Best Teaching Practices


Chunking instructional materials

Content Chunking in Online Course Development

A simple strategy that is critical to developing online course materials is chunking. Chunking refers to the practice of segmenting your instructional content into small, digestible pieces of information that are conceptually related, and easy to commit to memory. Chunking is particularly important in online courses because students must navigate through the material independently. Without the benefit of a face-to-face interaction with an instruction, all instructional material should be organized sequentially, and in bite-sized pieces of information to avoid cognitive overload.

Cognitive overload is when a learner’s working memory becomes overwhelmed by too many new pieces of information all at once. This affects a learner’s ability to store the information in their working memory and much of it is lost because they did not receive enough time to synthesize the information and create connections to prior their knowledge.

Here are some ways to use chunking in your course content:

  1. Chunk at the highest level – Consider the hierarchy of your course and use chunking to determine what your Modules will be. Divide your modules into smaller, conceptually related chunks to determine your Lessons / Units. Break down each Lesson into:

Modules -> Lessons / Units -> Topics

  1. Chunk at the screen level – Instructional content for each Topic will be displayed on a learner’s screen, so it’s important to group conceptually related information together. Here are some useful ways to chunk at the screen level (try to be consistent in how you use these throughout your course):
    1. Headings and Subheadings
    2. Bullet points or Lists
    3. Tables or Graphs
    4. Short sentences and/or Short paragraphs
    5. Bold, Italics or Underlined text to add emphasis to important concepts
    6. Relevant Images, Audio or Video

Content not chunked

Content chunked:

Chunking is a simple strategy that can dramatically improve the quality of online courses. From an aesthetic perspective, chunking makes a screen less overwhelming to look at, allows students to visualize their progress, and separates necessary information from supplemental information. From a pedagogical perspective, chunking makes information easier to digest, allows time to connect to prior knowledge, helps avoid cognitive overload and makes it easier to recall information.

Chunking is a simple strategy that can dramatically improve the quality of online courses.

From an aesthetic perspective, chunking:

  • Makes a screen less overwhelming to look at
  • Allows students to visualize their progress
  • Separates necessary information from supplemental information

From a pedagogical perspective, chunking:

  • Makes information easier to digest
  • Allows time to connect to prior knowledge
  • Helps avoid cognitive overload
  • Makes it easier to recall information
  1. Chunk your PowerPoint Presentations – It is also important to chunk the instructional content on any PowerPoint Presentations you intend to include in your course. Each slide should follow the same screen chunking principles advised above. Ideally, PowerPoints should only include brief points that are elaborated upon by audio narration – however, if this is not possible, additional notes to further explain the slides can be added in a “notes” section.

Content chunking also separates necessary information from supplemental information. Studies have shown that including supplementary material that is interesting, but isn’t being assessed, has adverse effects on student information retention. Sometimes it is tempting to direct students towards additional resources that may be interesting, particularly in an online environment, but this practice should be avoided as it distracts students from focusing on the content they must necessarily know to be successful in the course.

Chunking is critical for any course that is introducing material to students for the first time – 1000 level courses or common electives. As courses become increasingly specialized, student’s will have more prior knowledge of the content and can synthesize larger chunks of information with greater ease.


Content Chunking: The Basis To An Engaging And Well-Designed Course” (Habeeb Omer, 2016)

Chunking Information for Instructional Design” (Malamed, 2009)

Writing measurable objectives

Writing Measurable Objectives

Writing clear and Measurable Objectives is a key component in the planning and development of an online course. Objectives inform students and remind instructors of the course’s stated intentions, its instructional practices and its assessment. The curriculum for many public secondary schools operates on an outcome-based system, so the students in your classes are likely to be familiar with the concept of having stated educational goals. Having a designated goal helps motivate students by giving them something specific to work towards. Objectives should be written in the early planning stages of course development. There are two types of objectives that should be clearly communicated in a course:

  1. Course Objectives

Course objectives should be in the course syllabus and are broad statements meant to inform students of what they will know or be able to do upon completion of the course. Depending on the scope of the course, there may be anywhere from 5 to 10 Course Objectives. One way to approach writing Course Objectives is to complete the phrase:

Upon completion of this course, students will…

  1. Learning Objectives

Learning Objectives should be stated at the beginning of each Module/Lesson. These statements should be specific to the material being taught in each Module/Lesson. When Learning Objectives are aligned with a course’s assessment practices, they effectively communicate to students what knowledge and skills they need to master or display in order to be successful in the course.

