Effective Practices in Professional Learning Course Design: Assessments, Format, Structure, and Appearance

Based on direct input from learners via end-of-course survey data, Michigan Virtual’s Instructional Product Development team gleaned the effective practices outlined in this blog in order to improve their course development and better meet the needs of the educators whom they serve.

In this second post in a short series of three blogs about designing effective professional learning, Senior Instructional Designer Rosalie Dunlap shares how Michigan Virtual’s Instructional Product Development team is adjusting and modernizing their professional learning courses based on direct input from learners.

Michigan Virtual’s Instructional Product Development (IPD) team designs courses for both student and professional learners. In order to ensure courses are designed effectively and meet standards of quality course design, courses designed by Michigan Virtual must go through an extensive internal review process and select courses undergo the Quality Matters (QM) course review process. The review process is thorough, extensive, and intended to help organizations focus on quality assurance and continuous improvement of their online and blended learning courses. 

The IPD team also solicits feedback from learners through an end-of-course survey. The team regularly reviews this feedback and takes learners’ experiences into consideration when designing courses. 

In addition to their regular review of course feedback, Senior Instructional Designer Rosalie Dunlap decided to dig into this learner feedback more strategically. She was specifically interested in finding out what else she and other Michigan Virtual course designers could do to help meet the current needs of professional learners as well as how they could improve course design.

Analyzing Learner Feedback, Improving Course Design

In order to better support professional learners, Rosalie constructed an extensive process to review and analyze learner feedback from several professional learning courses. Open-ended survey responses were gathered and analyzed on an individual course basis. Responses were categorized as either “satisfied” or “unsatisfied” comments, grouped in terms of commonality, and then analyzed by the percentage of learners that made each comment in order to look for trends. 

Data from an additional focus group and surveys exploring the learner’s perspective about a variety of Michigan Virtual courses were also collected and analyzed. Learner feedback from this focus group study provided Rosalie and the IPD team with even deeper insights into the learner perspective and user experience related to modules within Michigan Virtual courses. 

Based on her 12 years of experience in instructional course design and trends found within learner feedback, Rosalie outlined the following effective practices in regards to assessment and measurement of learning within courses as well as the format, structure, appearance, and accessibility of courses.

As you explore the sections below, consider how these effective practices can not only be particularly helpful to designers of online professional learning courses but also have some key takeaways for teachers who are creating or modifying their own online course content and educators who are evaluating the content of online courses.

Effective Practices: Assessment and Measurement of Learning

Format of Assessments. Learners prefer: 

  • shorter, more frequent knowledge checks rather than long end-of-module/course assessments
  • the ability to move forward in the course with a score less than 100%

Assessment Content. Learners prefer: 

  • assessments to align directly with the content in the course
  • assessments that have clear, straightforward questions
  • when assignment work products can be used in their practice
  • when microcredentials include rubrics and work samples to help them understand the expectations

Assessment Feedback. Learners prefer: 

  • getting feedback after each submission           
  • assessments to include detailed, helpful feedback (ie. identifying questions answered incorrectly, addressing common misconceptions, summarizing key points, reteaching or linking back to aligned content)
  • assignments to be graded in a timely manner

Effective Practices: Format, Structure, and Appearance of Courses

Course Technology. Nearly three-quarters of learners access our courses via Google Chrome on a computer, so considerations should be made in terms of course design to account for that interoperability.

Course Length. Learners prefer:

  • shorter courses that are quick to complete               
  • the inclusion of time estimates on module start pages and longer components within the module   
  • courses that are 1-6 SCECHs long   

Course Structure. Learners prefer: 

  • online courses that augment and extend in-person PD   
  • self-paced courses           
  • when microcredentials include phases       

Course Navigation. Learners prefer: 

  • the option to hide or condense navigation panels       
  • consistent instructions and navigation designs

Welcome Page. Ensure the learner audience (the audience the lesson is intended for) is clearly communicated on the welcome page. 

Course Accessibility. Ensure all content is available in written word to meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). 

Final Thoughts

By deeply analyzing feedback from professional learners on Michigan Virtual course design, Rosalie has equipped the rest of the Instructional Product Development team with considerations as to how they can design more effective professional learning. 

While the research gleaned many key takeaways and will help the IPD team better meet the needs of the educators they serve, it is important to keep in mind that learners’ needs shift over time. It will be essential for Rosalie and her team to keep a constant pulse on what learners appreciate and prefer, as well as what they don’t, and what their specific needs are in terms of their professional learning. 

In demonstrating a willingness to continually improve, Michigan Virtual will position itself as an innovative thought leader committed to creating quality learning experiences for Michigan educators.  

Designing Effective Professional Learning Blog Series

In this blog series, Michigan Virtual Professional Learning Specialists and Course Designers provide insights—based on direct input from learners via end-of-course survey data—into how to design effective professional learning for teachers and school leaders. 

It is our hope that these blogs are helpful to designers of online PD courses or professional learning experiences, school leaders and teachers looking to make learning more student-centered, school leaders and teachers who are evaluating online courses or course content, and/or teachers who are creating their own online course content. 


A special thanks to Michigan Virtual’s Senior Instructional Designer Rosalie Dunlap for sharing her knowledge and expertise which informed this blog.

Picture of Christa Green

Christa Green

Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a research specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators within and beyond Michigan.

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