Less, but More Germane: Consistency and Predictability as Principles for Course Design

Streamed Session

Watch This Session

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Creativity matters in course design, but too much variability can be counterproductive for students and instructors alike. This session highlights techniques from Penn’s Master of Health Care Innovation that prioritize consistency and predictability—and reduce stress—to help students focus their cognitive energy on high-priority learning goals like integrating knowledge.


Adam D. Zolkover is Associate Director for Online Instructional Design for the Master of Health Care Innovation and related programs. He works with faculty to develop courses that translate their expertise into effective and engaging courses that facilitate learning and community. In that work, he collaborates in the creation of course materials, hires and trains course assistants, identifies and implements learning technologies, and manages the MEHP Online course delivery team. He also disseminates insights and best practices developed in the program through presentations at national conferences. Adam has previously taught folklore, literature, and public speaking at universities in Philadelphia and has served as the online editor for the Institute for Civility in Government’s Civility Blog. He holds a BA in History from the University of California, Berkeley and a Master’s in Folklore from Indiana University

Extended Abstract

In online courses and programs, a taste of the unexpected may stimulate curiosity and delight. Instructors and designers devote a great deal of energy to finding inventive ways to deliver content and creating innovative activities that help students process information, test out ideas, and spark connections that lead them to integrate knowledge.

But the line between inventiveness and disorganization is narrow. And deployed indiscriminately, these elements can create extraneous cognitive load that distracts from course learning objectives, causes confusion, and diminishes overall student experience. We can see this in teaching scholarship across disciplines. Students in a 2013 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior expressed “appreciation of a weekly rhythm for assignments and due dates” and identified unpredictability as a significant source of dissatisfaction (Connors 2013). In a 2015 reflection on teaching online, a language learning instructor found that among herself and her colleagues, a “similar structure each week and predictable due dates for weekly assignments” were key to student success (Polk 2015). And the impetus for a 2019 study of student satisfaction in one online MPA program was the “challenges expressed by students in identifying course materials as instructors structured their courses differently” (Scutelnicu 2019). Taken together, it seems clear that the unexpected unexpected—areas of course delivery that students think should be stable but are not—lead to undesirable outcomes.

This conclusion coincides with our observations in the University of Pennsylvania’s online Master of Health Care Innovation, and related credit and non-credit programs. We have found that when applied deliberately, surprising, creative, and innovative course elements enhance student learning. But to be effective—especially in an online setting—these activities must be deployed within a frame that minimizes distractions and cognitive overhead, and that allows students to plan their time from week to week, and course to course throughout the program.

In this presentation, instructional designers from Penn’s Health Care Innovation programs will offer an informal framework for minimizing the unexpected unexpected—for prioritizing consistency and predictability such that instructors can focus their creativity where it is most germane and students can focus their cognitive energy on high-priority learning goals, rather than tracking an ever-shifting set of requirements and due dates. Techniques in this presentation have been developed iteratively over the life of the program, based in no small part on student feedback. They include establishing:

  • Patterns of work that are consistent throughout each course.
  • Predictable due dates and expectations for when students will receive grades and feedback.
  • Templates for course elements, to standardize the location of key information.
  • A communications plan, so that students receive relevant reminders when they are most timely.
  • Program-wide course policies—including expectations around assignment submissions, late work, extensions, etc.

Within the Master of Health Care Innovation, this framework has helped ensure that key information is clear and accessible to students where and when they need it most. It has helped create cognitive space for adult students managing full-time employment in health care fields to pursue challenging, project-driven coursework. And as we will discuss during this session, with some up-front planning, it is adaptable to many undergraduate and graduate settings—online, hybrid, and in person.

Works Cited

Connors, Priscilla. “Delivery Style Moderates Study Habits in an Online Nutrition Class.” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 45, no. 2 (March 1, 2013): 171–75.

Polk, Randi L. “Online Lessons Learned.” The French Review 89, no. 2 (2015): 164–67.

Scutelnicu, Gina, Rebecca Tekula, Beth Gordon, and Hillary J Knepper. “Consistency Is Key in Online Learning: Evaluating Student and Instructor Perceptions of a Collaborative Online-Course Template.” Teaching Public Administration 37, no. 3 (October 1, 2019): 274–92.