New websites or applications often become successful in part because their user interfaces need no explanation: A user can visit the website and use it for its intended purpose without needing much assistance. However, if that experience is difficult, it can lead to a lot of frustration, and the user might give up on what they were trying to do in the first place.
It is easy to forget that setting up a course on a learning management system (LMS) is essentially creating a website for students, and that is an important component of creating a student-centered learning experience. Research shows that student-centered teaching, in which an instructor seeks to understand the students and shape the learning experience based on their needs, leads to higher student performance. To that end, a well-structured LMS course designed with students in mind can help students stay on track of their tasks, engage with the course material, communicate with other students and the instructor, and receive timely, helpful feedback. However, an LMS course has just as much potential to hurt student performance as it does to help it. For example, if students need to spend more time trying to figure out where materials are located in the course or what their required tasks are for the week, it wastes precious time that they could otherwise be dedicating to learning. Additionally, instructors may need to devote a significant amount of time responding to frantic emails from students who do not know what to do.
Below are three strategies for creating a more student-centered LMS course:
1. Make all of your content accessible in one place and organize it sequentially.
One of the easiest ways for students to become frustrated while navigating within a course is if the location of materials is unclear. A way to make this straightforward and also mobile-friendly is to make all course content--including readings, PowerPoints, assignments, and quizzes--easily accessible from one place. A best-practice to further organize this content is to present it in a sequential order, usually by week or unit.
A first instinct might be to organize it by type, such as placing all of the readings or quizzes together, but chronological order makes it simple for students to know which materials they need and when. The Modules feature inside of Canvas, for example, makes it very easy to accomplish this. This organization method also allows students to see the progression of the course content and how each piece of material fits into the overarching themes of the course. Additionally, here at Temple University, professors who present content in this way often tell us that they receive less emails from students asking what they have to do for the week and where it’s located in the course. Ultimately, it’s a time-saver for both the instructor and the students.
2. Make all important dates, including due dates, easy to find and accurate.
Inevitably, a few due dates may change over the course of the semester because of circumstances such as inclement weather or shifting lesson plans. If due dates are listed in multiple places across a course, it can be difficult to ensure that they are all up to date, especially if they change. To prevent potentially contradictory dates in a course, it’s a good idea to limit due dates to being listed in just one or two easy-to-find places, or to use features built into the LMS that will update the due dates in multiple places automatically. For example, in Canvas there are a few features that help students stay on top of important dates: The Course Summary on the Syllabus page, which lists all due dates and events created within the course, and the Calendar feature, which can sync all events and due dates seamlessly with a student’s external calendar, such as Google Calendar, iCal, or Outlook. Additionally, after the due date of an assignment or quiz is changed within its respective settings, the due date will automatically update in both the Course Summary and the course’s calendar. This can help ensure that all listed due dates are accurate, and thus students will be able to easily stay on top of their schedule.
3. Update the gradebook regularly to provide quick and helpful feedback.
Research shows that one of the best ways instructors can help students be successful in a course is to give them helpful feedback on their performance so they can keep track of their progress in the class and work to maintain or improve their grades accordingly. Many learning management systems, including Canvas, have features that allow instructors to provide frequent, immediate, and instructive feedback, as supported by the research-based “FIDeLity” feedback model. For example, posting grades in the LMS gradebook as soon as possible allows students to confirm their performance so far and note where they need to make improvements. An LMS often has additional quick feedback features, including automatic grading for online quizzes and exams, as well as tools such as Canvas’s SpeedGrader that allow you to make comments and suggestions within students’ submitted essays and projects for students to review as soon as they’re graded. Canvas also allows you to sort graded assignments into groups, and the gradebook will show each student how they are doing in each assignment group. This allows the students to monitor their overall progress in assignment categories such as exams, homeworks, and projects. Rubric features are also useful to communicate assignment criteria to students, to quickly and effectively grade assignments, and they can assist in ensuring that the grading criteria is consistent if there are multiple graders.
Ultimately, building an LMS course that is well-organized, straightforward, and provides quality feedback is a fantastic way of creating a positive and supportive learning environment for students. It is one vital step that instructors can take in order to increase the likelihood of their students’ success.
What strategies do you use to create a student-centered LMS website in your course?