• Designing learning activities
  • Teaching guidance
  • Teaching practices

Learning activities need to align with their assessment, with the learning outcomes for the course/program overall, and with the students’ needs at this stage of their learning.

Planning learning activities

Lesson planning.

When planning learning activities, you should consider the types of activities that students will need to engage in to achieve and demonstrate the intended learning outcome/s. The activities should provide experiences that will enable students to engage, practice and gain feedback on specific outcome/s.

Some questions to think about when designing the learning activities:

Diana Laurillard (2012) classified learning activities into six types: acquisition, inquiry discussion, practice, collaboration and production.

Laurillard, Diana. (2012). Teaching as a design science . In Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group . Routledge.

Robert Gagne proposed a nine-step process called the events of instruction, which is useful for planning the sequence of your lesson.

Designing learning activities

Source: Lesson planning , Singapore Management University Centre for Teaching Excellence.

A lesson plan contains the details of what students need to learn and how it will be done effectively during a class.

A successful lesson:

Before the class

During the class

After the class

 Ready to Teach Week

Twice a year, ITaLI puts together a program of online and in-person activities designed to help you prepare course materials for the upcoming semester.


ITaLI offers personalised support services across various areas including planning and designing learning activities.

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learning activities designing

Blended Learning

Book contents

5 - Planning and designing learning activities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 June 2018


The aim of this chapter is to provide guidance on the design and use of different learning activities and technologies. Blended learning programmes are likely to include a diverse mixture of activities that together enable individual learners to achieve their learning goals and outcomes. This chapter provides a range of activities that may be used both online and offline, in the workplace and in the training room, and by individuals or small groups. Chapter 6 considers working with learning groups in more detail.

This chapter considers two main topics: general design principles behind developing and using different learning activities; and an alphabetical list of activities and their application in blended learning programmes. Chapter 6 considers group activities such as team-building, problem-based learning and project-based learning. It also considers the group processes involved in some learning activities and looks at how to manage large groups and diverse groups.

Design principles

For both individual e-learning and face-to-face activities, the design process involves answering the following questions:

What are the aims and indicative learning outcomes?

How will you enable the learner to achieve these outcomes?

Consider the learning process – is it an individual, small group or large group activity?

Consider the interaction structure – what are the levels and types of collaboration required in the activity?

How much time will be required by the learners to complete the activity?

What learning resources do you need to prepare or use for this activity?

What (if any) technologies will be involved in the activity?

How long is the activity likely to take?

How will you assess learning?

How will you evaluate the activity?

Once you have answered these questions it is worthwhile carrying out the research necessary to provide you with up-to-date information concerning the topic that the activity will focus on. An important stage in the design process is to produce an outline structure that provides all the information required to complete the activity (Figure 5.1).

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Course design guide.

learning activities designing

Designing meaningful learning experiences that are active, center students, and build on prior knowledge is a skill developed and strengthened over time. This guide is designed to help you take a goal-oriented approach to course planning with opportunities to collect evidence of student learning throughout your course.

A Goal-Oriented Approach to Course Design

How can you plan what students will be doing without first knowing what you want them to learn ? By focusing course planning around clear learning objectives, instructors can have a better sense of how students should demonstrate their learning, and then consider what day-to-day experiences may best support students’ learning.

Below we outline three key stages of course design. Select the links provided to learn more about each stage.

Step 1. Establish Learning Objectives

What should students know, understand, and be able to do? Establish learning objectives to narrow and prioritize topics, concepts, or skills that students should know or be able to do by the end of your lesson, course unit, or full-semester course.

Design Effective Learning Objectives

Step 2. determine acceptable evidence.

What will you accept as evidence that students are making progress toward their learning? Determining how students can best demonstrate their learning will help differentiate introductory versus advanced knowledge and skills, build in opportunities to check in with students’ learning, and surface inequities in learning opportunities.

Design Effective Assessments

Step 3. design experiences to support student learning.

What activities, assignments, or discussions will help prepare students to demonstrate their learning? Explore active learning strategies that meaningfully engage students in their learning, build on prior knowledge, and foster collaboration.

Design Active Learning Opportunities

Next steps in course design.

After you have designed your course, how do you ensure that the learning process is transparent to students? Consider common instructional tools available to you, including your course description and syllabus. To stay in touch with how students are experiencing your course, leverage low-stakes activities, surveys, and other resources to collect evidence of student learning and gauge the effectiveness of your teaching practices.

Communicate Expectations to Students (and Colleagues)

A syllabus serves as an introduction to the course and a description of what students can expect to learn, practice, and explore throughout the semester. Additionally, a syllabus serves as an example of your teaching practice and pedagogical approach to colleagues, including colleagues who are new to teaching, your department chair, and review committees.

Syllabus Design

Document teaching and learning effectiveness.

How do you know when students experience a barrier to learning? How do you assess the strengths and weaknesses in your teaching practice? What evidence informs potential changes to your course or teaching practice the next time you teach? Explore strategies for reflecting on your teaching practice and collecting evidence of student learning and learning experiences.

Assess Teaching & Learning

Coming soon!

Lecture 2: Designing Learning Activities


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The Foundations of Teaching for Learning programme is for anyone who is teaching, or who would like to teach, in any subject and any context - be it at school, at home or in the workplace. With dynamic lessons taught by established and respected professionals from across the Commonwealth, this eight course programme will see you develop and strengthen your skills in teaching, professionalism, assessment, and more. As you carry on through the programme, you will find yourself strengthening not only your skills, but your connection with colleagues across the globe. A professional development opportunity not to be missed. Curriculum is a framework for guiding teaching and learning. This course provides an opportunity for you to consider the relationship between the teacher, the learner and the curriculum. Enhance your course by joining the Commonwealth teaching community on our website, Facebook and Twitter.

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Education, Curriculum Development, Pedagogy, Planning

Dec 11, 2020

This course is highly recommended for those who are in the teaching profession. It helped me gain an in-depth understanding of how the curriculum works in the teaching-learning process.

Sep 13, 2017

This is a great course for all involved in education. I am a freelancer and develop many courses so it gave me good insight into many elements that were confusing before. Thanks a lot.

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Putting Curriculum to Work

This week we will bring together some important aspects of teaching and learning that were discussed in the previous weeks. The sessions cover issues of interpretation, designing learning activities, planning lessons, and bringing lessons to life.


Associate Professor Suseela Malakolunthu

Director of the Leadership for Learning and Research Network


Professor John MacBeath

Professor Emeritus

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Designing Creative Learning Activities

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Carolina Rodeghiero

by Carolina Rodeghiero

July 10, 2019

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By   Carolina Rodeghiero

As a sequence to the Creative Village introduction to Creative Learning , the Brazilian Creative Learning Network is designing new tools within a professional development course to support educators on their first steps on adopting Creative Learning in their practices. 

Which are the key elements that might help me on designing creative learning experiences for my students?

This and other questions are always there when educators do their first reflection about creative learning, usually after a first experience as it is the Creative Village hands-on workshop or other Creative Learning practices. 

 At the "Designing Creative Learning Activities" workshop, educators have the opportunity to share their own experiences of practices while  brainstorming about key elements for creating or remixing an activity using creative learning. The participants also have the opportunity to prototype products that they expect their own students to be able to create, and they draw strategies to develop the Creative Learning spiral and the 4 P’s of Creative Learning:  Projects, Passion, Peers, Play. 

If you already participated in one of these workshops and are now using these materials and tips to design better experiences for your students, we would love to hear your feedback about how our resources are useful to your teaching practice.  

