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Category: Course Design

We learn best by returning to the same content over and over, reflecting on it each time to deepen our understanding. This is because knowledge is stored as patterns of neuroconnections in the brain, and those connections are strengthened each time that pattern is activated by using the knowledge. Thus, “retrieval practice” hardens the learner’s knowledge, making for greater retention. It also allows the learner to see new connections between the knowledge and related knowledge, which expands and deepens their understanding.

Unfortunately, as teachers, too often we go over content once and assume that students must have it for good. But given how much effort it takes to build connections and how easily the information is lost, giving students less content but more interactions with it will generate better learning. Moreover, the interactions will direct students to what is important in the content.


A simple way to add interactions to an online course is to break the content into smaller chunks and have students answer one or two questions after each chunk using the learning management system’s (LMS’s) quiz function. But we can go one step further by using one of the many apps that have been developed to create visual interactions within an LMS. These interactions are more kinetic in that they require students to open things, shut them, or more them around. They allow for more applied thinking, and the act of moving elements helps inscribe the information into memory.

An accordion interaction presents the user with a vertical list of terms. When clicked, each opens a piece of content (text, an image, a video, etc.).

Screen showing accordion menu that begins, "Learn about the Netherlands," displaying full text from that item. Other menu items (collapsed): Etymology, Geography, Politics, Government, Economy, Demographics, Culture
Figure 1. Accordion example from H5P

This can be used for a “Who am I?” interaction where students open each item in the list to get information about something covered in the content. The goal is to guess what that thing is with as few hints as possible. If the answer is “The Human Genome Project,” the first hint might be “I was led by James Watson,” while the second hint might be “I was funded by the Department of Energy,” and so on.

A drag-and-drop interaction presents students with a variety of items that they need to match with other items by dragging them across the screen. Many people merely put a list of labels on one side and their descriptions on another, but there are more interesting options, such as moving images of paintings to descriptions of the style that they represent. See the example below, used to teach how to identify cell types from their shapes. Students drag the cell image to the circle with its type (Figure 2), and when they get it right, the system opens a further description of the cell (Figure 3).

Screen titled "Types of Bacteria." Instructions: "Drag the image of each type of bacteria to the circle with its corresponding name. This will click the image to the circle and open a pop-up. The photo will only attach to the correct circle. Click the shadow image left behind to see the pop-up with information again." Bacteria types listed: coccus, coccobacillus, bacillus, spirillum, vibrio, and spirochete.
Figure 2. Drag-and-drop example made with H5P

Same screen as Figure 2, but with new text indicating match between image and name of bacteria type coccus. Text reads: "Coccus: A coccus (plural cocci) is any bacterium or archaeon that has a spherical, ovoid, or generally round shape."
Figure 3. Drag-and-drop example made with H5P

An image hotspot interaction presents students with one or more images and a question that requires them to click on a part of an image or multiple images to answer. A geology course might offer multiple geological formations and ask students to click those that show a certain type that they just studied, or it might present a single image and ask student to click the part of it that represents a certain type of formation. The example below presents the user with a variety of food types and asks them to click on all the vegetables.

Screen displaying clickable images of various fruits and vegetables. Instructions state: "Find all the vegetables in this picture." Broccoli and carrots have check marks; text at bottom of screen reads, "Great job, you have found 2 of 2 vegetables."
Figure 4. Image hotspot example from H5P

H5P, NearPod, and Articulate Storyline and Rise are all good systems for creating these and many more types of interactions. Some allow for more complex simulations involving stories and branching scenarios. Each has been examined in depth in prior Teaching Professor articles. Click the links to learn more.

Whether interactions are simple or complex, the important takeaway is that we can provide better learning by avoiding a “content dump” mentality and instead focusing on interactions that allow students to engage with that content in different ways.