Both Course Objectives and Learning Objectives use action verbs to create statements that are observable and measurable. Try to avoid using vague or unclear verbs, such as: know, be aware of, understand, comprehend, appreciate, learn, be familiar with, etc. Objectives should also focus on the learning that results from taking a course, rather than describe the assignments or activities in the course.

The following table of action verbs is organized according to the levels of higher-order thinking outlined in a revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy and move from less complex (ex: introduction of new materials) to more complex levels of knowledge. Please note that this table is by no means exhaustive. 

Introductory courses (new information) -> Upper-level courses (critical thinking)






















































































  • NUTR 1000 - List and label the group of organs that are responsible for converting food into energy in the digestive system.
  • ENGL 3000Analyze the differences between British gothic and American gothic literature, and explain how they interrelate.
  • EDUC 5000 Discriminate between formative and summative assessment practices and design a lesson plan that incorporates both.

In Summary, both Course Objectives and Learning Objectives refer to what an instructor wants students to know and be able to do upon completing a course. When these objectives are measurable and align with a course’s assessment practices, they focus student learning by providing them with a clear goal that directs them towards success in the course.

Writing and Assessing Course-Level Student Learning Objectives” (Office of Planning and Assessment, Texas Tech University)
Tips on Writing Course Goal/Learning Outcomes and Measurable Learning Objectives” (Iowa State University) 

How to design effective PowerPoints

Key Tips

  • Design your presentation to highlight specific points in your talk, not to deliver large amounts of textual information.
  • Be consistent for the entire presentation with your colors, text size, fonts and background.
  • Ensure your slides have plenty of blank space so they look clean and focused.
  • Avoid adding irrelevant images that do not directly relate to the topic and be sure the ones you do use are high quality.
  • Text should typically be animated very subtly and use the same one throughout the presentation.


Keep the screen clean (don't be afraid of blank space) and be sure to maintain a consistent empty border space around all objects on the slide.

A good contrast must be maintained between text color and background color. Put simply, if the slide background is light the text needs to be dark and if the slide background is dark the text needs to be light. Using pictures behind text should be avoided because this almost always causes contrast issues which makes reading the text more difficult.

Try to have just enough text on the slide to get the point across (no more and no less). Avoid having slides that have single word bullet points unless you are listing particular items. Also stay away from including long paragraphs of text. Normally a few short sentences is best.


Do not add tiny text to your slide that is difficult to read. Identify special text not by making is small, but by changing its font style and color. 

Always make your text slightly larger than you think it needs to be. If you feel point size 24 is large enough to be readable for students, go even larger and make it 28. Do not change the size of the body text on individual slides, but instead make this change on the master slide. This will ensure that your text size is consistent throughout the presentation.

To modify text on the master slide go to "View" → "Slide Master", and select the slide master at the top of the left hand list. Highlight the text you want to change (often just the top line of the body text), right click and select what you want to change ("Paragraph" if you want to set line and paragraph spacing).

To ensure that PowerPoint does not reduce the size of your text without you realizing this has occurred it is often best to turn off the auto fit feature.

To remove auto fit for text go to "File" → "Options" → "Proofing" → "AutoCorrect Options" → "AutoFormat As You Type" and uncheck "AutoFit title text to placeholder" and "AutoFit body text to placeholder". 

It is a good idea to set the line spacing for your main text to single spacing or very close to it. Line spacing sizes that seem to work well range between 0.9 and 1.2. These adjustments should be made on the master slide not on individual slides.

You will also need to adjust the paragraph spacing for your main text. Normally it is best to have this extra space added above the paragraph instead of below it. Often adding a space that is ¾ the size of the main text works well. For example, if the text on your slides is point size 24 you would set the space above each paragraph to 18 and a space below of 0. These changes should be made on the master slide.


