Skip to main content

Quarterly Bulletin: Unveiling the Research Behind Education’s Hot Topics with D2L

  • 5 Min Read

In the latest edition of the Quarterly Bulletin, we discuss the importance of great course design and share how it can help improve student learning outcomes.

Dr. Amy Simolo

Senior Customer Success Manager, D2L

Dr Cristi Ford
Dr. Cristi Ford

Vice President, Academic Affairs


As academics, we know you’re busy. Mired in the day-to-day tasks of your varied roles supporting student learning, it can be challenging to keep up with current trends and ‘hot topics’ in education.  

The Academic Affairs Quarterly Bulletin series was designed to do the leg work for you. Each quarter, we dive into a trending topic, consolidate current research and deliver action-oriented recommendations for busy faculty, administrators and staff.  

In this edition, we cover the importance of great course design, reducing cognitive load and how templates can help improve learning outcomes.

Supporting Student Success Through LMS Environment Design 

As educators, there’s a lot we can do to help our students succeed. Sure, we need to provide rigorous learning experiences that both challenge and support students, but it’s also up to us to be aware of obstacles that may hinder learning outcomes. And while not everything is under our control, we can change things within the learning environment and LMS. How a course is designed has a huge impact on student learning and success. 

LMS Templates in Course Design Reduce Cognitive Load  

Students need a learning environment free from hindrances to focus and thrive in their studies. It’s up to instructors and course designers to reduce environmental challenges that in turn reduce cognitive load and boost self-efficacy. 

It can be all too easy to inadvertently overlook technological stressors within the LMS that can elevate cognitive load, deplete student motivation and interfere with learning outcomes. The good news is that these stressors can be significantly reduced with thoughtful course design and organization. One of the most effective and simplest ways to achieve thoughtful course design is by using LMS templates.  

The Quality Learning with Quality Matters master class explores the hows and whys of using LMS templates when designing courses. One of these many benefits is consistency. LMS templates help provide consistent design both within and across a series of courses. Whether the courses are online, blended, flipped, or face-to-face with LMS supplementation, consistency is key in reducing technological stressors.  

Preventing Cognitive Load Overload 

As former faculty developers and teaching and learning center directors, we’ve likely all had to remind faculty to think about cognitive load when designing courses. But what exactly does it mean? 

Cognitive Load is defined by Feinberg and Murphy as “the amount of ‘mental energy’ required to process a given amount of information.” Once mental capacity is reached, learning comes to a grinding halt.  

To help our students get the most from their store of mental energy, we must promote Intrinsic Cognitive Load (ICL) and prevent Extraneous Cognitive Load (ECL). According to Cook, ICL is described as the inherent difficulty of learning material that is integral to the material that may not be altered or changed. However, ECL is external information presented to individuals controlled by the parties delivering it.  

How can we apply this to learning? For the best results, students shouldn’t have to focus on anything other than the course (ICL). We need to make it as easy as possible for students to use the LMS.  

Increasing Self-Efficacy and Motivation 

Have you ever found yourself on a website where you just couldn’t find what you were looking for? Was the design lacking in organization, causing you to give up? How did that make you feel? Chances are, you felt frustrated. 

That lack of organization is called ‘findability.’ Simunich et al. define findability as the ease with which a particular object can be located, including navigation support and the retrieval of information. In a study where findability was manipulated to various degrees, researchers found that self-efficacy and motivation were negatively impacted by the effort required to find necessary information. In fact, poor findability was a significant predictor of low levels of self-efficacy and motivation. The importance of building a clear and simple navigation structure can’t be underappreciated.  

Building Brilliance: How D2L and Quality Matters Bring Engagement and Quality to Online LMS Templates

Imagine logging into an online course where the structure hums with organization, the activities whisper “engagement”, and the students buzz with an eagerness to learn. This isn’t a daydream—it’s the…

Learn more

Make Navigation a Priority, Even for Digital Natives 

In large part, Generations Y, Z and Alpha are digital natives. But it’s important not to assume that tech-savviness extends across all tech. While these younger generations may be more comfortable using tech, navigating an LMS is something else entirely. As Cook found, even technologically sophisticated students seemed confused and frustrated by inconsistent information and formatting in their online courses. 

When designing courses, make sure they’re simple to navigate. Whenever possible, ask a peer to look it over and to provide feedback. Was it easy to locate the necessary materials? Was the navigation intuitive? This exercise can help you identify any hindrances within the layout that can increase ECL. In addition, you’ll be better able to identify if knowledge or skill gaps were the result of the material at hand, or due to the course design.  

Consistency Keeps Frustration at Bay  

As you know, cognitive overload not only grinds learning to a halt but allows frustration to flourish. In their dissertation research, Morrison found that students became frustrated when the location of assignments, instructions and content varied from one module or course to another. Consistency is just as important in individual courses as it is throughout the entire online experience.  

Consider working with key stakeholders at your institution to influence LMS decisions when it comes to navigation menus, aesthetic appearance and layouts. These critical conversations often support the advancement of university or programmatic accreditation requirements and create a culture of continuous improvement. 

How It All Comes Together  

Using the LMS to supplement teaching or to deliver fully online experiences requires skills and techniques that differ considerably from the face-to-face teaching environment. Instructors can leverage information from companies like Quality Matters to hone their online teaching skills and assess course offerings using their rubrics.  

Course templates can be implemented at the course, program or college level. A template can help ensure that your course is visually appealing, easy to navigate and provides adequate findability. In their dissertation, Mootispaw found increased course completion rates in online courses that were designed using templates.  

Whether you use a template or not, it’s important that instructors keep things consistent. With the content module format, instructors can ensure that modules and sub-modules are clearly labeled and consistently designed within and across their courses. Remember to clearly label important course resources such as the syllabus and due dates. Graded work can increase students’ stress and anxiety, so why not take some of the pressure off by ensuring assignment and assessment information is easily findable? 

With Great Course Design, Everyone Comes Out on Top 

Having a well-designed course is a win-win-win scenario. Instructors benefit due to ease of course creation, students reduce their cognitive load and demonstrate higher motivation, and administrators observe lower attrition rates.  

The research is clear: when students can quickly and easily find what they need for their coursework, they’re more likely to stay motivated and succeed. Consistent course navigation can take additional time to plan and execute but this small investment on your part will be of tremendous benefit to your students.  

Written by:

Dr. Amy Simolo

Senior Customer Success Manager, D2L

Dr. Amy Simolo is a Senior Customer Success Manager at D2L, working with Higher Education clients. Previously, Amy spent over 10 years as a faculty development professional, training faculty teaching within both face-to-face and online environments.

Dr Cristi Ford
Dr. Cristi Ford

Vice President, Academic Affairs

Dr. Cristi Ford serves as the Vice President of Academic Affairs at D2L. She brings more than 20 years of cumulative experience in higher education, secondary education, project management, program evaluation, training and student services to her role. Dr. Ford holds a PhD in Educational Leadership from the University of Missouri-Columbia and undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field of Psychology from Hampton University and University of Baltimore, respectively.

Stay in the know

Educators and training pros get our insights, tips, and best practices delivered monthly

Table of Contents
  1. Supporting Student Success Through LMS Environment Design 
  2. LMS Templates in Course Design Reduce Cognitive Load  
  3. Preventing Cognitive Load Overload 
  4. Increasing Self-Efficacy and Motivation 
  5. Make Navigation a Priority, Even for Digital Natives 
  6. Consistency Keeps Frustration at Bay  
  7. How It All Comes Together  
  8. With Great Course Design, Everyone Comes Out on Top