Designing the different levels of a course

Russian nesting dolls standing in a line

We've talked about the five domains of learning defined by educational researcher and theorist Robert M. Gagné.
Gagné divided learning up into the following major types:

  • Verbal information (declarative knowledge)
  • Attitudes (mindset)
  • Cognitive strategies (learning how to learn)
  • Intellectual skills (how-to)
  • Motor skills (physical movement)

The  Course Design Formula® that I teach in my book and course provides research-based guidance on how to set up a course based on each of these types of learning.

But what if your course contains more than one type of learning?

Many, if not most, courses do.


The way to handle that is to realize that a course has more than one LEVEL, and each level of the course can have its own domain of learning. 

To make this concept easy to visualize, think of those nested wooden dolls where one fits inside the other.

Your course as a whole is the outermost "doll", which holds all the others. So the first thing to do is set up the course as a whole based on its domain of learning. Let's use an example-- an intellectual skills  ("how-to") course about How to Change a Tire.

The next level inside the course is the module level: the large sections or chapters or chunks that hold the lessons. Each module can have its own domain of learning, which might be different from the domain of learning for the course as a whole.  

The first module of our imaginary "How to Change a Tire" course might be called "Things you need" in order to change a tire. At the end of this first module, learners won't yet be able to change a tire. They will be able to state/list/describe the things you need to have in order to be ready to change a tire. So the first module of this how-to course teaches verbal information.

Now let's go inward another level to the lesson level in this module. Let's say the things you need in order to change a tire include several different tools, the right mindset, the ability to read your car's user manual,  and a specific wrist motion. You could create a different lesson inside that first module to teach about each of those things.

The lesson describing the tools would be a verbal information lesson. You  would also have an attitude change lesson, a cognitive strategy lesson teaching how to approach reading a car's user manual, and a motor skills lesson teaching the wrist motion. 

And within each lesson you might have more than one learning object. Learning objects are the individual media items in a course (an individual video, text document, PDF, PowerPoint, etc).

Let's say that in the cognitive strategy lesson about how to read the user manual, you have a text document explaining where to find the manual, a video demonstrating how to find the tire-changing section of the user manual, and a short audio file encouraging learners not to stress about reading the manual. That's three separate learning objects in one lesson, each with its own domain of learning (verbal information, intellectual skills, and attitudes).

Being able to adjust the focus of your design to the course, module, lesson, and learning object level gives you tremendous power and control and flexibility in how to design your course. 

Here are the key concepts to keep in mind:

  • Set up the whole-course level first. That is the outer layer that holds everything else.
  • Then move inward to the module, lesson, and learning object levels, in that order.
  • Design each level based on its OWN domain of learning.

What this means is that you can (as in our example above) have a how-to course with a verbal information module that has a cognitive strategy lesson containing learning objects each with its own domain of learning.

If you are clear and precise about the level you are designing, and always get THAT domain of learning right, your course will fall into place beautifully and just "click".

At our community meeting last Saturday, we used a mindset change (attitudes) format to think about how to adapt to change given the current Coronavirus pandemic. We came up with a lot of very creative and insightful ideas. The question then came up: is this a mindset-change COURSE?

The answer was, no. A mindset change might be an ASPECT or COMPONENT of what is needed in order to adapt to the current situation, but it's not enough in and of itself to be the total answer. We can change our attitudes all we want (and we should), but just doing so will not be enough to cope. We need some practical how-to skills as well... which is what we will be working on for this coming week's community meeting. You can register for the meeting here and help brainstorm what those practical skills might be:

Come join us on Saturday!

many people online in a conference call

We will design an "intellectual skills" ("How-to") course for adapting to change in the face of the current pandemic.

My suspicion is that practical how to skills, while important, are also not the total picture of what is needed to cope with the current situation. If we were, as a community, to create a "course" about how to cope, my best guess is that it would be a cognitive strategy course... learning how to learn how to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances. A mindset change and some practical skills might be PARTS of the strategy, but would not provide the total picture.  

Since we are not experts on this topic, we will use a process of unguided discovery learning to see what we can figure out. We will try the how-to course structure as a way of holding our collective thoughts and ideas.

You may notice that earlier, I said that one should design a course starting from the whole-course level (top down) and THEN fill in the modules and lessons. Yet in our exploration of the current pandemic, we may in fact be designing some of the smaller components of the course first.

That's because in this current crisis, no one on the planet is an expert with complete understanding of how to cope and adapt. This situation throws us all into unguided discovery learning where we are feeling our way in the dark.

We tried the mindset structure to see if it would work to help us think about the problem. It was helpful but we realized it was not the biggest picture. It was not the outermost doll. I think the outermost doll when we get to it will be a cognitive strategy course... and that the mindset and how- to components will be aspects of the strategy needed to learn how to cope.

Come participate in the community meeting on Saturday and let's see where our explorations take us!