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Quality Matters – Designing a Course with our Team

When you work with a Distance Learning team to create or revise a course you'll hear us refer to Quality Matters. What is Quality Matters (QM)? It is an organization that has created a rubric or set of standards for designing online and blended courses. These standards or guidelines help us create courses in which students learn effectively. Quality Matters standards are based on research. They are a road map that we use as we work together to design a course. Then, when we're done with a course design, an external reviewer uses the rubric to review the course and give us feedback. A key concept we'll use is alignment. The goal of the process is to provide students with a learning experience in which they can show the instructor that they have mastered the objectives. The readings, videos, activities and assessments all should align with clearly written objectives—which are the essence of what students will be learning. Quality Matters is structured around eight standards that guide us in how to create an online course. Read on to learn more about each standard!

Course Overview and Introductions


First impressions are very important, and this is especially true in online courses. What your students see when they first log in should give them a clear, overall picture of your course, such as what the course is about and what they need to do to get started. This information should include course policies and also have a way for students to introduce themselves to each other.

Best Practices

One way to orient your students to your course is to have a “Start Here” or “Getting Started” module that provides a roadmap to the course. Some helpful items to have in your module include:

  • A Welcome Message: This is a short narrative that welcomes students to your course and gets them excited about what’s ahead. Adding a welcome video is always a plus! It is also recommended to have a brief roadmap at the end that directs your students on what they should do next.
  • Syllabus: Your syllabus contains the most important information for your students. This is where they find out what assignments are expected, course policies (late work, etiquette, etc.), and grade breakdown. When writing your syllabus, do not forget to add sections for minimal technical skills and system requirements, student services, and accessibility.
  • A Short, Concise Bio: Providing a bio helps your students get to know you and puts a face to the computer screen.
  • Course Timeline: This section is a breakdown of your modules and includes readings, assignment due dates, and other pertinent information.
  • Introductory Discussion: Posting an introductory forum is a great way for your students to get to know each other at the beginning of the course. 

Additional Resources

Faculty E-commons: Quality Matters Monday Standard 1
This page gives an overview of Quality Matters Standard 1, and also provides its importance in an online course.

Creating a Syllabus Using Quality Matters Standards
A great post on how to apply Quality Matters Standards to your syllabus.

Learning Objectives (Competencies)


A key portion of any course is ensuring there are established learning objectives that are suitable to the level of the course and clearly connect activities to objectives. Having learning objectives that go beyond “Understand XYZ” is integral to establishing measurable goals for both instructors and students.

In addition to having measurable learning objectives, connecting the learning objectives to specific assignments allows the students and instructor(s) to measure success more precisely. Learning objectives written from a student’s perspective allows the learner to gauge their progression in the course as well as provide a final goal beyond the classroom. By utilizing all of these principles, a course’s learning objectives will add value to everyone involved.

Best Practices

The syllabus is a great place to have your course-level learning objectives, while a module overview page would be better for module-level objectives. It is very helpful for objectives to be written from the student perspective: “you will learn” or “students will be able to” rather than “the instructor will teach.” Finally, the learning objectives should have some explanation showing how they relate to the activities or assignments.

The course learning objectives describe outcomes that are measurable, are written clearly, and written from the learner’s perspective. You can accomplish this by writing something like: “By the end of the course, students will be able to select (measurable action) appropriate tax strategies for different financial and personal situations (object).”

Instructions explain which learning objectives students will meet by completing the activities and assignments. You can accomplish this by having an introduction sentence in the activity such as: “In this first assignment, students will take a short quiz that will help determine at what degree of accuracy they are able to select the appropriate tax strategy.”

Additional Resources

  • Bloom’s Taxonomy outlines a variety of educational tasks ranging from simple (recall, understand) to complex (organize, appraise) to advanced (design, construct). Using these actions as the basis for learning objectives can help to build towards more complex learning as the quarter progresses.
  • The Verb Wheel breaks down the six levels of Bloom’s cognitive domain and associates action verbs (essential for measurable learning objectives or competencies) and student products (the basis for your assessments). You will find this wheel helpful as you assess your learning objectives or competencies and as you consider your assessments.
  • Different Types of Questions based on Bloom’s Taxonomy provides question stems related to each level.
  • Dee Fink created A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning based on his taxonomy of significant learning.

Assessment and Measurement


Assessments are a key part of any course. Whether you’re using a quiz, a discussion board, a test, a project, or a presentation, having a variety of assessments allows instructors to evaluate a student’s progress. To have great assessments, instructors will also need a clear grading policy, a clear explanation for students about the standards by which their work will be evaluated, and strategies for students to use to monitor their learning progress.

Best Practices

Having a course grading policy that is stated clearly is vital to a course’s success. Students should be able to access a list of each of the assignments and how they will be graded. This can be accomplished with a page dedicated to grading rubrics and syllabus statements on late work policies, the overall distribution of points in the course, and assignment instructions.

Assessment instruments that are sequenced, varied, and suited to the learner’s work being assessed are critical to the student’s success and the success of a course. There are numerous types of assessments that can be utilized such as discussion boards, tests/quizzes, projects, or presentations. But having varied assessments also means assessing different objectives, such as defining a term or discussing a concept. Students can also be encouraged to create an original product as a form of assessment.

The course should also provide learners with multiple opportunities to track their learning progress. This can be accomplished by having self-assessment tests, peer reviews, or the ability to submit drafts of assessments such as papers.

Additional Resources

Instructional Materials


Instructional materials are vital part of any online courses. These are the materials that provide the information that the students need in order to meet the stated course/module objectives.