Avoid adding an image to a text slide unless it is relevant to what you are explaining on your slide. If you want to use images to generate a feeling or create interest put them on their own slide. It is also a good idea to allow a graph to have its own slide as well.

Avoid layering multiple images over one another on a slide and setting them to an entrance animation that displays them one at a time. These animated images can be relatively easy to add but can be difficult to edit. The better option is to create separate slides for the different images.   

Do not add images that contain text that is too small to read. If the image is clear and you really want to use it then find a way to get rid of the text. This may require the use of an image editor or you might be able to crop out the text in PowerPoint using the "format picture" option.


Only a few animations (appear, fade in, dissolve and wipe down) are suitable for the animation entrance of normal text without being a distraction. Once one of these subtle animations is selected it should be used consistently throughout the entire presentation. Entrance and Exit animations of images should also be subtle with the fade animation typically being the best choice.

Any of the potential animations available are appropriate to use if they help demonstrate a process. For example a "custom path" animation could show how electrons move between atoms.

Always ask yourself the question does this animation show how something works?


Whenever possible have an overriding idea for the presentation; this will help focus the intention of the presentation and create consistency. To do this you can use a picture, graph, short quote or learning objective as your primary hook. Present it near the beginning, come back to it a couple times during the presentation and end with it.

Do your best to avoid designing the slides to act like teleprompters. Use the notes feature to add content you want to remember, your talking points, supporting information, additional facts and your references.

Create opportunities within the presentation that invite audience participation. Ask questions about facts they may already know, about what was said earlier in the presentation or questions about what they are seeing on the slide.

One extremely critical step is to practice giving the presentation aloud. By doing a trial run you will find issues and problems that would be missed if you simply read the slides. Repeat the trial run as many times as it takes to get it right.

Recommended Resources

"Top Ten Slide Tips," by author Garr Reynolds:

"Designing Effective PowerPoint Presentations," by the Global Communication Center of Carnegie Mellon University:

"11 Design Tips for Beautiful Presentations," by blog editor Katy French of Visage:

Writing scripts and recording audio

Key Tips

  • Prepare a full script and practice reading it.
  • Speak like you are talking to a friend.
  • Do your best to eliminate any volume or sound distortions.
  • Make sure you review the audio recording to ensure proper content and quality.


Writing out a full script is recommended when you are recording audio. Reading from a script will help you avoid "ums" and "ahs." These verbal fillers will tend to creep into your speech if you are reading from a partial script or outline.

When you read the script visualize the person or people you are talking to and do your best to create warmth in your voice.


Be careful that your volume does not go so high that it gets clipped by the recording software or result in audio distortion. If this occurs you may need to lower your voice or reduce the sensitivity of the microphone.

On the other hand, make sure that your recording is loud enough for people to hear. If not, you may need to get closer to the mic or turn up the microphone sensitivity.

Try to keep the volume of your speaking relatively consistent, but not at the expense of your speaking rhythm.


Be aware that some parts of speech, 'p's' for example, tend to create a pop sound on the recording. To reduce this, back away from the mic slightly and/or use a pop filter that sits in front of the mic and reduces popping sounds.

The voices of some people tend to create shrill 's' sounds. If your voice does this, back away slightly from the mic. Note if 's' sounds are still a problem, post audio editing can often be done that will improve the sound.

Be careful not to smack your lips and try to keep your intake of breath as quiet as possible.


Before you start a session, record a short clip of silence and listen to what the mic is picking up. You may discover sound sources that your ear was ignoring and then be able to make adjustments to reduce the noise. Note that it is possible during sound editing to reduce constant sounds (for example a computer fan), but not sounds that occur randomly (for example a car horn).


Once you have clicked the recording button wait for a second or so before you start speaking. This will ensure the program has started recording.

It is also important to leave a second of silence at the end of your recording before you move on to the next one.


It should go without saying, but be sure to listen to what you have recorded to ensure it is what you want.

It is recommended that a headset is used to review audio because even lower quality headsets let you hear your recorded audio better than built-in computer speakers.  