Goals : 


Intended Audience:

This initiative, as well as others from the MIT Media Lab and the Brazilian Creative Learning Network, is in constant update and evolution. The voices of educators who are experiencing our materials and workshops are very important to us, so we can cultivate the creative learning spiral through constantly sharing, reflecting, and improving these educational resources.

Did you participate in a "Designing Creative Learning Activities" workshop and would like to apply or remix it? Subscribe to  this form  so we can get in touch and send you some resources. 

Would you like to know more about this initiative, give us some feedback, or chat about how to improve professional development for educators in Creative Learning? Send an email to [email protected] 

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Creative Learning Conference Brazil

#creativelearning #Brazil

2ª Conferência Brasileira de Aprendizagem Criativa

18 a 21 de setembro de 2019, em São Bernardo do Campo - SP

"Welcome to the Creative Village!": a hands-on introduction to Creative Learning

Help the Media Lab to improve professional development in Creative Learning

Beyond Access: A Comparison of Community Technology Initiatives

Robbin Chapman, Leo Burd

Center for Teaching Innovation

Resource library.

Setting Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes are measurable statements that articulate at the beginning what students should know, be able to do, or value as a result of taking a course or completing a program (also called Backwards Course Design). Learning outcomes often take this form:

Use your learning outcomes as a tool. Let them inform your choice of teaching strategies, course activities, and assessments.

Why Define Learning Outcomes?

Clearly identified learning outcomes allow instructors to:

Having access to articulated learning outcomes (in a syllabus, for example) helps students:

Getting Started with Setting Learning Outcomes

Davis, B. G. (2009).  Tools for teaching  (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, E. J., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (1956).  Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals . New York, NY: Longmans, Green and Co.

Walvoord, B. E. (2010).  Assessment clear and simple: A practical guide for institutions, departments and general education . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

learning activities designing

Teaching Methods

Choosing optimal methods to support learning outcomes.

On this page:

The importance of teaching methods.

Teaching methods are the broader techniques used to help students achieve learning outcomes, while activities are the different ways of implementing these methods. Teaching methods help students:

Instructors should identify which teaching methods will properly support a particular learning outcome. Its effectiveness depends on this alignment. To make the most appropriate choice, an instructor should consider learning outcomes, student needs and the learning environment.

Consider the following example:

This example demonstrates alignment of what the instructor wants students to do, and how they are supported in these tasks. If the instructor choses a different teaching method, such as a traditional lecture, students would need to process the lecture’s content and apply principles simultaneously. This is very difficult to do and would lead to less successful outcomes.

Choosing the appropriate teaching method brings instruction to life while encouraging students to actively engage with content and develop their knowledge and skills.

Teaching methods

The chart below provides a number of teaching methods to choose from. Teaching methods vary in their approach, some are more student-centered while others are more instructor centered, and you will see this reflected in the chart. Choose methods that will best guide your students to achieve the learning outcomes you’ve set and remember that your teaching approach, teaching methods and activities all work together.

Table adapted from: Nilson (2016)

Choose your methods

Using the Course Design Template   explore the aspects that will likely affect your course.

Now that you’ve reviewed a variety of teaching methods and considered which ones align with your learning outcomes, the next step is to consider activities.

What Is Learning Design?

Learning design.

learning activities designing

Learning design is the process of methodically and deliberately crafting learning experiences based on educational theory (ex. ADDIE model, SAM model, Backward Design model, Assure, etc.) . At Fulton Schools of Engineering, we often use the Backward Design model.

Starting with the end in mind helps ensure alignment between course objectives, assessments, and instructional activities in order to improve student learning outcomes.

Learning Design Benefits for Faculty and Students

Learning design enables instructors to focus on content rather than the Learning Management System.

Learning and teaching has evolved as new technologies have emerged. The debut of the personal computer, in combination with the Internet, has allowed for exponential growth with regards to the ways instructors deliver instruction and assess student learning. They have also had an impact on how students consume content, internalize its meaning, and demonstrate their ability to use that information. These technological advances have allowed instructors to develop and deploy content that can be used to support residential learning experiences across all instructional modalities, such as: 

When incorporating learning design strategies into each of these modalities, the pedagogical approach is nearly the same when using the Backward Design process. This assists in creating learning experiences and instructional strategies to achieve specific learning outcomes. This is true not only for a new course development, but it also directly relates to existing course revisions, module revisions, all the way down to an activity for a specific lesson. 

learning activities designing

Course Development

learning activities designing

From ideation and analysis to evaluation and iteration, follow the development process to help students reach objectives. read more…

From proposal and onboarding, to course launch, to evaluation and debrief, our team can help every step of the way. read more…

learning activities designing

Learning Technology

Check out the wide variety of tools available to faculty to improve courses and increase interactivity.

read more…

Check out the wide variety of tools available to faculty to improve courses and increase interactivity. read more…

learning activities designing

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University of Tasmania

Teaching & Learning

Examples of learning activities.

The teacher's fundamental task is to get students to engage in learning activities that are likely to result in achieving [the intended learning] outcomes. It is helpful to remember that what the student does is actually more important that what the teacher does. (Schuell, 1986, p.429)

Every learning activity in your unit should be intentional , meaningful and useful .

As noted on the Session Outcomes page , each learning activity in your unit should be aligned to the unit ILOs, as well as to the more specific learning outcomes of each session or module that you teach. The intent of the activity is then clear to both you and your students.

It is equally important that each activity is meaningful , and ensures student development and advancement through the unit. Activities should build on previous activities and avoid being repetitive, they should enable students to engage with and develop their skills, knowledge and understandings in different ways. Meaningful activities engage students in active, constructive, intentional, authentic, and cooperative ways.

Useful learning activities are ones where the student is able to take what they have learnt from engaging with the activity and use it in another context, or for another purpose. For example, students are able to directly apply the skills or knowledge they acquired to an assessment task, or to the next activity in your unit.

The activity types provided below are by no means an exhaustive list, but will help you in thinking through how best to design and deliver high impact learning experiences for your students in your unit.

Content Focus (and Interaction)

Whether the learning outcomes for a session or module include declarative or functioning knowledge, almost all of them will be supported in some way by the presentation of information to students.

Activities which involve student interaction with content can include listening to and/or watching a live or recorded talk, engaging with a written or visual text, engaging with multimedia, or a combination of these. Typically, students are more likely to retain information presented in these ways if they are asked to interact with the material in some way, which is why it is useful to ask or invite questions, or include another activity type after every 5 or 15 minute 'chunk' of information.

Example: Live Lectorial (Online or On campus)

Provide information orally, supported by slides, in 4 to 7 minute blocks, interspersed with interactions such as asking students to respond to a related question. For example, ask the students a question that requires them to apply, summarise, explain or identify etc. an important aspect of the information just presented. After asking the question, wait 10 to 15 seconds before asking for volunteers, or calling on a randomly selected student to respond. (It may be useful to provide a visual clue for students identifying that after posing the question you would like to them to consider a response and remain silent for the designated amount of time.) After a student has responded to the question, call on another student to summarise the first student's response. Alternatively, if the first response was not completely accurate, invite the second student to respond to the first student's answer (e.g., "[name] what do you think about that - would you agree?").   Alternatively, students might work through problems, case studies, calculations, etc, individually or in small groups following short sections of content delivery.

This activity would be particularly relevant for supporting student progress towards learning outcomes with declarative knowledge .

Example: Assigned Reading/text

Provide students with access to a text (e.g., journal article, blog, multimedia presentation). Accompany the text with a number of questions which will help guide students' focus as they engage with the text. The questions could be provided for personal reflection, they could be addressed further in a subsequent synchronous session (online or on-campus), they could be presented in the form of an online quiz (weighted or unweighted) or survey, or they could be required as part of an asynchronous activity (online) among other options and possibilities.

