Five Course Design Tricks to Maximize Learning, Creativity, Engagement (EDUCAUSE 2015)

On October 19th I was invited to present at a widely renowned national conference called EDUCAUSE. EDUCAUSE brings together higher education professionals, leaders, IT providers, administrators, faculty, and some of the most brilliant minds in the field.

My topic? Five Online Course Design Tricks to Maximize Learning, Creativity, Engagement.

Universal Design for Learning is a framework for designing learning experiences that meet the diverse needs of a wide variety of learners, including those with disabilities. Happily, when you design with those diverse needs in mind the experience of every student will be improved. The result will be increased learning, creativity, and engagement.

For an 8 AM session I had a large and engaged audience who were eager to share their ideas, impressions, and takeaways. At the end of the session, participants were invited to tweet at least one thing they would do now based on the presentation. Check out the hashtag #myUDL to see their responses. Below are some highlights:

Now I will:

  • @maggiericci says, “Check out the personas on”
  • @dancinjul says, “Create accessible templates”.
  • @maggiericci says, “Start the UDL conversation really early and make it positive, not apologetic.”
  • @CharleyButcher says, “Give students different ways to demonstrate their mastery of outcomes.”

Have UDL ideas of your own? Feel free to use #myUDL and share!

Want to join the conversation virtually or in person at the next UDL/Accessibility Think Tank at Ohio State? Register here.

Cultivating Academic Mindsets in the Online Classroom

In a recent article, “Beyond Knowing Facts, How Do We Get to a Deeper Level of Learning?”, Katrina Schwartz, journalist at MindShift, discusses the growing emphasis on depth of learning over breadth of learning. Rather than memorizing facts, the focus is shifting toward a rich learning experience that encourages students to dig deeply into the concepts.

One necessary element for deep learning is to have an academic mindset. This is perhaps one of the larger challenges educators face – getting a student who isn’t motivated to learn on a deep level. In a physical classroom this manifests with an indifferent facial expression, slouching, distraction, or lack of attendance. In the online classroom this can be harder to spot but could appear as work that just meets the requirements, lack of critical thought, minimal engagement in group work or virtual discussions, etc. At the end of the day, students must have an inner-drive in order to learn and educators must be the ones to inspire that drive. This boils down to cultivating an academic mindset.

Schwartz mentions four key beliefs students must hold to learn on a deep level. When I initially read these, I was shocked at their simplicity and saddened that some students may be lacking in these beliefs.

I can change my intelligence and abilities through effort.

When considering this, it occurs to me that many students in higher ed today grew up in the age of the “standardized test”. I can recall taking the California Achievement Test when I was in elementary school and reviewing my results, which measured me against my peers across the nation. What is the potential outcome of children raised in this era? Perhaps instead of taking ownership and believing that they can impact their destiny, they may instead become helpless victims and begin to accept that they aren’t meant to be shining stars in this world.

What can we do to support students believing that they can change their intelligence and abilities through effort?

  • Offer opportunities in the curriculum for students to reflect and acknowledge their progress throughout the course.
  • Provide learning activities that help scaffold and prepare students for assessments so that they feel supported in their growth.
  • Let your students know that you believe in them through personal messages and concrete feedback that lends itself to highlighting positives and areas for growth.

I can succeed.

Imagine being a student entering a class and knowing that, like all of the courses that came before, the chances of being successful are minimal. Students don’t enter Kindergarten believing that they cannot succeed. They learn this through experience.

What can we do to encourage students to believe that they can, in fact, succeed?

  • Give students multiple means of expressing what they have learned. Some students are strong writers while others may be strong in oral communication. Give students options so that they can choose the modality that best suits their strengths.
  • Provide multiple ways for students to interact with the content in the course. While some students may learn best through reading, others may prefer to watch a video or manipulate an object. Providing multiple opportunities can allow students to interact in a way that best suits their learning needs.
  • Give students the chance to support each other through peer review or coaching, thereby giving every student the chance to help each other and to partake in “teachable moments”.

I belong in this learning community.

As educators in a physical classroom, there is always a student or two who sit in the back and do not participate. In an online classroom this occurs in different ways. In an online classroom, students who don’t think they belong are probably coming in with the ghosts of past failures holding them back. They may not have participated in a positive learning environment in the past where they felt free to express their thoughts on a personal level or to connect meaningfully with their classmates.

What can we do to encourage students to believe they belong?

  • Provide ample opportunities for students to connect with each other in meaningful ways around the content or around the experience of being a student in general. This could take shape in a discussion forum or a wiki space.
  • Highlight students who have done great work by encouraging other students to visit their discussion post or by making a class announcement that emphasizes the good work of those in the class.

Provide opportunities for group projects that have defined roles established, allowing each student to contribute in his or her unique way.

This work has value and purpose for me.

Perhaps one of the challenges of higher education today is to shift from memorization and information overload to helping students see how what they are learning is professionally relevant. In the past, many took the stance of “you will learn this because it’s in the textbook” or “because I say this is important”. In the world we live in today, that is not enough. Students have to be able to see the value of what they are learning to engage on a deep level.

What can we do to help students see the value and purpose of the course?

  • Find professionally relevant ways for students to express what they have learned. This may mean stepping back from the standard written paper and exploring other more relevant avenues like a business proposal, a video presentation, an article, a blog site, etc.
  • Integrate context into assignments that illustrates the connection between the assignment, the course outcomes, and the profession as a whole. Be transparent.
  • Use case studies that give students an opportunity to consider a real life scenario and take it apart using the new knowledge presented in the course.

As we help to encourage these academic mindsets we aren’t just engaging students with one course, we are changing the way they view themselves as learners and empowering them to have ownership of their progress and to see that engaging the mind is like working a muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it will become.


Schwartz, K. (2014, February 28). Beyond knowing facts, how do we get to a deeper level of learning? MindShift. Retrieved from