In the name of offering “nuts and bolts” information, I try now and then to alert newish practitioners to ideas or people that may not yet have crossed their paths. Sometimes it’s about startling readers to a new way of thinking; sometimes it’s meant to offer familiar ideas in new terms, in hopes of sparking new energy or helping practitioners better articulate what they’re doing. Dr. Dee Fink was the founding director of the instructional development program at the University of Oklahoma and is currently principal in Dee Fink & Associates. He has for years worked with ideas around “significant learning.” His “Five Principles of Good Course Design,” originally written before eLearning caught fire, offers guiding thoughts that still hold up. I’ve made a few updates, but this piece is mostly in its original form:

A “good course” is one which meets the following five criteria:

1. Challenges learners to higher-level learning

All courses require some “lower-level” learning, i.e., comprehending and remembering basic information and concepts. But many courses never get beyond this. Examples of “higher-level” learning include problem-solving, decision-making, critical thinking, and creative thinking.

2. Uses active forms of learning

Some learning will be “passive,” i.e., reading and listening. But higher-level learning, almost by definition, requires active learning. One learns to solve problems by solving problems; one learns to think critically by thinking critically; etc.

3. Gives frequent and immediate feedback to students on the quality of their learning

Higher-level learning and active learning require frequent and immediate feedback for learners to know whether they are “doing it” correctly.

4. Uses a structured sequence of different learning activities

Any course needs a variety of experiences to support different kinds of learning goals. But these various learning activities also need to be structured in a sequence such that earlier experiences lay the foundation for complex and higher-level learning tasks in later experiences.

5. Has a fair system for assessing learning

Even when students feel they are learning something significant, they are unhappy if their assessments do not reflect this. Take care that quizzes and similar items are fair, are soundly constructed, don’t include “gotcha” questions, etc.

Backward design

Fink also offers ideas around approaching design. One common criticism of the ADDIE project planning approach to instructional design is that it is too linear, with evaluation “by autopsy” at the end. While it seems logical enough, literal use of the approach can cause a disconnect between desired performance and actual result.

Fink recognized this early on: In offering advice for creating significant learning experiences, he advises to begin design with the end in mind. He encourages designers to take an “expansive” view, going beyond basic understanding and remembering: What do we want learners to do? (I dealt with this all the time in my years as a designer housed in HR, when stakeholders so often wanted an eLearning course with the only goal that the learner “understand” a policy.) And he invites us to think not just about, “How I will teach that?”—but rather, “How can they learn it?”

So, begin with what learners must be able to do, and then work backward from that—what do you want them to be able to do? How will you know they can do that? What evidence will show you they can perform on the job? Maybe for a topic like “internet safety,” you can offer some sample screens and ask learners to use a multiple-choice approach to separate safe behaviors from suspect behaviors. But for something like “communication skills,” you’ll likely need to look beyond simple read-and-respond assessment. Design these evaluation methods first—and then work backward from there. What activities, in what sequence, will help the learner learn? If you want the learner to engage in critical thinking, you can’t just wait until a single quiz at the end to test that. What, in the learning experience, can encourage critical thinking? What will enable that performance we’re after?

Fink’s initial work focused on helping new college instructors understand the basics of course design, which they likely were never taught. His ideas can be useful also to those newer to eLearning—in both workplace and academic settings. For those of us who’ve had long lives in the field, a visit with Dee Fink’s work can help reframe and set new ways of articulating things we may already know.

Want more?

Fink, L. Dee. A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning.

Fink, L. Dee. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Wiley, 2013.

Northern Illinois University. “Integrated Course Design to Improve Student Learning.” Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center.

Editor’s note: “Five Principles of Effective Course Design” appears here with the permission of Dee Fink.