The questions posed, and how students are asked to respond to them will be dependent upon what the ILOs require students to do. For example, a unit with an ILO that requires students to ' identify ' might have questions that highlight the relevant aspects, or which require students to identify the key ideas in a reading. For a unit with an ILO for students to ' evaluate ', however, the questions might ask student to list advantages and disadvantages, or to compare and contrast different approaches noted in the text(s).

Example: Multimedia Content in MyLO

Use a MyLO Content File (HTML) to pose one to four questions, in text. Ask students to record their responses in a linked, editable MyLO survey. Below the questions and the survey link, embed a short video (from YouTube, MyMedia, Vimeo etc) that contains information answering the posed questions. Ask students to return to their survey answers (with a link) and update them with the new knowledge they have.

The questions posed will be dependent upon the unit and module/session learning outcomes. For example, ILOs that require students to ' identify ' might have questions that highlight the relevant aspects, or which require students to identify the key ideas in the video. For ILOs that require ' critical reflection ', however, the questions might ask students to complete SWOT components, or to present perspectives from a variety of stakeholders, fo example.

Interactivity (with Others) Focus

The 'social presence' of a student in a unit has been found to correlate positively with both their achievement of learning outcomes, and their perception of the learning in a unit (Richardson & Swan, 2003). Peer relationships, informal support structures, and teacher-student interactions/relationships all contribute to a student's social presence in a unit. Therefore, including learning activities that foster open communication and group cohesion (as ways of fostering social presence) as well as providing opportunities for active learning are important in every unit.

Activities that focus on or include interaction with others can support student development of a range of learning outcomes, inclusive of declarative and functioning knowledge. All of these examples could be used in either online or on campus environments.

Example: Facilitated synchronous discussion

A set of questions are provided to students for consideration prior to a scheduled session. In small groups of 10-20, the teacher facilitates student sharing of responses to the questions, and building upon those responses. Further questions for consideration might be introduced during the session, aimed at furthering the thinking and analysis generated from the discussion.

N.B., Facilitating the sharing of responses is most effective when done skillfully. Therefore, it is likely that familiarising yourself with literature about this will enhance the learning of your students.

Example: Jigsaw collaborative information sharing

A cohesive set of information is separated into 4 or 5 smaller parts. For example, a written article separated by its paragraphs, a report separated by each section, a video separated into shorter clips. Students are organised into small groups, and each one is provided with one of the smaller parts of information. Students work together to understand the information they are provided with. They also discuss and rehearse how to share this knowledge with others who do not have the information. Then, new groups are formed, each being made up of a single student from each of the original groups. In these new groups, each 'expert' student shares their knowledge with the rest of the group who may ask questions to clarify meaning.

The teacher may then pose questions for the groups to answer, ask groups to complete a task that demonstrates their understanding, provide their own summary, or take questions from the groups to help solidify understandings.

Example: Group Assignments

Students are organised into smaller groups of three or four for the entire semester, a week, a fortnight... Each group has an assigned task, and each member an assigned role. (The organisation of groups, and assignment of roles can be managed either by the teacher or the students.) Discussion boards are provided for each of the assigned roles (e.g., project manager, schedule and records manager, presentation manager, researcher) so that these students can share ideas and check understandings with one another to then take back to their group). Opportunities are provided for each group to share their product with the rest of the class, through, for example, an in-class presentation (using web conferencing for online presentation), or a peer-assessment activity (facilitated online or in-class) where each group assesses one another's work using a rubric.

Critical Thinking

Activities that provide students with opportunities to think about or use knowledge and information in new and different ways will support their development of critical thinking skills - one of the main selling points of a university education. Often critical thinking activities can follow on from other learning activities, after students have received feedback from the initial activity.

Example: Response to an assigned text

Students are initially asked to identify the key ideas in an assigned text (written, audio, video), and share their understanding with a sub-set of the class (e.g., during an on campus (or online) 'tutorial', or on a discussion board). To extend this to a critical thinking activity, once the initial discussion on the content of the text is completed, students are then asked to critique the text based on a provided set of criteria. The criteria could focus on the validity of the assertions made, and their relevance and applicability to other topics covered in the unit and specified situations and scenarios. The critiques could be presented and discussed orally, or initially posted to a discussion board for further analysis and use in subsequent learning activities.

Example: Digital story development

Students (as individuals, pairs, or in groups) are provided with a scenario or case study which they must analyse. They prepare a 5 minute digital story that explains what the relevant issues are, including the stakeholders, the options, the impacts and consequences etc (as relevant to your discipline and context). These digital stories are shared on MyLO, and used in subsequent sessions for class analysis, for peer-feedback or assessment, for oral advocacy where the author(s) of the digital story respond to questions about the content, defending and explaining their reasoning, or for formal assessment and feedback from the teacher, among other uses.

Asking students to produce something can be an effective way of assisting them to engage with ideas and concepts at the level you wish them to. It can be a way of facilitating 'deep' learning. Worth noting here, is that with the ubiquitousness of technology and its capabilities now, the requirement of production being predominantly written no longer exists, with the range of possible forms of production ever increasing, bounded only by your imaginations.

Example: Infographic

When students are learning about processes or procedures; dealing with statistics, numbers, and dates; learning about complex ideas with interactions on different levels; or something similar, you can ask students to produce an infographic to explain, describe, and visualise this information. The production of the infographic can be worked on by students outside of scheduled sessions, and should be shared with the whole class through MyLO. The infographics could also be used as a starting point for further analyses and/or discussions.

Example: Oral summary (+ written summary)

Students are each given a specific aspect of a topic, and asked to create a 4 minute oral explanation of it. The oral explanation is then shared with the other members of the class, either as a recording shared online, or through a live presentation during a scheduled session. This can work well when all the participating students are then asked to write a short summary of each of the aspects explained. These written summaries are then also shared with the class online. In addition to providing students with an opportunity to learn more about the aspects, this also provides you the teacher with useful feedback about the aspects which students have not understood as well as needed. This then enables you to plan for additional learning activities that focus on the less well understood concepts.

Example: One minute paper

During a lecture, or within a module on MyLO, ask students to stop and spend one minute (and no longer) responding to a key question about the topic being covered. Students then pass in their writing to the teacher.

The one minute paper can be written on a piece of paper, but works particularly well on campus when students are asked to submit it through the survey tool in MyLO. This makes the collection and reading of the papers easier for you the teacher, and makes it easier to analyse the responses and respond to them in the following scheduled session.

Problem Solving

Presenting students with a problem, scenario, case, challenge or design issue, which they are then asked to resolve, address, meet, or deal with provides students with a visible and clear reason for learning. If, in order to solve the problem, they are required to have knowledge, understandings and skills, that they don't currently have, they are likely to be motivated to gain them. The scale and extent of the problem, and the amount of scaffolding provided by you, the teacher, will need careful consideration and reference to the learning outcomes of the unit, module and/or session.

You may find John Savery's (2006) article Overview of Problem-based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions a valuable and useful read.

Example: Simulation

Students are provided with a scenario, and they then interact with people and/or machines who respond to their choices and actions as if in real life. After the simulation has ended, the student reflects on the consequences of their choices and actions, often in response to questions from their classmates or teacher(s).

Example: Case Study

Students, either individually or in groups, are provided with information about a person or organisation, and are assigned a role that is relevant to the case of the assigned person or organisation. The students must then analyse the case, and make recommendations to stakeholder(s), propose a solution, or present a design or plan related to the case.

What students are asked to do in relation to the case will depend on the discipline in which they are studying, and the unit's intended learning outcomes.

