Bringing Cognitive Research Suggestions into Course Design to Motivate Students and Support Optimal Learning

Concurrent Session 6

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The presentation will demonstrate how we implemented some cognitive research suggestions when redesigning an online course: motivate students to actively participate in coursework, gear student attention to concentrate on learning, and help students develop long-term memory for content mastery. The demonstrated practice/instruments are applicable to any online and web-enhanced courses.


Ye Liu is a Lead Instructional Designer at Office of Distance Education, Metropolitan College, Boston University. She works in partnership with faculty to design and develop online courses in a variety of online programs.

Extended Abstract

As educators, we strive to design courses using suggestions from cognitive psychology research findings about optimal learning that are aligned with student-centered active learning strategies. This presentation will demonstrate how we implemented some cognitive research suggestions when redesigning an online course: motivate students to actively prepare and participate in coursework, gear student attention to concentrate on active learning, and help students develop long-term memory to support content mastery and knowledge transfer. The demonstrated practice and instruments are applicable to any online or web-enhanced course.

At the end of the presentation session, a conference participant will be able to:

  • Identify several optimal learning suggestions informed by the cognitive research.
  • Apply practical ideas shared in the presentation to their own online or web-enhanced courses.
  • Interact with peers to discuss other research-informed best practices of online teaching and learning.

Manipulating Life: The Science and Ethics of Biotechnology is an online course offered in the Undergraduate Degree Completion Program. The course serves a nontraditional student body and was designed as an interdisciplinary core course. Over the years, the course has been revised to incorporate many active learning strategies such as student-designed final research projects, and critical thinking and writing on controversial topics. The most recent revision placed even more emphasis on active learning based on cognitive research suggestions. The course is viewed by students as extremely challenging, but rewarding. (We can share the students’ comments and evaluation results as evidence.)

Motivating Students - empower students to take learning responsibilities in learning and value students’ input

Because students have to be highly self-reliant to complete work in online courses (Artino, 2008), student self-discipline is critical for a successful online learner. Many students (especially new online learners) must quickly develop this and other strategies in order to achieve in an online environment.  To prepare students to engage with online learning, we implemented the following course design strategies:

  1. Course Expectations Scavenger Hunt – This activity prepares students for the high expectations of online learning at a university. Instructors often wonder whether or not students read the syllabus closely because it is so common that some students are not able to follow course expectations explicitly communicated in the syllabus. This strategy ensures that students do read the syllabus and become prepared for the demands of the course. When redesigning the course, we created a mini-assessment activity to begin the course, a Course Expectations Scavenger Hunt. It’s an auto-graded quiz that consists of several multiple choice questions that highlight student responsibilities. Students must search actively to find answers to these questions in the syllabus. Students can take the quiz multiple times and get immediate feedback each time, in which directs them to recheck the syllabus. As a result, students work through the syllabus until they complete the hunt successfully. The quiz is at once a learning tool and a reinforcement for students. We also designed a time-management-strategy question by asking students to choose all the management strategies that they feel are helpful to them. This meta-cognition type of question seamlessly prepares students for the pace of online learning as well as exposed them to different time management strategies. (We can share the instrument.)

    This approach serves the following objectives:

    • To prepare students to actively participate in the learning adventure from the beginning of the course. Students are motivated to take personal responsibility for the course expectations. As a result, both students and instructors can focus more on learning and teaching, and less on the logistical/technical aspects.
    • To serve as a model format of the “review questions” assessment that ends each module—students are prepared to be assessed in the similar format.
  2. Value and encourage students’ voices to motivate students.  
    To motivate students to be accountable for their own learning and to contribute to the online learning community, we gathered student input in a number of ways, including: 

    • Collection of student comments before the scheduled Live Classroom sessions, as a kind of admission ticket in face-to-face classes. The instructor can then address all questions and issues during the synchronous session, which is recorded so even if students are not able to join the live session, the questions and answers may be reviewed.  (We can share the instrument.) This proved to be a very popular approach.
    • Mid-term feedback. We asked students to share their learning experiences, emphasizing that their feedback is strongly valued.  In the instrument, in addition to students’ feedback to the teaching team, there was also one question that invited self-reflection: how do you think you are doing so far? We carefully reviewed the optional anonymous student contributions, and used them to direct teaching practices for the rest of the semester. This new practice motivates students to actively reflect on their own learning and contribute how to improve their online learning experiences. (We can share the instrument.)

