Unit 3 Instruction

Overview and Objectives | Required Activities | Optional Activities | Commentary | Study Questions | References

Overview and Objectives

It is fairly easy to design instruction and exercises to support the lower levels of learning, and it is fairly easy to decide what factual information needs to be learned, such as definitions and rules. However, the higher cognition required by the application of complex rules, by the use of abstract concepts, by the application of theory, and for solving complex problems presents greater design challenges. What students actually do, as in the learning activity examples listed below, will likely be most effective in facilitating these kinds of higher learning. Your course team can brainstorm with you to generate ideas.

Designing instruction includes

  • Working out learning objectives that define the student’s learning expectations, outcomes.
  • Writing a brief commentary that suggests learning strategies and guides students to relate the learning activities to the learning objectives/outcomes.
  • Designing learning activities such as readings, journals, case studies, debates, invited guests, concept maps and models, problem-solving and critical thinking exercises, practice quizzes, time lines, summaries, comparative analyses, and so on, that are designed to help students accomplish the learning objectives and delivered through various media both online and as print, CDs, DVDs, lab kits, and so on.

In this unit, you will

  • Practice writing learning objectives.
  • Ask yourself, “What should I ask students to do to help them learn the content of my course?”
  • Decide roughly how long your commentary should be in proportion to the associated activity.

Required Activities

  • Read the notes for Unit 3.
  • Draft some learning objectives for your entire course—these would correspond roughly to the unit topics.
  • Review the learning activity links given here.
  • Draft some ideas for learning activities.
As you complete these activities, consider the following questions (you may want to write about your ideas in the discussion forum for this course; please share any links you have found useful):
  1. What is my comfort zone for writing a course?
  2. Am I being asked to move out of my comfort zone?
  3. How should I respond?

Optional Activities

  • Download this course map prototype and start to draft learning objectives and learning activities for your course (or you may want to wait until you get to Unit 6).



Presenting Content

Keep it simple. In distance delivery, learners do not have the option of asking questions as you deliver the content, so it is important to break concepts down into learning steps that can be practiced incrementally. The most important content should be presented more than once from various perspectives (without confusing or excessive redundancy—this is tricky!). When possible, use a diagram or an image. Many learners enjoy listening to a human voice. Adding audio is an inexpensive way to focus learners’ attention on important information.

Research has shown that a friendly, informal instructor voice, or persona, is most conducive to learning. Generally, using the tone and vocabulary you would use when speaking to a live class works well.

Studies have also shown that people retain more content if it is associated with emotional experiences. Providing places for learners to interact with one another and engaging sensory stimulation are ways to get learners emotionally involved, but the emotional arousal needs to be focused toward specific cognitive growth opportunities. New ideas can be highly stimulating as well. Plan to provide adequate support by relating new concepts to something familiar. Metaphors and analogies are useful here. Try using content from the humanities to illustrate science concepts and vice versa. As you know, examples and case studies are also good presentation strategies.

Writing Learning Objectives

Note: A Contract with Learners

Think of the learning objectives as a contract between you and the students. You are telling them exactly what they have to do to succeed in each unit of the course. Implied in this is your promise to provide whatever they need to meet the objectives (with goodwill and effort on their part) and to assess them on what you have stated they will be able to do. This is the close relationship between instruction, learner support, and assessment.

Learning objectives do two things: they guide course design and they tell students what they are expected to accomplish in a given unit. The learning objectives you use to shape your course (see Unit 6 on course maps) should be as detailed and specific as possible. It is not necessary to present them in exactly the same form when they become part of your course as long as students get the idea.

The main component of a learning objective is that of performance—what the learner must be able to demonstrably do. There should be a reasonable number of objectives per unit: four to eight seems about right; if there are too many they tend to be too specific; if there are too few they tend to be too general. Students should also demonstrare their learning; when writing your learning objectives, think about how and where they might do that.

The learning objectives you write in planning a course might look like this:

  • Students will define learning objectives by writing a short paragraph that includes reference to action verbs and their dual functions (exam question).
  • Students will critique a course unit’s learning objectives for effectiveness (assignment 2).
  • Students will restate weak learning objectives as strong ones (exam question and practice quiz item).
  • Students will apply learning objectives to the writing of examinations and assignments for credit by writing a set of three objectives for given content and the corresponding assignments, practice quiz, and exam questions; also suggest appropriate learning strategies.

The same learning objectives for a unit of a course might look something like the following:

Unit X will prepare you to

  • define learning objectives.
  • critique a course unit’s learning objectives for effectiveness.
  • restate weak learning objectives as strong ones.
  • apply learning objectives to the writing of examinations and assignments for credit.

Note that the objectives listed above use strong action verbs. Avoid verbs such as understand, know, be aware of, appreciate, and become familiar with. It is difficult to demonstrate whether someone appreciates the subject matter or knows it, but it is somewhat easier to imagine someone defining or critiquing it. Never link criteria to instructor preferences (e.g., will perform to the satisfaction of the instructor). A good test is to turn the learning objectives into assignment questions, for example:

  1. Define learning objectives.
  2. Critique this course unit’s learning objectives for effectiveness.
  3. Restate the following weak learning objectives as strong ones:
    • understand learning objectives
    • appreciate the importance of learning objectives
    • know the difference between good learning objectives and bad ones
  4. Write an examination question or assignment for credit using one of these learning objectives as a basis.

Learning Activities

William Horton has a good schema for designing learning activities: absorb, do, connect. Below is a table adapted from Horton (2006, p. 41) with examples of each:

Absorb activities Do activities Connect activities

Read, watch, and listen.

Exercise, experiment, discover.

Link to prior learning, to work, and to life.

  • Presentations and demos
  • Instructor commentary
  • Readings
  • Practice
  • Research
  • Games
  • Field work
  • Labs
  • Thought questions
  • Application of life experience
  • Job aids
  • Research
  • Original work

For any given objective, it’s best to have a sequence that includes these three kinds of activity, which reinforce one another. Here is an example:

Objective: Students will write an effective learning objective
  • Read Ch.1 of the textbook on learning objectives.


  • Examine the learning objectives at the beginning of each unit of this course.


  • Do the practice quiz on learning objectives
  • Write the learning objectives for the first unit of your course.


Study Questions

  1. What is the purpose of learning objectives?
  2. How are learning objectives written (a) in course design and (b) to present to students?
  3. How can content be presented as an activity?


Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2003). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Horton, W. (2006). E-learning by design. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.


Last modified: Wednesday, 10 October 2012, 1:18 PM MDT