Example: Class Solution and Consequence

During a live lecture or tutorial, the teacher presents a scenario, and seeks responses from the class about possible approaches/responses to it. After collecting the responses (made verbally and recorded by the teacher, or sent using an audience response system such as MyLO surveys, clickers, or Lecture tools (which are currently in use across UTAS)), the teacher then asks for verbal responses about what the consequences might be for a selected answer. This continues as each of the main responses are analysed and the consequences considered.

Using effective questioning and discussion facilitation skills will enhance this sort of learning activity.

Reflection is an activity that supports the development of students' meta-cognition, that is, their understanding of how they think, learn, and understand. The process of reflection starts with the student thinking about what they already know and have experienced in relation to the topic being explored/learnt. This is followed by analysis of why the student thinks about the topic in the way they do, and what assumptions, attitudes and beliefs they have about, and bring to learning about the topic.

Stephen Brookfield has a number of useful publications about the use of reflection and reflective writing for learning and teaching which you may find useful, including: Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting (1987) ISBN 978-1-55542-055-0 , and  Teaching for Critical Thinking: Helping Students Question Their Assumptions (2011)  ISBN 978-0-470-88934-3 .

Example: Self-Assessment

After students have completed a learning activity or assessment task, provide them with a set of criteria to use to assess the quality of their work. Ask students to write down a comment about the quality of their work (process or product). Then, ask students to think about why they achieved that level of quality, and whether they could do something differently in the future to achieve a different/higher level of quality. Students may be asked to make a record of this reflection.

Example: Reflection on Learning

After students have received feedback on an early assessment task or learning activity, ask them to use the DIEP model (Boud, 1985) to write a reflection about their experience of completing the task or participating in the activity. Ask students to use the reflective writing process to assist them to replicate approaches that worked well for them, and/or to avoid approaches that did not help them to learn and perform well.

This focus would be most appropriate for students who are in their first year of study at university, and especially for those in their first semester.

Example: Prior Understanding

Towards the start of a new topic or module, present to students the name of the topic, and/or some key words of relevance to the new module. Ask students to reflect on what they currently think about this topic, how they feel about it, and why this might be the case. Ask students to predict what they will learn about, how they feel about that, and how they expect to feel about the experience of learning about it.

This can be useful to go back to towards the end of the module or topic, to ask students to reflect on if and how their feelings and understandings have changed.

Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students' perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 7 (1), 68-88.

Schuell, T. J. (1986). Cognitive conceptions of learning.  Review of Educational Research ,  56 , 411-436.

Learning Activities

Main navigation.

How can activities support student learning? One of the most exciting parts of course design is thinking about what students actually  do while learning. It is more impactful for students to be engaged and actively participate in the learning process. Also, with diverse students, it is essential to develop learning activities that engage in various ways. This section offers some recommendations to help you plan engaging lessons.

Increasing Student Engagement

Girl talking in class

SplashLearn Blog

Are you looking for ways to better meet the needs of all your students in your classroom? Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an excellent solution for you! UDL is a framework that can help teachers create lessons and materials accessible to all students, regardless of their learning styles or abilities.

Let’s look at what Universal Design for Learning is and how you can use it in your classroom.

What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

Making algebra notes with scale and pencil universal design for learning 1

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that guides practitioners to create and develop learning environments, curricula, and assessment tools in ways that accommodate diverse learners.

It is an instructional design model which aims to make content accessible and engaging for all learners. UDL recognizes the diversity of students’ intelligence, interests, learning styles, prior knowledge, language skills, and physical abilities.

Understanding Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Young girl making art universal design for learning 2

To understand UDL, it is essential first to understand the three core principles of UDL:

1. Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Universal Design for Learning recommends providing multiple means of representation so that all students can understand and engage with the content. This could mean using a variety of multimedia, including text, audio, images, and videos. It could also mean providing different ways for students to interact with the content, such as through hands-on activities, simulations, and games.

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2. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Universal Design for Learning principles also recommends providing multiple means of action and expression. Give students opportunities to interact with the content in different ways, through movement, drama, art, and music. It also includes allowing students to express themselves through writing, speaking, and signing.

3. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

The third core principle of UDL is to provide multiple means of engagement. Spark students’ interests and motivations by using exciting and relevant content and providing opportunities to be active participants in their learning.

These three core principles provide a foundation for all UDL practices and help to ensure that all students can access and understand the content.

Benefits of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Little child smiling in class raising hand universal design for learning 3

There are many benefits to using UDL in your classroom. Some of the key benefits include:

1. Improved Learning Outcomes for All Students

When teachers use UDL principles in their instruction, students learn more and achieve better outcomes. UDL provides ways to meet the needs of all learners, including those who are traditionally marginalized or left behind.

2. Increased Engagement and Participation

UDL helps to make learning more engaging and exciting for all students. When students are actively engaged in their learning, they are more likely to succeed.

3. Reduced Achievement Gaps by Universal Design for Learning

When all students have access to high-quality instruction and materials, achievement gaps decrease. UDL helps to create a level playing field for all learners.

4. Provides Inclusive Learning Environment

UDL helps create a learning environment that is welcoming and inclusive for all students. Inclusivity is essential, as all students should feel comfortable and supported in their learning environment.

5. Eliminate Barriers by Universal Design for Learning

UDL helps to eliminate the barriers that many students face in their learning. This can include inaccessible materials, challenging tasks, and inappropriate instruction.

How to Deploy Universal Design for Learning (UDL) In Classrooms?

Teacher showing illustration of moon to students universal design for learning 4

Now that you understand what UDL is and the benefits of using it in your classroom, you may be wondering how you can put it into practice. Here are a few tips:

1. Assessment

When designing instruction and materials, it is essential first to assess the needs of your students. Teachers can do this through diagnostic assessments or by observing their students in their natural learning environment. For example, you can observe how students interact with the content and their strategies to understand it.

2. Customize Instruction

Once you have assessed your students’ needs, you can customize your instruction to meet their individual needs. This could mean providing different representations of the content, different ways for students to interact with it, and different ways to express themselves.

3. Modify materials

If you use materials not explicitly designed for UDL, you may need to modify them to make them more accessible and inclusive. This could include changing the font size, adding alternate text, and increasing the contrast of colors.

You can also use this PDF on Universal Design for Learning guidelines to help you design your instructional materials.

Universal Design for Learning Strategies and Examples for the Classroom

Children making art with colored chalks on board universal design for learning 5

Now that you understand the basics of UDL, it’s time to put it into practice. Here are some examples of how you can use UDL in your classroom:

1. Offer Multiple Paths to Learning

One of the simplest ways to implement UDL is to offer multiple pathways to learning. This means providing students with different ways to access and understand the content. For example, you might give a visual representation of the content, an audio version, and a written transcript.

2. Differentiate Instruction

Differentiating instruction is another crucial way to use UDL in your classroom. This means providing students with different levels of teaching and support based on their needs. For example, you might give scaffolded support to struggling students and more challenging tasks for excelling students.

3. Offer Multiple Means of Expression

Another way to use UDL in your classroom is to offer multiple means of expression. This means allowing students to express themselves in different ways. For example, you might allow students to use other forms of communication, such as speaking, writing, and drawing.

4. Provide Accommodations

If a student needs accommodation to participate in the learning process, you can provide that accommodation through UDL. For example, you might allow a student to use a laptop if they cannot write by hand or give a student an alternate format for reading class material.

5. Use Technology

Technology can be a great way to facilitate UDL in the classroom. For example, you might use a software program that allows students to input their responses differently or a website that provides audio versions of articles. You can also use online learning programs like SplashLearn , making learning more fun using game-based activities.

6. Promote Inclusivity

Teachers can also use UDL to promote inclusivity in the classroom. This means creating a learning environment where all students feel welcome and respected. For example, you might make an effort to use diverse images and illustrations in your instruction, or you might provide accommodations for students with disabilities.

7. Encourage Student Participation

Finally, one of the best ways to use UDL in your classroom is to encourage student participation. This means allowing students to share their ideas and providing them with feedback. For example, you might give students a forum to discuss class topics or ask them to contribute ideas for assignments.

Let’s Recap

teacher explaining book to student in library reading universal design for learning 6

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a term that encompasses the idea of designing an environment, content, and tools, so they are accessible to people with different abilities. Using it in your classroom will benefit students with disabilities and all students as they will have an opportunity to learn in their way. Now that you know what UDL is and how to use it, it’s time to put it into practice!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between udl and special education.

Special education is a term used to describe services and programming for students with disabilities. UDL is a philosophy that educators can use in addition to or instead of special education.

Do I need to be certified in special education to use UDL in my classroom?

You do not need to be certified in special education to use UDL in your classroom. However, it is helpful to understand the basics of special education to meet your students’ needs best.

How do I know if UDL is right for my classroom?

You may want to consider using UDL if you are looking for ways to differentiate instruction, offer multiple means of expression, provide accommodations, and promote inclusivity. You can also use UDL to facilitate technology in your classroom.

If you are not sure if UDL is suitable for your classroom, ask a colleague or contact your school’s special education department for more information.

What resources are available to help me learn more about UDL?

Many resources are available to help you learn more about UDL, including books, websites, and articles. An excellent place to start is the UDL Center’s website, which provides various resources, including an overview of UDL, how to get started, and case studies. You can also find helpful information from the National Center for Universal Design for Learning (NCUDL).

What are the disadvantages of Universal Design for Learning?

There are no known disadvantages of Universal Design for Learning. However, as with any approach to teaching, it is critical to assess whether or not it is appropriate for your students and modify it as needed. It would help if you also kept in mind that UDL is a framework and not a curriculum, so you will need to develop your own lessons and activities.

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Course and syllabus design

Regardless of the size, subject, or level of the course, a systematic approach to course design will help you reach your desired instructional goals. This page provides information that will guide you from the initial design phases of your course to polishing and distributing your syllabus.

Course design

Reflecting on your students.

Before class begins, find out as much as you can about the students. If you are new to teaching the course, consider consulting with colleagues who have previously taught the course or explore the datasets generated by the UW Office of the Registrar to gather information. Take time to view your class roster. These questions might help your inquiry:

Understanding by design (“backwards” course design)

One of the best ways you can reach your instructional goals is to make sure you have some and to align what you do in the classroom to those goals. This approach, framed by researchers Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe and labeled “Understanding by design,” reverses the typical course design process and, thus, is often referred to as backwards or reverse design. It starts by prompting instructors to ask a series of questions when they begin thinking about their course.

Developing measurable learning outcomes or objectives

Learning outcomes are core to the backwards design process. Even if you have never formally written them out, it’s likely that learning outcomes (even unspoken ones) have informed the content of your lectures, your choice of assigned readings and classroom activities, and the standards by which you evaluate your students’ work.

A learning outcome is a simple, concise statement that tells students what they should be able to do as a result of working through your course. Developing measurable  learning outcomes can help instructors and programs determine if learners are achieving the goals we’ve set for them.

To get a sense of whether students possess the knowledge or skills we want them to have, we need to observe them doing something, such as correctly identifying something or performing some action. When writing learning outcomes, eliminate vague verbs like understand , know , learn , realize , and appreciate . Replace these words with verbs that describe actions students will take to demonstrate their understanding. Here are some tools that can assist you in developing learning outcomes:

Aligning your course to learning outcomes

How will you know if your students achieve the learning outcomes you’ve developed for them? The best way to know is to develop assignments and assessments that prompt learners to demonstrate the knowledge and skills that inform your learning outcomes. But before you can assess their knowledge and skills, you need to design activities that help them develop their understanding and abilities. If they haven’t had opportunities to develop their knowledge and skill set, they won’t be able to succeed in the assignments and assessments you’ve developed. In short, you need to align your activities, assignments, and assessments to your outcomes.

Aligning your assignments and assessments

Once you’ve developed your learning outcomes, reflect on the following questions:

For more on assessment design see our Assessing Student Learning  page.

Aligning your activities

Learning outcomes are destinations. Our role as instructors is to design the journey toward those destinations. Think of the questions you ask when planning a trip. What’s the best way to get to your destination? A train? A car? Walking? Does it make sense to journey solo or in the company of others? In the classroom, you can lead students toward learning outcomes in any number of ways. You might assign readings or videos, lecture on a topic, ask students to engage in active experimentation , explore case studies, practice a skill, write in class ,  discuss a topic , conduct field work, engage in service learning , or work to solve a problem . How might you combine activities to create an engaging, transformative journey toward your outcomes?

Syllabus design

The syllabus provides the instructor and students with a common reference point that sets the stage for learning throughout the course. Make sure that your students have easy access to the course syllabus by handing out hard copies on the first day of class and (if applicable) posting a digital copy on the course website.

UW syllabus guidelines and resources

Many policies and recommended practices at the UW are enacted at the school or departmental level, so be sure to connect with your departmental supervisor about the department’s expectations regarding syllabi. The university also has institution-wide policies and guidelines that you’ll want to explore as you build your syllabus.

Common components included in a syllabus

The form and content of a syllabus vary widely by discipline, department, course and instructor.  However, there are common components that most successful syllabi contain. These components communicate to your students an accurate description of the course including the topics that will be cover, assignments and assessments students will be responsible for, as well as a clear source for policies and expectations.

Course description

Course topics and assignments

Course policies and values

What values will shape your teaching in the course and what policies will guide you?  Policies and values that you might want to communicate through your syllabus include:

Information for Teaching Assistants

Teaching assistant responsibilities regarding course design will vary. However, it is always a good idea to think about your teaching and learning goals. Plan ahead by asking yourself:

If you are teaching a quiz section or lab, you may not be involved in the development of the course syllabus. However, your students will appreciate receiving a syllabus providing information regarding the section or lab policies, procedures, and expectations, as well as information about your office location and hours, and how to contact you by email. Make sure to discuss the information you provide in your quiz section syllabus with the lead instructor or graduate program advisor before distributing it to students.

Keep Learners At The Center Of The Design Process

What is learning design.

Definition of Learning Design

Learning Design is the framework that supports learning experiences. It refers to deliberate choices about what, when, where and how to teach. Decisions need to be made about the content, structure, timing, pedagogical strategies, sequence of learning activities, and the type and frequency of assessment in the course, as well as the nature of technology used to support learning.

Recently the concept of “Learning Design” has gained momentum in the education space, mostly through discussions at conferences, webinars, ebooks, and more. Being topical though doesn’t make it new, in fact the concept has been evolving since the early 2000’s, deeply rooted in Design Thinking. So what is it? How is it different than what we had before? Why does Smart Sparrow care? Why should   you care? For many, it also means shifting focus from the teacher to thinking about learners first — who they are, what they know, how they think, and how to reach them effectively so they get the most out of their educational experience. It’s an intentional process that asks educators to think beyond “What do I need to teach?“ and to carefully consider “What is the best way for my learners to learn and understand this concept?”. It shifts the focus of education from simply delivering content to molding the full instructor-learner experience.

If instruction represents a form of delivery, and if we are beyond delivery, then we have reached a stage where we are beyond instruction.  –Rod Sims of Capella University

How is learning design different from instructional design?

Learning design, a quickly-growing field.

Relying on the process of learning design can make a monumental difference in any environment: K-12, higher education, corporate training and development, sports team coaching…! If someone is learning, that experience can (and we’ll argue “should“) be carefully crafted to yield the best outcomes. It guides decisions in what materials and resources are needed, what activities will be most impactful, and how to structure each moment of the learner experience for the best results. In a traditional face-to-face teaching environment, this process can happen (fairly more) naturally as the lecturer can witness first hand the reactions learners have to the experience being provided to them. However, as we enter the realms of the digital space there is a growing need for collaboration of instructors with roles such as learning designers, subject matter experts, engineers, UX designers and graphic artists to organize, design, and develop learning programs to make this happen.

Fun fact: Each year, we see more organizations hiring full-time learning designers and creating specialised teams often called courseware development teams that sit within Centres for Learning & Teaching or Learning and Development. For us, this shows a critical shift in how the market is thinking about the possibilities and impact of education. Teaching is not a solo sport anyone.

Focusing on Learner-Centered Design

Definition of Learner-Centred Design

Learner-centered design is the process of building learning experiences by focusing on learner challenges and building fitting solutions by working through an iterative process.

For most educators, you really can’t discuss instructional design without quickly switching to the more specific topic of learner-centered design. The driving belief is that focusing instructional design projects on the needs, desires, and hopes of learners ensures that the project is successful. Learner-centered design builds partially on the language and processes of human-centered design . It maintains people as the centerpiece and raison d'être throughout every moment of a project by continually asking, “Is this the best solution for my user?“. In this way, creators avoid designing an unusable product or “cool“ yet with unnecessary and incomplete features — ensuring that their final product is suitable for the needs of real people. Learning Design is an iterative process, so if the process is started early there will be plenty of opportunities to refine the experience/idea before delivering it to learners. IDEO developed a very comprehensive Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit with plenty of activities, tools and methods that can be used to apply design thinking in this space.

Examples of Non-Human-Centered Design

From Philosophies to Processes

At Smart Sparrow we see Learner-Centred Design as the balance between designing for positive educational outcomes (about which most education as in industry is completely obsessed with) and the process of getting there (which is more about the experiences that are meeting the needs and desires of the learners). This is a very subtle place to be, because you can create amazing experiences that learners love, that are not going to move the needle that much in terms of outcomes. Or you can focus on test prep and move the needle on outcomes offering a poor experience for learners. What we are looking to do is create experiences that keep an eye on both worlds. Design is at the core of Smart Sparrow’s Studio and we believe in the power of following a deliberate process to achieve just that. We continually reflect upon and tweak our learning design and courseware creation processes to improve our efficacy and impact. As such, our working systems have become a hybrid of many great production processes and mindsets.

The many ingredients of our learning design process

Design thinking.

Learning Sciences

Sound pedagogical practices, best practices in curriculum development.

Collaborative Problem Solving

Design thinking, popularized by the IDEO design, innovation, and consulting firm , is a set of processes to pinpoint deep or “wicked“ problems worth solving, and then producing logical solutions to those problems. It has been applied across a range of work, including fields not often thought of as needing design —such as restructuring an organization or solving a water crisis. Learning design has incorporated the Design Thinking process: context analysis, problem finding and (re)framing, challenging assumptions, ideation and solution generating, creative thinking, sketching and drawing, modelling and prototyping, testing, and evaluating, allowing design teams to develop fit for purpose solutions, faster, with a continuous improvement mindset.

Follow an idea, trust the process.

Human-centred design

We’ve already mentioned human-centered design in short, but this is another idea popularized by IDEO. It takes the ideas of design thinking and folds in the human element at every point. It ensures that a desire for a sleek product or other goals do not supercede the needs of the human.  

Born around 1990’s Learning Sciences is an interdisciplinary field that looks to progress scientific, humanistic and critical theoretical understanding of learning. It involves researching and testing learning in real world situations, guided by constructivist, social-constructivist, socio-cognitive, and socio-cultural theories of learning. The same way the field of Learning Science gives particular attention to improving education through the study, learning design gives particular attention to whether or not the learning solution develops meets the projects desired goals/outcomes. Research-validated practices are the ultimate goal. However in some instances “research” can be more or less formal, frequent, and elaborate.

There are an array of theories and methods used to teach learners. However it’s important for educators to focus on the purpose and intentionality of the method chosen at the time of teaching, not the quantity of methods they use. Sound pedagogical practices are selected according to the teacher’s beliefs, the needs of the learner, and the demands of the activity. Some examples are Modeling , Inquiry-Based Learning , Guided Interaction and Metacognition . Our Learning Design Studio has created a library of Pedagogical Practices with a curation of most commonly used practices that are thought to be the most effective and more often requested/demanded by clients. Having a publicly available library enables our team to have consistent and accurate understanding of such practices, a way to inform their learning design and resource to explain pedagogical practices.

“Curriculum development should always come after, and be guided by, the development of a mission, a strategic direction, and desired learning outcomes for each degree”. One of the things we put most attention to is the development of Learning Objectives. You would be surprised with how many times Learning Objectives are overlooked or developed just because it’s one of those things teachers need to do. “Learning Objective” is a very loaded term and is mostly used as a communication tool between the course developer and the university. Often times the way these objectives are written aren't useful for creating online lessons –they focus on highlighting the overarching concepts learners need to 'understand' rather than specifying what they actually need to be able to do to demonstrate an understanding of these concepts."

Through learning design we encourage instructors to think about SMART(TT) Learning Outcomes:

Background Design

Backward Design challenges "traditional" design approaches because it involves setting goals, then thinking about how these will be assessed, and lastly choosing or developing the instructional method and activity needed. Backward Design involves 3 phases:

It is not uncommon however for educators to think about how they want to teach a concept, rather that if it’s possible to measure understanding through that specific activity. Luckily newer and more advanced technologies provide very granular learner data, and similar to Backward Design, Learning design encourages teams to plan and design for the data they want to track when creating a learning experience. This will ensure you have what you need to check learner competency, run a blended class, or to further iterate on your existing lesson design.

Data Driven Design

As we enter the decade of big data, data-driven design is becoming more commonly used, with virtually every sector leaning heavily on data when making decisions, including design decisions. Some learn-teach tools like Smart Sparrow provide extensive data points and insights into how learners learn, how they’re interacting with the content, what misconceptions they have, flaws in your content and more. Data is very powerful in that it gives instructors control over evaluating the effectiveness of the lesson and it’s design, including deciding the right changes to make for refinement for the next cohort –the hallmark of iterative design.

Collaborative problem solving is about people working together, face-to-face or in an online environment, with a focus to collectively solve real world problems. The members of the group/team often share a common concern or have a similar passion and have the same level of commitment to the work. It’s thanks to sharing their personal expertise, experiences, tools, and methods that this approach is so valuable to instructional designers. With the advent of technologies, the creation of learning experiences has become a team sport where instructors, subject matter experts, UX designers, graphic designers, developers collaborate. Some institutions have already started hiring such production teams; whilst others still rely on external companies to do so. The Smart Sparrow Studio comprises of people from various backgrounds, mindsets and (of course) specializations which helps in bringing diversity, perspective and unbiased approach to our work.

Learner-Centred Design at Smart Sparrow

At Smart Sparrow we work really hard to create space for creativity and exploration, in order to produce extraordinary work. We know now that designing for the digital medium is not like designing for face-to-face, hence it’s important to follow a process fit for purpose. In addition we embed a philosophy into our courseware design & production process and hence view our process as a set of guidelines. Below are the main 8 stages of a process what has yielded great outcomes for us.

8 stages of a process what has yielded great outcomes for the Smart Sparrow Studio when creating digital learning experiences.

A field guide to Design Thinking

Human-centered design is a practical, repeatable approach to arriving at innovative solutions. Explore this step-by-step guide to unleash your creativity, putting the people you serve at the center of your design process.

Reimagining Learning

Richard Culatta suggests how a shift to personalized learning is the key to the future of education in America. To make this shift, we must close the digital divide between those who can leverage technology to reimagine learning and those who simply use technology to digitize the status quo.

Here Comes: The Learning Designer

Eli's talk will indeed spark a controversial debate among national and International curriculum designers, educators, teachers, and educational books' writers. He will be sharing an innovative learning philosophy put into practice.

What If? Let's Reimagine Learning. Technology Can Help.

In your home, your school, and your workplace...you are a learner. What do you want to learn? Who do you want to be connected to? What can technology make possible for you?

Learner-centred design and technology

Technology is rapidly changing the way that we learn and teach. There are a range of tools at our disposal- new features are made available constantly and new tools are developed yearly –the landscape is getting more crowded. In recent years, there have been multiple attempts to explicate this software ecosystem, below is an attempt by Navitas, to bucket tools depending on the stage of the learning lifecycle they were designed for and impact. And it gets more complex, this graph doesn’t include the tools Graphic Designers, UX Designers, Software Developers use.  

Virtual field trip of the California State University East Bay campus

At the end of the day the right technology for instructional design teams (aka courseware development teams) is a versatile and powerful tool that enables the creation of high-quality digital learning experiences that are beautiful, seamless, engaging and personal. Whole courseware development teams (Subject Matter Experts, User Experience Designers and Developers) should be able to collaborate in one single place, moving efficiently and speedily from concept to delivery. They should have the tools, themes, templates and system architecture in place to accelerate the development and innovation of the learning solutions they design and create. At Smart Sparrow, we believe learning design challenges technology to innovate, and the right technology inspires new possibilities in online learning and assessment. At the end of the day if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So if courseware development teams want to improve the quality of online learning experiences, they must think deeply about the type of tools they use. The quality of digital instruction is the new basis of great learning experiences. 95% of universities plan to launch fully online degree programs by 2020 — which will compete nationally, if not globally. What exactly will institutions compete on? Price? No, that will simply lead to a-race-to- the-bottom price war. Universities are slowly looking to invest time and resources on delivering a superior learning experience that leads to higher completion and stronger outcomes. (Eduventures, 2017). With the right design processes, pedagogy, and technology, teams can design high-quality online learning experiences that meet the affordances of the digital medium — and that will guide a path to improved learning and online program success.

Explore the power of Learning Design to create amazing learning experiences

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21st century learning design

21st Century Learning Design (21CLD) for Educators is a collection of eight modules. The learning path provides educators with clear and practical ways to develop 21st skills using digital technologies with their learners. 21st Century Learning Design for Educators builds on the research methodology providing a collaborative, practice-based process to help educators transform how they design enriching learning activities for their learners. The complete series of eight courses consists of videos, reading materials, rubrics for each dimension, and anchor lessons. Educators can actively participate by coding anchor lessons and redesigning their learning activities according to the 21CLD rubrics.

Learning objectives


Modules in this learning path, transform learning with 21st century learning design.

Understand the concept of 21st century learning design. Explore learning in the 21st century and innovative teaching practices that support the development of 21st century skills.

Develop critical thinking skills with the 21CLD knowledge construction dimension

This module introduces educators to the dimension of knowledge construction which helps learners build deep knowledge that they can transfer and apply in practice.

Practice collaborative skills with the 21CLD collaboration dimension

This module helps educators design learning activities for learners to develop collaboration skills. It introduces the levels of collaboration: sharing responsibility, making substantive decisions together, and working interdependently.

Innovate learning with the 21CLD real-world problem solving and innovation dimension

This module defines real-world problem solving for educators and explains the dimensions that must be present in such classroom activities to prepare learners with 21st century skills.

Improve communication skills with the 21CLD skilled communication dimension

This module introduces the concept of skilled communication to educators and supports them in designing learning activities to help young people develop this important skill.

Develop learner executive function with the 21CLD self-regulation dimension

This module introduces the concept of self-regulation and teaches educators how to design learning activities to help learners develop this important skill.

Deepen educational experiences with the 21CLD ICT for learning dimension

This module highlights for educators the need to use information and communication technologies (ICT) to transform learning experiences and create and design new information and ICT products.

Embed 21st century skills with 21st century learning design

Implement 21st century skills and learning into classes using 21CLD for lesson design. Practical activities help educators reflect on their practice and that of other educators.

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Educational Technology pp 125–147 Cite as

Designing Learning Activities and Instructional Systems

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Part of the Lecture Notes in Educational Technology book series (LNET)

In this chapter, the focus will be first on some general principles of learning activities design and then on principles to consider when designing instructional systems.

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learning activities designing

Adapted from Branch ( 2009 )

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University of North Texas, Denton, TX, USA

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Huang, R., Spector, J.M., Yang, J. (2019). Designing Learning Activities and Instructional Systems. In: Educational Technology. Lecture Notes in Educational Technology. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-6643-7_8

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How to design unforgettable class activities that help students learn better

Jonathan Sim shares teaching techniques designed to pique the emotions as a way to lodge key lessons more firmly in students’ memories

Jonathan Sim's avatar

Jonathan Sim

Designing teaching activities which trigger an emotional response making key lessons easier to remember

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A problematic trend I notice when conversing with students is how many of them struggle to remember what they did in modules from previous semesters.

These discussions got me thinking about how to design learning activities that are unforgettable. Albert Einstein, among other figures credited with the quote, famously said that “education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school”. I want to ensure my students remember what they have learned from me, especially after all the hard work they put into the course.

So, I began experimenting with techniques that I used as a student. I had a very unorthodox method that was inspired by the comedian and counsellor Mark Gungor. He said that if you take an event and attach a strong emotion to it, that event will be seared into your memory for good. I applied this principle to my learning and created jokes for everything I wanted to remember. The funnier the joke, the stronger the emotion, and the better my memory of it.

Activities to reinforce learning

I thought it would be interesting to apply this approach to my teaching, regardless of whether it was through a quiz, a group project or a tutorial activity. So, every learning activity I created came packaged with its own scenario. The more fun the scenario, or the more shocking the conclusion, the better the students remembered the learning points and their efforts to achieve it.

I can tell how effective this approach has been when students consult me for help. Instead of explaining the concept, I can just invoke the name of the relevant learning activity. For example, I could say: “Do you remember how you found the spy in the ‘Who’s the spy?’ activity?” Immediately, students light up as they recall the concept or what they did.

Engaging the imagination

This is not the only ingredient for making learning activities unforgettable. The other reason I create fictitious scenarios and situate learning activities in them is that it provides fertile soil for the students’ imagination. This is particularly powerful when we invite them to role-play. There, students step out of their identities to be someone else – which enables them to have more fun learning.

This works well for group projects and discussions, where students within the group may differ in abilities and competencies. Fast learners may not feel a need to help their slower counterparts, and slower learners may be too embarrassed to seek help. In the context of the role-play, learners unite around a common mission to solve a problem and save the day.

This group mission prompts learners to emotionally invest themselves into the topic and to collaborate with each other in order to solve the problem. Given the chance to temporarily be someone else, students can put aside the stress that they often impose on themselves and have fun. As someone else, students are more inclined to engage in peer teaching and learning with each other. They can contribute their own insights and help one another out if they find themselves lost without additional prompting. This helps to reinforce the culture of collaboration that we try to foster in the module.

