Designing Meaningful Learning Experiences For All

January 6, 2023

Creating inclusive learning spaces for all or most students is an important and challenging task whether you’re teaching a class of 20 students or 500. Each class you teach is unique as you have new students semester to semester and their needs and interests change over time. Yet, keeping students engaged and focused so they are able to succeed in the class remains a central goal for all instructors. One way to ensure students continue to be engaged in your class semester after semester is to take a learner-centered approach. At its core, a learner-centered approach to teaching focuses attention on just that—learning! What are my students learning? How are they learning? Are my students retaining and applying their learning?

These are not easy questions to answer at face value. They require us to examine our course designs and shift our focus away from, “what do I need to cover today to get my students ready for tomorrow’s lesson” to “where are my students currently positioned in their learning and how can I help them to advance their knowledge in some way?”

To shift our course planning focus from teaching to learning, we start by thinking about what student success looks like by the time students complete our courses. In other words, what do we want all students to be able to know or do by the last day of the semester? Once we’ve identified those skills and knowledge areas for our courses, we can work backward from there to design our exams, assignments, and class activities.

(Re)Designing Your Course Using a Learner-Centered Approach

There are three key components to course design that help us focus our instructional plans on what’s most important for our students to learn to be successful as scholars and young professionals.

  • First is learning objectives. What do we want students to know or be able to do by the time they’ve completed our course?
  • Second is assessments. What kinds of tasks reveal whether students learned successfully?
  • Third is instructional activities. What kinds of tasks or activities will help prepare students to be successful in their learning throughout the semester?

When these components are coordinated together and working toward a specific knowledge area or skill, research suggests that students can experience a more transparent and equitable learning environment. This approach also helps instructors to prioritize depth over breadth, focus on what students really need to learn to be successful, and helps students to build on existing knowledge or experiences.

Digital Tools to Foster Student Engagement

After considering your overall course design, a natural next step is to consider what the day-to-day activities might look like. Understanding how and when students are engaged is challenging in both physical and virtual spaces. A simple way to recognize it is when students raise their hands or speak up. It's easy to know they're engaged because you can see and hear their response. But also it’s important to remember that students engage in different ways, and it helps to provide additional channels for them to express themselves.

RTL supports several technologies to cultivate engagement and participation in various ways: Student Response Systems and Online Discussions.

Student Response Systems allow you to present a question to the class and receive their responses. UC Berkeley has a campus-wide license for iClicker Cloud and Poll Everywhere and both integrate with bCourses, so you can easily sync your roster and grades. Presenting a quick poll to your students is great during a synchronous session whether remote  or in-person as they're effective for capturing student knowledge or mood in-the-moment. Based on this benchmark information, you can adjust your instruction to review a particular topic if students don't understand it yet or skip ahead if they're already proficient.

Online Discussions can be dynamic, depending on how you structure them. Unlike student response systems, online discussions are used asynchronously—before or after class. You have access to online discussions via bCourses and also another tool, Ed Discussions, which integrates with bCourses. 

To cultivate more meaningful dialogue in the online discussions, it can help to view online discussions as a knowledge building rather than a knowledge verification activity. Unlike verbal exchanges or real-time polling, online discussions are a space where students can bring in resources to support an idea or make connections to related concepts. Their posts can include weblinks, images, videos, or, depending on the course, equations and code snippets.

Online discussion posts don't have to be for and by students; instructors and TAs can also engage in this space. It's not realistic to comment on every post. Still, occasional comments from the teaching team highlighting an exciting idea or clarifying directions can keep the conversation focused and help stimulate further discussion. It's also beneficial to have a dedicated thread for questions about course logistics. You'll likely find that students often answer each other's questions, resulting in fewer emails to you and fewer repetitive replies.

Selecting Media to Fit Your Teaching

Many instructors began incorporating lecture recordings more intentionally in their course design when teaching their classes remotely and have found that including media beyond the recordings of in-class lectures remains an impactful component of the course. Part of what makes media impactful is by considering what is the best medium for the content you're sharing. Media is more than video! It can include audio or even text.

However, let’s start by discussing video since that remains one of the most common types of media instructors use. As you’ve likely heard before, shorter segments help students to be engaged and focused on the lesson at hand. Generally, 10-15 minutes is the recommended length for videos (Risko et al. 2011), but students can get adjusted to longer media lengths if it’s part of the course structure (Lagerstrom et al. 2015 - conference paper, Bradbury 2016) and still find it useful. 

There are many different approaches to creating a video lecture to make it match the content you’re sharing, and you may decide that audio or text would be a better match for your content. RTL developed a decision tree that you can use to determine which media format is the best for your content. You can access it in the Remote Instruction Guide and via the following link: Decision Tree: How to Present Your Lecture?

Bringing it All Together: Course Template Strategies

One way to bring your course design alive and provide a central location for students to engage with the course and each other is through your bCourse site. This where students can access course materials, assessments, links for different engagement opportunities, and media. You can also use your bCourses site to make the course design transparent to students, using it as a tool to guide them through the course. 

RTL developed a bCourses template called the Core Template that provides a built in structure for your course site. The essential component of the Core Template is weekly landing pages where all components for the week—or unit, module, etc.—are available to students. This means students only need to remember to go that weekly landing page and they’ll be able to successfully complete the requirements of the course. 

The Core Template is available via the Canvas Commons and you can learn more about it on the DLS Core Template Getting Started page.

Closing Tips

As you head into the start of the semester, keep these recommendations in mind:

  • Start small. Identify one or two adjustments you’d like to make in your course and assess the impact of those changes on student learning over the course of the semester. Oftentimes overhauling an entire course design creates unnecessary stress for instructors and complicates the learning experience for students.
  • Structure matters. Supporting learning for all or most students requires instructors to make the learning process transparent to their students. Our expectations for students’ participation, performance on assignments, and opportunities to opt-out or adjust these expectations must be clear and communicated to students in a timely manner.

This article was adapted from the VPUE Fall 2022 Semester Start workshop “Designing Meaningful Learning Experiences for All” developed and delivered by Marisella Rodriguez, Seyon Wind, Betsy Greer, and Rebecca Farivar, staff members in Research, Teaching, and Learning.