Recommended Resources

"13 More Tips to Help You Record Narration Like the Pros," by Tom at The Rapid E-Learning Blog:

"10 Tips For Recording High Quality Video Voice Overs," by sound expert Peter Robins:

Assessment practices

Formative Assessment

Formative Assessment refers to any type of assessment within a course where students are given feedback to improve learning. These allow you, as the instructor, to identify any areas where students may need additional support, and inform you of students’ strengths, weaknesses and work ethic. Formative Assessment is one of the most useful assessment practices in pedagogy because it focuses on what students still need to learn to achieve the course’s stated objectives. It is very important when designing a course that students’ first interaction with a problem, concept, or idea does not occur during a significant assessment that contributes to their final grade. Formative assessments provide you with the opportunity to prepare students to be successful when they do complete a course quiz, test or exam.

Formative assessments are informal, and it should be clearly communicated to students that these are quick check-ins meant to gauge their authentic first reactions to the materials and need not be carefully crafted responses.

Examples of Formative Assessment:

  • Pre-assessment – These occur before students begin interacting with instructional material and serve as a check-in at the forefront of a course to inform instructors of any prior knowledge students may or may not have. One example could be simply asking students to “introduce yourself” in a forum, sharing a few details about who they are, what their interests are, their intentions for the future, and what they already know about the subject at hand. Pre-assessments are particularly important for online courses because they create a conversation between the student and the instructor that is often lacking without a physical classroom.
  • Self-check responses – These can be quick comprehension questions peppered throughout your instructional material to direct students towards the information or concepts that are critical for them to master. They can require quick responses from students, which instructors can then read and respond to. This is a good strategy for highlighting important terms or potential exam questions throughout a course.
  • Reflections – A reflection might be appropriate following a course reading, presentation, film, or activity to gauge students’ initial reactions to the materials and ensure that they’ve unearthed the key concepts necessary to move forward in a course. These can take the form of written responses, or quick audio clips that the students record and upload for the instructor to read or listen to, and respond to.
  • Quizzes – While quizzes typically gauge students’ retention and understanding of instructional materials, they can also be used as formative assessments with a low or no grade value. This type of formative assessment serves to prepare students for later assessment which will be worth more by giving them an indication of the types of questions and information they can expect to encounter when it really counts.

For formative assessment to be effective it is important that the instructor be willing to commit to providing feedback to students. Whether it’s written comments responding to a student’s self-check response, or a list of points for students to contemplate following a video, feedback is the critical component of effective formative assessment and creates a bridge between the instructor and the students that is not always obvious, especially in the online format.

Summative Assessment:

Summative assessment refers to any type of assessment piece within a course where students receive a grade, and are evaluated to a standard. Summative assessments should help you determine if students have achieved the stipulated learning objectives. Therefore, it is critical to ensure that there is alignment between your stated learning objectives and the assessment you’re asking students to complete. It is also valuable to use various types of summative assessments as this will meet the needs and showcase the strengths of more students.

Summative assessments are formal and should be carefully designed to gauge a student’s understanding of the material. In some instances, particularly when it comes to midterms and exams, you may want the assessment to be proctored.

Examples of Summative Assessment:

  • Quizzes / Tests / Exams – When writing a quiz or similar assessment, try to section it into several types of questions (multiple choice, true or false, matching, etc.). When designing multiple choice questions, avoid using “all or none of the above” as an option, or any obvious throwaway or joke answers.
  • Assignments – Assignments are the easiest form of assessment to offer students a choice in demonstrating their learning in a variety of ways. It is important that the assignments speak to the stated objectives and that the necessary information to successfully complete the assignment is available in the instructional material.
  • Essays – One of the tools ACORN offers that is particularly useful for essays or other written assignments, is a plagiarism screening tool called TurnItIn. TurnItIn generates an originality report from submitted assignments and allows you to download, read, and digitally annotate a student’s essay by adding comments, highlighting, quick marks and audio feedback clips.

For More Information:

Please visit our sampler course to see the many types of quiz questions and assignments you can create in ACORN, and the tools it offers to students. If you are interested in using any of these features in your courses, please contact us and we will gladly provide the necessary training.


Formative Assessment In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know” (Pappas, 2015)

Summative Assessment In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know” (Pappas, 2015)

Tips for Effective Questions in E-Learning” (Blackstock, 2017)