must also learn how to literally navigate each individual course.  Flower Darby and James Lang (2020) liken the potential barriers of online course navigation to entering an empty classroom only to find a course syllabus as the one signpost on how to get started.  

“Skimming through the pages, you glimpse information about the textbook, assignments, and testing dates, but not much else.  You’d like to get a better sense of what this class will be like, what your instructor will be like, but there’s not much to go on. Disheartened, you trudge out the door […] how are you supposed to learn anything where so many barriers have been raised, when there is so little support from anyone?” (xvi).

Thankfully, these are potential barriers, meaning they can be avoided.  Does this mean every online course should look the same? Let’s be clear, NO!  I’ve taught in plenty of physical classrooms where the lockstep structure was a barrier to learning.  The beauty of online, is that instructors can customize the learning environment to compliment instructional styles, students, and disciplines. But removing potential barriers requires intentional design so students maximize time spent learning – not searching. 

Perceived Threat and Amygdala Hijack

A What? Let’s take a moment to consider the neural pathway information travels to reach the brain’s command center, or Neocortex. Home to Executive Function, the neocortex manages the ability to plan, think abstractly, organize, and self regulate – essential skills for learning and critical thinking. But before information can reach the neocortex, it must make it past the Reticular Activating System (RAS) and Amygdala, part of the Limbic Region, where behavior and cognition are linked together.  Zerretta Hammond (2015) nicknamed the RAS and the Amygdala The Watcher and The Guard Dog respectively.  Together they are a 24/7 threat detection and reaction system. But, take note – they act on their own. Meaning, when a threat is detected by the RAS, the Amygdala automatically triggers a fight, flight, freeze or appease response. Our brains perceive threats as physical, such as a growling dog, but also emotional, such as feeling lost or confused.  When a perceived threat triggers the amygdala, the brain’s capacity for anything other than self-preservation shrinks – literally, the pathway to the neocortex is blocked and learning cannot occur. That is an Amygdala Hijack!

Cognitively ‘Kind’ Design

Kindness as care, empathy, sense of belonging, and connectedness are essential to online student motivation, retention, and persistence (Kaup, 2012; Jaggars & Xu, 2016; Joosten & Cusatis, 2019; Plotts 2020).  However, design and organization, or Teaching Presence, is also essential to student satisfaction and retention (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer 2001; Sheridan & Kelly, 2010; Jaggars & Xu, 2016). So instructors need to also evaluate how virtual learning environments are cognitively kind. 

When a student enters a virtual classroom, where do they invest cognitive effort – searching or learning?  Granted, overcoming challenges is essential to learning, but we want students to struggle productively with tasks that increase neuroplasticity – not unnecessarily with non-learning tasks (i.e. course navigation, locating content, deciphering assignment directions, etc.). In other words, those non-academic barriers that can lead to feelings of fear of failure, frustration, and defeat; emotions that can trigger an amygdala hijack (Hammond, 2015). But, as instructors, we can remove barriers through kind course design. In fact, Winkelmes (2016) found transparency in design not only had a positive impact on students’ sense of belonging, but also on academic success.

Virtual course design is time intensive and frankly, a lot of work. But it is the backbone of inclusive online teaching. Laying the groundwork for student success in virtual courses means providing more than a syllabus. Kind design is like greeting students with a course GPS that prevents navigational barriers, keeps neural pathways open, and students’ Command Centers at full learning capacity. 

Notes from the Field

Alright, are you in? Can we agree that kind design is an essential element for inclusive access to learning? While quality virtual courses may look and operate differently, they share common design principles.  Rather than ‘tell’ we think ‘showing’ is much more useful. This week we are fortunate to share exemplary course organization, design examples and insights from two of our own faculty. 

Carol Hartnett teaches in the School of Education preparing future teachers for careers in K-5 education. Intentional design and organization are non-negotiables when it comes to choreographing learning and interaction in elementary school classrooms. Through thoughtful online course design, Carol models this critical “teacher superpower” to help her students be successful now, and in their future classrooms.

Peter Harper teaches in the Art Program. While art may seem especially problematic in an online format, Peter’s been teaching art, by choice, online even before COVID-19.  In fact, it is because of Peter’s diligent attention to course design and organization that students can engage in unconventional learning experiences like attending rock concerts and running social media campaigns.


Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2).

Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, John.

Hammond, Z., & Jackson, Y. (2015). Culturally Responsive Reaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin.

Jaggars, S. S., Xu, D. (2016). How do online course design features influence student performance? Computers & Education, 95, 270-284.

Joosten, T. & Cusatis, R. (2019). A cross-institutional study of instructional characteristics and student outcomes: Are quality indicators of online courses able to predict student success? Online Learning, 23(4), 354-378.doi:10.24059/olj.v23i4.1432

Kaup, R. (2012). Online penalty: The impact of online instruction on the latino-white achievement gap. Journal of Applied Research in the Community College, 19(2), 8-16.

Plotts, C. (2020). The spaces between: Identifying cultural canyons in online spaces and the use of latinx culture to bridge the divide. DBC Publishing.

Sheridan, K. and Kelly, M. A. (2010). The indicators of instructor presence that are important to students in online courses. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6(4).

Winkelmes, M.A, Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, J. G., Weevil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Association of American colleges & universities, 18(1/2). 


2 thoughts on “Field Notes | Week Three – Course Design and Organization

  1. Well said, Megan! Thank you for reminding us all of the most important component of instructional design… kindness! Excellent article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *