This post is co-authored by Natalija Milanovic, Maddi Newling, Liam Robertson, Tandarra Rothman and Thea Werkhoven.

Designing an online subject to be engaging, meaningful, and have a manageable volume of learning has been a persistent challenge for academics and learning designers, with one common question arising – how much do my students need? It’s a valid and often difficult question to answer with many variables to consider, and we know that there is no one size fits all. 

We took up these issues in our recent PGLD team workshop focusing on alignment, where we brainstormed some strategies to assist in determining the amount of learning in a subject.

Start with the essentials

As learning designers, our first step in answering the question of ‘how much is enough?’ is to understand the type of subject and student cohort we are designing for. In collaboration with academic teams and together, we work out the subject’s key ingredients – the who, what, when, where and why – which we use to map out how to bring it all together.

We know a lot about our students and their needs, which we factor in by ting on their ‘user stories’ as we codesign. We know that our online students are typically working full time and fitting full time study around this. The OPM carousel model of taking one 7-week subject at a time over 6 study periods a year means we must keep student workload front and centre when designing, building and delivering an online subject. We design a subject into modules that students’ progress through, and these modules most often reflect 1 week or ~20 hours of learning, inclusive of readings, workshops, assessment, and any other related learning activity.

1 CP = 20 – 25 hours of learning 
ProductCredit pointsStudent workload
PG.f6CP120-150 hrs total
10 hrs/wk over 12 wks
OPM6CP120-150 hrs total
15-20 hrs/wk over 7 wks
Micros2CP40-50 hrs
5-6 hrs/wk over 8 wks
Short coursesN/AVariable: measured in days or hours
TastersN/A1-2 hrs
Student workloads in different course types.

The principles that underpin the learning design process assist in determining a reasonable volume of learning, where a subject is expected to be aligned to learning outcomes and contain authentic assessment tasks to promote active learning and engagement. Some subjects can satisfy these requirements with a minimalist online learning experience that enables engagement between peers and educators, but may not contain or reflect all aspects of their learning. Others will have intensive modules with frequent activities, learning tools and pedagogical content that contain, and scaffold, all students learning.

Mapping subject topics to learning outcomes is an important process which can naturally guide us to what content requirements might be. Working in partnership with academics, learning designers are skilled at developing suitable structures that make visible the links between outcomes, activities, and assessment. We collaborate on the creation of learning sequences and media assets that introduce concepts, give context around readings, pose questions and provide feedback in a way that ultimately better prepares learners for their assessable task. 

Seeing learning from a student perspective 

How long a student takes to consider information, together with their needs and preferences, and so many other factors, can influence how they will engage with online content. Feedback from students shows that they value learning experiences that are interesting, well laid out, that work properly, and enable them to interact with one another meaningfully (according to the 2022 SFS results). Learning design gives us the means to achieve this and present information in innovative and engaging ways.

A diagram showing three consepts in a cycle - Learning outcomes: What should students know/be able to do?
Assessment tasks: How will learning be measured?
 Learning activities: How will students learn?
A visualisation of the student learning experience. Image from University of Wollongong.

Our approach enables us to identify potential gaps or ‘misalignments’ in knowledge, along with opportunities to create learning experiences that enable student success. It can be helpful when considering this to return to our ‘user stories’ to frame and contextualise e many diverse needs of our learners. We want to try to understand learning from a student perspective, and we often ‘alpha test’ a learning sequence to determine if the stated goals are achievable. Cognitive load is crucial to consider when trying to decide how much is enough or indeed too much. It may be tempting to go the extra mile and provide extra resources or to over-explain rather than under-explain. It’s always good to loop back to your learning outcomes and assess if it critical for your learners to be able to meet those outcomes.

Although it may seem impossible to cater to all student needs, using the skills of learning designers to aid in the structuring of content, and transformation of didactic material into interactive and engaging experiences are all steps in the right direction. 

Take a student-led approach

Whilst deciding how much content to put into a course feels like there should be a formula, unfortunately there isn’t one because learning is not necessarily linear or predictable. However, taking a student-led approach to subject design and ensuring that your online learning experiences align with learning outcomes will allow you to determine what might be extraneous or missing from your subject. 

After all, each time a subject runs there is a golden opportunity to evaluate its performance and most importantly, satisfaction of the teaching and learning experience from both the academic and student perspective.  

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