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Author: Cecile G. Paskett and Qin Li

Colors of different stripes to illustrate color-coding course design strategy

Most instructors and instructional designers are already familiar with the basics of developing well-aligned, robust course designs, such as writing measurable course objectives using action verbs to clearly describe what students will know, do, practice, or apply; aligning tools and technologies to the learning objectives they facilitate; and choosing sufficient assessment formats and tools to keep students engaged without overloading (and overwhelming) them. Nevertheless, you may wonder what you can do to better apply these principles and produce better-quality course designs. Below, we outline document and color-coding strategies that you can use to do just that.

Utility of course development documents in design

Course objectives describe the skills, abilities, attributes, and attitudes that you desire students to develop or acquire through the learning process. Typically, these objectives appear on the course syllabus and serve as the foundation for the course design. 

To facilitate the alignment of your objectives and assessments, you may want to use an alignment grid. The grid can help identify gaps or redundancies by allowing you to visually place your high-stakes, summative assessments and low-stakes, formative activities alongside your course objectives. An example of an alignment grid we use is below.

This alignment grid is most useful for prototyping assessments and activities because it provides a clear snapshot of how each relates to the other as well as to the objectives. But when it comes to the remaining course content—such as lecture videos, required readings, and supplementary resources—you may want to use another document to better organize this information. We use the content map, which allows us to sequence all the course components as they will appear throughout the semester.

While these documents are useful for organizing and aligning course components, they have their downsides. To some people, they feel like busywork as they are often completed at the start of course design and infrequently revisited later in the process. As a result, the documents may not succeed in creating fully aligned, holistic course designs, and faculty and instructional designers perceive them as obstacles to quickly overcome.

In our experience, these design documents are most powerful when used throughout the course development and as a foundation to develop semester resources for both students and instructors. While there are multiple strategies you could employ to facilitate this, our favorite is to color-code these design documents as you can use color to not only improve alignment but also creatively generate a variety of supplementary resources useful to teaching.

Color coding for better alignment

Color coding is a great trick for spotting misalignment between objectives and assessments. This strategy is especially useful when collaborating with multiple people, as when an instructional designer works with a subject matter expert or two instructors collaborate on a single course. By adding colors to your objectives and assessments, you can quickly communicate alignment and any identified gaps to your teaching partners.

While there are many different approaches you could take to color coding, we find it helpful to code action verbs in the objectives according to the type of learning they demonstrate. You could do this using Bloom’s (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001), Fink’s (2013), or any other learning taxonomy. In the example below, we’ve coded the objectives using the learning types described in the University of Utah’s Learning Experience Design Cards.

Once you have applied colors to your objectives, you can add codes next to each assessment and activity. Each will often have more than one code as they help capture students’ performance across multiple objectives. This is especially true for high-stakes, summative assessments. It is also common for assessments and activities to appear multiple times on the grid to demonstrate their alignment to multiple objectives, as shown below.

Color-coding the assessments to course objectives can be applied further. The grid provides a high-level, semester-focused snapshot of the course alignment, while the content map drills down to a week-by-week view. As a result, you can further apply the color codes to align specific module activities to not only the course objectives but also their intended weekly outcomes. Additionally, the colors demonstrate how they relate to the course objectives, as shown in the updated content map below.

As you may have already noticed, the codes on these documents reveal gaps. While two assessments and two activities are coded in the pink reflection learning type code, pink is mostly missing from the objectives and outcomes. This is an obvious indicator of misalignment, suggesting that you should further evaluate and adjust the assessments, activities, and objectives so they fully relate to each other. Thus, color coding gives you the opportunity to avoid assessing skills not communicated in the course objectives, which is counter to teaching transparency and learning best practices. Doing so will give your students a better chance to strategize their learning efforts.

Transform your design into teaching tools

One benefit of color-coded course development documents is that you can transform them into various visual resources to help students. These graphics can help learners better understand the course structure, the relationships between assignments, and the connections between assessments and concepts. This improved understanding will not only help them develop their metacognitive skills (by allowing them to view and assess the learning strategy underpinning the course) but also reduce complaints about busywork as students will better recognize how assessments build on each other as they facilitate mastery of the course objectives.

There are myriad resources you could generate from the course development documents. Here are three of our favorites.

Assignment relationship map

This map visualizes the overall sequence of semester assessments and activities as well as demonstrates how they build upon or relate to each other.

Assignment road maps

Assignment road maps illustrate the sequence of assessments in a course module or unit. They can be especially useful in online courses because they provide students with a visual to-do list, giving them the context and structure to better tackle module activities in the absence of an on-site instructor.

Syllabus

You can also add the assignment relationship map and road maps to the course syllabus, along with any other visual resources you think will help students better grasp what is required of them over the semester. If you do so, it would be helpful to code the course objectives on the syllabus in a way that is easy for the students to grasp. This coding will get them to better understand the assessment-objective alignment.

Table showing color-coded course objectives. Objective 1: "Students will identify and explore contemporary media and media technologies." Corresponding skills: Comprehending (yellow) and Caring (red). Objective 2: "Students will explores how media transmit information and misinformation, analyze what implications this has for the news, and distinguish between the two." Skills: Analyzing (blue), Applying (light green), Caring  (red). Objective 3: "Students will develop and apply a personal code of ethics to solve ethical problems of media production." Skills: Applying (light green), Forming (dark green).

Useful for both design and teaching, these strategies both strengthen alignment and communicate that alignment to others. Best of all, their flexibility means instructors and course designers can adopt and modify them to suit their own design methodologies and unique course contexts. Consider applying them if you think they might give life to dry documentation or, better yet, offer you a fresh design perspective.

References

Anderson, L. W. and Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. Longman.

Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons.


Cecile G. Paskett, PhD, is a senior instructional designer (online programs) in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. She earned her honors BA in Latin American and Caribbean studies from McGill University and both her MA and PhD in communication from the University of Utah.

Qin Li, PhD, senior learning experience designer and researcher at Digital Learning at the University of Utah, holds a PhD in instructional technology. She has more than 15 years of experience working with higher education faculty. She has a passion for enhancing learning via learning experience design grounded in research.