Display Content to Support Learning

Quality Review Showcase

The Quality and High Quality online course reviews explore components proven to be best practices in online course design. This post showcases Quality item, “Content is displayed in ways that support learning.”

By: Roslyn Miller, Instructional Designer, CDL

We can improve our memory of information by grouping related bits together to create larger but fewer coherent chunks of information (Miller, 1956). We do this when we try to remember phone numbers or spell words. We can help students learn complex content in online courses by being strategic about how we present, or display, course content.

By applying the concept of chunking, rooted in cognitive psychology, we can facilitate student learning of content and achievement of learning objectives.

What are Some Ways your Online Course can be Designed to Meet this Standard?

Course Level

  • Organize related chunks of content into a hierarchical interconnected structure (Ambrose, 2013).
  • Organize content in small coherent chunks, with each chunk providing instruction about a single concept or skill.
  • Use the learning management system tools (e.g., modules, pages) and descriptive titles to visually indicate the hierarchical structure and order of course content. See example 1 below.
  • Create an internal structure within learning modules, and maintain a consistent structure across all modules. This helps students focus more on learning and less on structure as they progress through the course.

Module Level

  • Use brief descriptive titles of modules and module elements (e.g., pages, assignments) to facilitate mind-mapping of the course and its modules.
  • Provide an overview for each learning module with a brief description, or purpose, of the module and brief lists of learning objectives, instructional materials, and learning activities. The Templater tool in Webcourses@UCF has a convenient template for a Module Introduction page that shows also the interrelationships of learning objectives, instructional materials, and learning activities. See example 2 below.
  • Wrap up modules with a brief summary and connect to future content.

Page Level

  • Indicate the hierarchy of content organization using styles formatting (e.g., Title, Heading 1, Heading 2). See example 3 below.
  • Display related bits of content close together, and keep unrelated bits separate from each other (e.g., white space, horizontal lines, different pages, different modules).
  • Textual content:
    • Keep paragraphs short and separate them visually with white space.
    • Format lists with bullets or numbers.
    • Clearly indicate important points and key words.
  • Video content:
    • Write a brief purpose of the video, including the learning objective associated with it.
    • Keep videos brief (e.g., less than 10 minutes).
    • Address only one concept or skill per video.
  • Support student engagement with each chunk of content:
    • Introduce each chunk with a brief purpose and related learning objectives.
    • Provide content concisely.
    • Emphasize the most important information (e.g., icons, bold font, call-out boxes).
    • Provide a low-stakes opportunity (e.g.,to meaningfully practice the skill or reflect on the concept.
    • Facilitate engagement with each chunk of content by assigning a learning activity (e.g., Materia quiz or practice, note-taking, practice, reflection).

What Does This Look Like in a Real Online Course?

Example 1. Shannon Carter, SYP3060, Sociology of Sex and Reproduction

The hierarchical structure of Dr. Carter’s course content can be seen in her course’s Modules page.

Example of module organization

Example 2.  Joshua Colwell, PHY1038, Physics of Energy, Climate Change, and the Environment

Dr. Colwell’s course modules begin with an overview page that provides a brief description of the module and graphically shows relationships among the module’s objectives, activities, and instructional materials.

Example 3. Daniel Seigler, PAD6417, Human Resources Management

Pages in Dr. Seigler’s modules display content concisely and are formatted to facilitate efficiency of working memory.


Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Miller, George A. (1956). The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information. Psychological Review 63(2): 81–97.

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