Gear Student Attention on Active Learning

Cognitive research informed us that learners have short attention spans, and are easily distracted.  We therefore needed to design learning environments to hold and retain student attention in order to optimize their learning experience. We implemented the following design ideas to manage the course content and learning activities:

  1. Breaking customized learning resources into smaller chunks and interspersing self-check questions.

Our practice: each module of the course includes pages of web content for students to read. All content is valuable – the instructor is sharing years of experiences, great analogies, metaphors, case studies, and examples. In order to render this dense content more manageable, we followed the Attention Principle and created multiple “active pause” moments among the online content. For example, we built interactive formative assessment “Test Yourself” questions to actively assess student comprehension with immediate feedback. These segments were positioned at a number of places within content pages so students could test themselves whether the lessons had been learned after reading through module content and watching instructional videos

With this method, students are not just passively reading. Instead, students must pause to consider what they have read or viewed. Students learn to clarify ideas, check other references, ponder the prompts, make connections, and formulate new questions. They receive just-in-time feedback about how they are doing. During such interactive segments, students experience a balance of reading and active response and have multiple chances to try and retry the questions.

Interspersing self-check questions with module content also provides valuable feedback for the instructor - incorrect answers to particular questions can help the instructor target areas where the explanation needs improvement or clarification.

  1. Keeping all external videos inside the course page itself to reduce opportunities for distracted students to leave the online learning environment.

    Our practice: The course uses many engaging and informative instructional videos to enrich resources for students and boost interactive discussions. Instead of adding web links to the course page, we intentionally embedded all videos inside the course page, so all learning resources are restricted to the learning management system.  This practice helps students focus their attention on learning course content and interaction with the instructor and their peers.  

Help Students Develop Long-term Memory for Content Mastery

Cognitive research confirms that learners need to build a solid foundation of knowledge before processing higher cognitive tasks. Spreading review sessions over time and interleaving content and assessment materials among different modules can help students retain important concepts, and thus create long-term memories leading to a mastery of foundational knowledge (Brown, et al., 2014; Rohrer, 2012; Sousa, 2001).

Our practice: To implement the suggested memory principles, the redesigned course offers low stake unlimited-attempt review questions in each module throughout the course, so students have the opportunity to practice and revisit key concepts in any module at any time. This practice offers students frequent and continual engagement with content material. Two cumulative tests during the semester also require students to practice and review concepts from all modules. The reviews are designed to have students relearn and review course materials frequently, to permit key knowledge to become stored in long-term memory.

Future plan

Our experiences with this course redesign stimulated additional ideas to motivate and support student learning, such as offering personalized video feedback for student work. For the next iteration of the course, we are considering offering personalized video assignment feedback to the student by displaying and annotating the student’s assignment on the screen while recording narrative explanations. Such customized feedback can then be shared privately with the student. We believe the practice will further motivate students to integrate constructive critiques offered by the instructor, which will enhance student learning experience and yield effective and personalized instructor-student interaction.

Target Audience and Participants Engagement

Any conference participants might benefit from the presentation, because implementing the cognitive research suggestions will improve learners’ learning experiences in any institutions.  

Participants will participate in the interactive discussion and audience contribution voting to make connections between our course design ideas and their own teaching. Participants also receive the instruments (listed above) during the presentation if they wish to use them in their own online or web-enhanced courses.


Artino, A. R. (2008). Promoting academic motivation and self-regulation: Practical guidelines for online instructors, Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning 52(3):37-45, doi:10.1007/s11528-008-0153-x.

Brandford, J., Brown, A. L. & Cocking, R. R. (Eds). (2000). How People Learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded ed.). Washington, DC: national Academy Press.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, and McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Rohrer, D. (2012). Interleaving helps students distinguish among similar concepts. Educational Psychology Review.

Sousa, D. A. (2001). How the brain learns (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Zull, J. (2000). The art of changing the brain: Enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning (1st ed.). Sterling, VA: Stylus.