Difficulty and challenge

However, there is another issue. If we design activities meant for stronger students, the weaker students will feel lost and disengage from the class. If we design for the weaker students, stronger students will complete the task quickly on their own, become bored and disengage from the class.

To solve this conundrum, I found it effective to borrow two categories from game design: “difficulty” and “challenge”. A problem can have a low difficulty, or be easy, but be challenging or it can be difficult but not challenging at all.

A problem is difficult when it is hard to accomplish, and it depends very much on the learner’s ability to succeed. A sharp learner, for example, may not struggle much with a difficult problem, but a slower learner may feel lost and be unable to solve the problem unless someone steps in.

On the other hand, a problem is challenging when it requires effort rather than ability to solve it. Hence, a challenging-yet-easy problem can be solved by both fast and slower learners, and they will both need to work hard to find the solution since the answer is not immediately achievable.

With these categories in mind, we can design learning activities that have low difficulty but are still challenging enough for stronger students. This is achieved by providing just enough scaffolding and guiding resources, such as a Q&A resource page, that weaker students can refer to for help. This mirrors the way computer games leave clues and hints lying around.

For formative activities, I calibrate them to be easy yet challenging. In my course, this means that someone who has just learned Microsoft Excel will be able to solve the problem even with minimal experience. But it is challenging in a sense that the most experienced Excel user will not find the answer immediately and will have to work towards the answer, too.

For summative assessments, I will calibrate them to be just as challenging but with a higher difficulty level. There will be fewer scaffolds and guiding resources available. I typically pick out scenarios without clear answers, and so students have to talk within their groups to convince themselves of the right solutions.

Satisfaction and shock

The greater the challenge of the activity, the more we must ensure that students find the activity satisfying, as a reward for completing the challenge. Some activities are satisfying once the learner completes them. But sometimes the satisfaction may not be enough. To combat this, I usually test these activities with my teaching assistants, who are all undergraduates. I observe their behaviour and note their feedback for improvement.

Role-playing is useful in augmenting satisfaction levels. Depending on the assigned scenario, accomplishing the task can leave students feeling as if they’ve just solved one of humanity’s greatest dilemmas or that they have made the world a better place with their solution.

Sometimes, we can conclude the activity with a shocking revelation or a mind-blowing learning point that they least expect. For example, in one of my learning activities, students are tasked to develop an allocation algorithm to enrol children for a special learning programme with limited slots. Students feel incredibly accomplished finding the solution. However, when we get them to reflect on their solution, students soon discover that they had unintentionally prioritised children from more privileged backgrounds.

Like a plot twist in a movie, the students’ sense of accomplishment is almost immediately replaced with shock as they realise how their solution perpetuates inequality. This has a profound impact on them, making them more cautious about such issues when they carry out subsequent exercises.

These learning activities may be somewhat theatrical. But they help in generating strong emotions, which helps to sear the learning deep into students’ memories.

The result: an unforgettable learning experience. I stay in touch with many former students from two years ago and they still fondly remember various activities and learning points from the module. I believe this is an education that Einstein would be proud of.

Jonathan Y. H. Sim is an instructor in the department of philosophy at the  National University of Singapore .

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Step 3: Plan your instructional activities

Once you have made headway in determining what assessments will work in your flexible or online course, think about how you will design your instructional activities (or your students' learning activities) to give students the knowledge and skills they will need to perform well. Stay centered on the skills and concepts you want students to acquire through those activities, and how they will help students suceed on the assessments.

Begin by reflecting on:

​Once you have identified the types of practice and learning experiences you would like to implement, you will need to address how to implement them online and in flexible ways. As suggested in the  introductory section of this guidebook ,  design   each course element for an online environment , even though you may plan to implement that component in person. That way, you already have a way for students who miss class for a day or a larger part of a semester to complete the work. Use online activities to "book-end" the in-person activities so that students who do have to miss class have a ready-made way of being involved in the discussion.  The upfront time to plan in this way will save you time and grief later in the semester. It is almost always easier to transfer online course material to a physical class session than to transfer classroom material online, especially at the last minute. The goal is to design one, flexible class, rather than two classes offered simultaneously! 

General considerations

Reenvisioning learning activities for online.

Online teaching requires a different mindset from classroom teaching, but done well, it can be just as effective and engaging as in-person teaching. It involves thinking about teaching and learning in a slightly different way.

How do I decide whether to use real-time online activities?

This page here  describes the pros and cons of synchronous and asynchronous online activties, and provides recommendations for deciding the best balance for your course. 

Deciding what to do with in-person time

Planning class time will involve thinking through the sorts of learning activities that can be carried out in a physically distanced classroom and the relationship between face-to-face activities and the learning activities completed online. 

What sorts of learning activities will work best in a physically distanced classroom?

With students in masks and physically distanced from one another, it may be difficult to envision how to make use of your in-person time with students. Here is some information from a  simulation of socially distanced classrooms,  as part of a video shoot. This video on the Protect KU website  illustrates what campus activity and student and instructor movement in and out of classrooms will look like this fall. 

We are currently running experiments of specific instructional practices in classrooms. There are ways to use the structure and immediacy of class time even under these conditons.  Based on these principles and the initial simulation, consider the following types of activities: 

Organizing alternating cohort schedules

Some in-person courses are organized around an hybrid alternating cohort schedule in order to meet social distancing requirements. For instance, for a T/TH schedule, one cohort of student attends class in-person on Tuesday and the other cohort attends in-person on Thursday.  In addition to deciding what to do with your in-person time with students, you will also need to decide what students will do on the alternate (online) days. These four questions can help you think through the issues:

Models for Organizing Hybrid Courses with Alternating Cohorts

Models vary on two major dimensions: (1) HOW students participate in instructional activities on the online day (joining the in-person class session for the other cohort, interacting with a GTA or discussion leader, interacting with other peers in their same cohort, or working on learning activities on their own) and (2) WHEN that participation is scheduled (either asynchronously or at the regularly scheduled class time). These dimensions, in turn, have implications for whether the same instructional activities are carried out in each in-person class session or whether each class session moves to new activities and content. The following models describe different ways of handling students' online learning time. 

Model 1 (Traditional Hybrid Model). Asynchronous Online Activities . In this model, on their "online day," students complete asynchronous online learning activities, and attend class in-person on the classroom day.  On the online day, students participate in online or out-of-class learning activities (e.g., through Blackboard, Teams, or another platform), such as discussions, reading, watching videos, or collaborative work.

Model 2. Synchronous Online Activities. Like the most common form of Model 1, the activities of the classroom day are the same across all cohorts. Unlike Model 1, however, you use the scheduled class time on the alternate day to structure your students' out of classroom time. During regularly scheduled class time, students work together on learning activities (e.g., using their own meetings via Zoom, Teams, or phone), but do not interact with the instructor or classmates in other cohort who are concurrently meeting in-person in the classroom. 

Model 3. Synchronous Discussion, Lab, or Supplemental Instruction . During regularly scheduled class time, students interact (online) with a GTA or an undergraduate peer mentor or learning assistant, other discussion group leader, by participating in a separate online live session for their cohort. This could include a discussion session, a "lab," a drop-in Q&A or office hours session, or one-on-one consultations between students and instructiontal staff. In this model:

Model 4. Synchronous Remote. In this model all students are on the same schedule in terms of core learning activities, but one cohort participates in the activities in person and the other online (either synchronously, such as zooming in for a lecture or discussion). The modality (in-person or online) then switches the following class period. During regularly scheduled class time, students use Zoom or Teams to join the in-person class remotely. In this model:

​Have you developed an approach that doesn't fit one of these categories that you'd like to share? Email us at [email protected] with your plan!

Frequently asked questions about alternating cohorts: 

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