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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! 


Tiny House, Huge Impact

A young couple live in a van. She is lying down and reading a book on the bed. He is working on a laptop in the space next to the bed.

In my book, Course Design Formula®: How to Teach Anything to Anyone Online, I use the process of building a house as a metaphor for the process of building a course.

Watching the fascinating series, Tiny House Nation,  on Netflix recently, I realized that building an online course is not just like building ANY house.

Building an online course is, specifically, like building a TINY house.

The reason for that is that the limits of working memory are very small. Working memory is the aspect of cognitive processing needed to take in and learn new information.  

Research (and experience) have shown that we can only hold about 5 to 7 separate things in our minds at the same time. (That's one reason telephone numbers have 7 digits). 

Trying to absorb more than a very limited amount of new information at the same time, quickly becomes overwhelming, causing the learner to tune out and stop learning.

The reason an online course is like a TINY house, is that the limits of working memory are very narrow.

So when designing an online course, it’s important to work within very tight design limitations, because you  have a very small amount of cognitive processing space to work with.

What makes Tiny House Nation so fascinating is the process the builders and craftsmen use to make  very small spaces work so elegantly  for the specific needs of the people who will be living there.

The builders conduct extensive interviews and  create customized structures (such as staircases with built-in storage cabinets, or a butcher block table that transforms into a ladder). The customized structures make use of the small space and enable the home’s occupants to fit  the things that are most important to them into their available living quarters.

The key to living well in a tiny space, is customized LIVING DESIGN.

The key to  creating an effective and engaging online course, is customized LEARNING DESIGN.

Interior of a van that a young couple live in. The shot is focused on the kitchen counter, pull-out drawers, and bed. Ther is wood paneling on the sides and roof.

If you haven't already seen Tiny House Nation, or have missed some episodes, check it out!

Watching host John Weisbarth and design expert Zack Giffin solve seemingly impossible challenges, is awe-inspiring!


Here are just a few of the things they have made work in tiny homes:

  • An indoor rock-climbing wall for kids
  • A grand piano
  • Comfortable sleeping space for six people
  • And much, much more!

Customized course design will help you create effective lessons that stay within the limits of working memory, keeping your course participants actively engaged and learning.

If this idea sounds intriguing, you are welcome to schedule time with me to talk about your specific project goals.

Expert instructional design lets you pack a lot of learning into a little space!

Book your free strategy session

Let's explore the unique design challenges

 your course presents.

Three things to do BEFORE you present instruction

Human Brain Lobes on Blackboard.

Educational theorist and researcher Robert M. Gagné observed skilled teachers in action, and noticed that they followed nine specific steps in order to create effective learning.

He codified these steps and called them "The Nine Events of Instruction".

Let's take a closer look at the three things Gagné  noticed highly effective teachers do, BEFORE they present the new material they want their students to learn.

The first step is: Gain the learner's attention.  (See how I gained YOUR attention by using a different font color and larger text?)

How can you gain your learner's attention before presenting new instruction in your online course? 

Here's a humorous example: an attention-grabbing cat video I  designed as an ice-breaker for a (hypothetical) online piano course for reluctant first-time musicians:

I hope you got a kick out of that video,

and that it got  (and held) your attention!

Here's why it works:

  • It's funny
  • It's short
  • It's unexpected
  • It tunes in to the learner's anxiety and concerns (about being able to learn to play the piano)
  • It's supportive and encouraging
  • It leads directly into the (imaginary) piano lesson to follow
  • Everybody loves cat videos


Notice that this opening video does not actually start teaching how to play the piano. 


Gaining the learner's attention is an introductory step to take BEFORE you present the actual instruction.

What's next? 

The next step is to let your learners know what they will be learning in the instruction that is going to follow.

(You're still not presenting the instruction. 

 You're just TELLING THEM what they are going to learn).

In our imaginary music course, the instructor might say something like "In this lesson, you will learn how to play a simple chord on the piano."

And there's still one MORE thing you need to do before you actually start teaching the material. (Keep reading to find out what it is....)

Grab your learners' attention

with stunning digital workbooks.

It's FAST, EASY, and FREE!


The third step to take before actually presenting the instruction, is to help learners recall anything they already know, that is relevant to what you are about to teach them.  

For example, in our imaginary piano course, the instructor might say, "Remember that yesterday we learned the names of the notes on the piano. In today's lesson, you will learn how to put those notes together to make a pleasing sound called a 'chord'."

Course Design Formula™ Book



If you'd like to learn more about the three steps to take BEFORE you present any new instruction, check out pages 161 to 183 of my book, Course Design Formula: How to Teach Anything to Anyone Online.

I have a mission  for you (should you choose to accept it.... )

Think about a specific lesson that you'd like to teach online, and ask yourself these questions:

Before you begin actually teaching the lesson:

  1. 1
    How will you gain YOUR learners' attention?
  2. 2
    How will you inform them about what you're going to teach?
  3. 3
    How will you help them remember relevant things they already know, that will help them learn what you're about to teach?

I'd love to hear your ideas.

Write to me at Rebecca@learnandgetsmarter.com and let's talk about it!

Teaching vs. exposing people to information

Sign in page on computer screen. Desktop computer with login form and sign in button. User account. Modern concept. Creative flat design vector illustration

We’ve talked about the difference between being exposed to information (especially online), and actually learning it.

But what about teaching?

What’s the difference between simply presenting information online, and actually teaching it?

You heard right: presenting information is not the same as teaching it.

Just because you’ve said something (using text, video, or audio) doesn’t mean you’ve taught it.

In order to learn new material, people have to go beyond simply being exposed to it.

They have to:

  • focus on it
  • take it in
  •  process it
  •  label it, and
  • store it in long term memory for easy retrieval.

Now wait just a minute”, I hear you saying. “How can I control what someone else does with the information I present online, after I’ve presented it?”

You can’t.

Frustrated teacher standing in front of a chalkboard screaming

Unless you’re teaching online in an academic or corporate setting where learners are required to show up for your course and pass it in order to fulfill a requirement, you have little if any control over whether and how learners consume and process your course material.

As an online course creator working with independent adults, your responsibility for teaching the material ends once you’ve put it out there for people to consume.

So teaching online (as opposed to just exposing people to information) involves putting the material out there for people to consume, in ways that promote learning.

That means you have to present the material in ways that allow your audience to:

  • focus on it
  • take it in
  •  process it
  •  label it, and
  • store it in long term memory for easy retrieval.


In this type of online teaching context, presenting the material is not the first step; it’s the last. If you want to teach online in an effective and engaging way, presenting the material should be the final step in a carefully planned series of steps. That series of steps will guide you in knowing exactly what material to present, and how to present it.

So.. what are the steps you should take in order to present your material online, in order to teach it effectively?

Stay tuned for the next blog post to find out! (Can you stand the suspense? It's a real cliffhanger....)

rock climber hanging on to the edge of a cliff with bare hands (it's a real "cliff-hanger"!)

(If you just can't wait to find out how to teach effectively online, go here.)