Organizing a Course

“Through others we become ourselves.” ― Lev S. Vygotsky

Content, assessments and resources are arranged into modules that support student learning through scaffolding and chunking.

A key concern in organizing a course is to determine the order of topics. Course designers must identify the learning opportunities to be employed and when in the teaching and learning sequence topics or concepts should be mastered. Two important strategies in organizing courses have been identified: chunking and scaffolding.

Chunking is breaking up course materials into absorbable pieces of information. The concept of chunking is based upon the Magic Rule of 7 (Miller, 1956). The model describes the maximum quantity of ideas, facts, or issues that people are able to give attention to and retain at any one time. Research on student attention span limits the amount of time learners can focus on a lecture or presentation to about twenty minutes (Middendorf and Kalish, 1996).

Given these human limitations, it is advisable to narrow the scope and specificity of content and limit the duration of information into chunks. These chunks of information should be separated by activities and interactions and should vary in their delivery modes (audio, video, text). Short assessments of various kinds (quizzes, discussion prompts, surveys) will provide opportunities for interactivity as well as break up material into manageable bits.

Scaffolding is assistance provided offered by the instructor or peer to support learning. When considering a new concept, skill or task, the instructor assists students with those components beyond the student’s current level of ability or understanding. The instructor allows the student to complete as much of the task as possible without assistance then steps in to help with elements just beyond the students current ability. Space and tolerance for student errors must be present and the instructor must provide prompting and feedback. As the student approaches mastery, the instructor “fades” (the gradual removal of the scaffold) and the student can proceed independently.

Scaffolding is closely related to the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) which is between what a student knows and what a student can potentially know. When organizing course content into modules, it is important to consider strategies to support students as they move along a continuum of expertise.

This will involve organizing content and arranging learning opportunities to support student mastery rather than fit into disciplinary structures and orders (chronological order, cultural movements or chapters in the text). These pre-existing structures may not be the most ideal methods of organizing content into modules.

Further Reading

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Middendorf, J., & Kalish, A. (1996). The “change-up” in lectures, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, 5(2), 1-5.

Miller, G. A. (1956), The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review 63 (2): 343–355






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