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Category: Course Design

A book lies open on the keyboard of an open laptop

The format of face-to-face education encourages “big-block” course design. Faculty are assigned one to three classes per week, each between 50 minutes and three hours long, and those become the atom units of planning. They devote most classes to delivering learning content as lectures and a few exams measuring how much of that content students caught. This big-block thinking was then carried over into online course design, with course designers creating long online lectures as video or text followed by a couple of hours of reading.

But this big-block format mentality violates fundamental principles of learning. When encountering new information, the human mind first stores that information in its working memory, which can hold only four to five discrete items at once (Oakley & Sejnowski, 2018). Once working memory is full, any new items need to kick out an old one to make room for it, and so that old information is lost. In this way the traditional lecture is akin to loading luggage on one end of a conveyer belt only to have it fall off the other.

It is important to understand that this structure was not adopted for any pedagogical reason. It was adopted out of necessity: to coordinate large groups of students and faculty on a physical campus to minimize scheduling conflicts and maximize limited classroom space. But, of course, there is no reason to adopt big-block thinking in online education. MOOCs were designed outside of higher education starting from the neurology of learning, not traditional class structure, and thus do not apply big-block design. MOOC content is divided into smaller chunks with interactions to allow students to move information from their working to long-term memory. Course developers will significantly improve student understanding and retention by applying the same small-block structure to their own online courses.

Small-block course design

The easiest way to implement small-block course design is to take the big blocks and break them into chunks. For instance, a 50-minute “lecture” video can be broken into five 10-minute segments. But this alone will not help if students are expected to simply watch all five videos in sequence. Students need to be asked to think about each piece of content immediately after encountering it so they can move it to their long-term memory. This can be as simple as having students answer one or two questions after each video. These questions need not be at the upper levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, such as creation and evaluation. At this point they can be simple recall questions about information to improve retention, with later assessments used to generate and measure higher-level thinking based on that information.

Faculty can also load the videos into systems such as PlayPosit and EdPuzzle, which allow for preset questions that pause the video and require students to answer before moving on. The instructor can add a question after each important point in the video to ensure that students understand it. These videos can be created by the instructor or found on outside platforms, such as YouTube. Similarly, readings can be broken up into smaller parts with one or two simple questions after each part.

Unfortunately, nearly all learning management systems apply big-block thinking by requiring that questions be delivered within quizzes that are designed to be graded. That makes it awkward to place a single, ungraded question after a piece of content. By contrast, MOOCs are designed for adding individual questions within, or immediately after, learning content. Thus, many course developers use outside tools such as H5P to add in-content questions or interactions to course material.

Small-block discussion

Many faculty complain that students merely repeat each other in different words in discussion forums. But the problem is not with students but rather the questions they are given. Too often students are given assignment prompts meant to test understanding by repeating information from their readings or outside research, and usually there are only a few positions to report in the literature. This means that once the first few students have described the positions, there is nothing left for the others to say.

A more authentic, student-driven way to facilitate discussion is to break the big, single discussion at the end of a module into smaller discussions and attach each to a single piece of course content. That way students have an opportunity to ask questions or post thoughts when those ideas occur to them while going through the content and before they are forgotten later in the week.

These are student-led discussions, and students will quickly jump in to answer each others’ questions. An instructor’s question to a class is not genuine in that it does not express the instructor’s ignorance; they know the answer and are testing students. This is why students see traditional online discussions as just an exercise in giving the instructor what they want to hear for a grade. By contrast, a student’s question about a piece of content is genuine, and just like someone asking us for directions on the street, we are happy to help someone answer their genuine question.

An even better way to couple discussion to content is with systems that integrate the two. For instance, instructors can embed videos into the free VideoAnt, which allows students to post questions or comments directly to videos in a forum that runs alongside the video, thus directing readers to the precise location to which the comment pertains. Readings can be posted to Perusall, which allows students to post questions or comments alongside the reading.

Instead of reproducing the big-block format of face-to-face education, online instructors can produce more learning by breaking up the big blocks into small blocks that integrate content with interaction and discussion. Students gain a deeper and more lasting understanding of course topics when the three activities are bundled together into a mutually supporting exploration of the course topics.


Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. (2018). Learning how to learn. Penguin.