Some examples of instructional materials are:

  • Textbooks
  • Scholarly Articles
  • Podcasts
  • Videos
  • Handouts
  • Interactive Activities

Best Practices

When integrating instructional materials into your course, it is important to provide context for why and how each material is going to be used. For example, how many pages should they read? Is there something you want them to specifically focus on? Do they need to read closely or can they skim sections? This will help guide your students on how these materials will be utilized for their learning.

Other best practices for the use of instructional materials include:

  • Appropriate Citations: Instructional Materials used throughout the course, whether it be a textbook, video, or handout, need to have proper citations. This makes it easier for students to find the materials you are referring to and also helps model the characteristics you want to see in their work.
  • Required/Optional Materials: It is also important to let your students know which materials are required and which ones are optional. This is to keep them from focusing on something that is only used for additional information while ignoring something they are going to need in order to complete an assignment.
  • Materials are Current: Current doesn’t always refer to dates, since those can vary from field to field. However, what current does imply is that all links are working, that texts were published in the last few years, and that any resources reflect current trends in a field. Classics are always welcome, just make sure to annotate how they relate to newer items. 

Additional Resources

Copyright Guidelines

This page provides some helpful information and tips on copyright and fair use.

Citations and Style Guidelines
Here is some useful information in regards to inclusive writing and style editing.

10 Great Ways to Annotate Resources
A blog post that has some great tips on how to annotate resources for online courses.

Course Activities and Learner Interaction


All activities in your course need to be aligned with your objectives. If your objective for the week is “students will be able to prepare a budget,” you probably want them to practice preparing budgets, right?

Another element of this standard is this: a balance of interactions is an essential part of a well-designed course. How will students interact with you? How will they interact with each other? What is too much or too little? Spelling out your expectations and giving students clear guidance is an effective way to help students focus on learning instead of worrying and wondering if they’re doing enough.

Active learning is also a key component of a successful course, studies have shown this time and again. Active learning means providing students with a variety of ways to actively participate. Research shows that effective online learning doesn’t consist of passively watching lectures or simply reading texts. You should devise activities for students to engage with course material, apply concepts to new situations, and synthesize what they are learning.

Best Practices

  • Align your learning activities with your objectives.
  • Include many active learning activities in your course.
  • Post guidelines about when students can expect to get feedback from you on their assignments, discussions, and emails.
  • Include your specific expectations for learner participation. Rubrics really help! (frequency, quality).

Additional Resources

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Write Effective Learning Objectives

Active Learning Strategies for the Online Classroom

Focus on Teaching and Learning Highlights Active Learning

Designing to Promote Instructor Presence and Instructor-Student Interaction

Course Technology


Technology can be the scariest thing with a course, but it more often than not is what can make a course a wonderful experience for learners and instructors. Technology supports the core objectives of your course and encourages active learning. It is available at all times, and to students accessing the course through desktops, tablets, and phones, on a variety of browsers. When properly utilized, educational technology can provide an immersive experience that enriches the content of the course.

Best Practices

The tools used in the course should support the learning objectives or competencies. It can be tempting to use the latest-and-greatest technology, but it is important to make sure that it is in the service of your course. For example, a public speaking course might use Arc’s in-video commenting feature to great effect, while a data science instructor may benefit more from a Lightboard video.

Course tools should promote learner engagement and active learning. It can be tempting to use technology to deliver content to students (as in a lecture video), but educational technology is most effective when it’s being used to facilitate interaction. Quality Matters provides guidelines for three kinds of interaction–instructor to learner, learner to learner, and learner to content. Which technologies will stretch these boundaries?

Technologies in the course need to be readily obtainable. Course technologies, such the LMS itself, software, or subscriptions, can greatly enhance a student’s learning process. Including information about what operating system works best with the technology and what LMS features are mobile friendly helps ensure students can easily find and obtain the required technologies. Include clear instructions on how to access these technologies, and where to get help if trouble arises.

The course technologies need to be current. Are all of the technologies working as they should, for students on different platforms, computers, browsers? Has the course technology kept up with the pace of innovation, or is it outdated or obsolete?

Links must be provided to privacy policies for all external tools required in the course. Student privacy considerations are extremely important. Make sure any tools or technologies used in the course that require students to create a password-protected account also include information on how to keep their private information secure.

Course technology must also be accessible, especially if students are required to interact with the technology to access content or complete an assignment. Read more about assessing technology for accessibility in How Do I Make My Course Resources Accessible?

Additional Resources

Learner Support


Universities are full of resources, and often students don’t know they exist! The Learner Support standard asks instructors to facilitate learner access to institutional support services such as accessibility and accommodations, academic services, student services, and technical support.

Best Practices

The syllabus is a great place to begin collecting links to and statements about these resources and services. (If you’ve started to collect quite a few, a separate page in the course site could be merited.)

  • Accessibility and Accommodations: Encourage students to connect with AccessibleNU and make your expectations about when students should request accommodations clear.
  • Academic Services: At Northwestern, academic services might include the Northwestern Libraries, the Writing Place, and the Math Place. Depending on the topic of your course, there may be additional support available.
  • Student Services: SPS Student Services include academic advising, career resources, and alumni relations. Don’t forget about Career Advancement, too!
  • Technical Support: Institutional support is provided by the SPS Student Help Desk and Northwestern IT. Don’t forget to include links to support for any technologies you use in your course, including Canvas.

Additional Resources

How Does the Writing Place Serve Distance Learning Students?

Online students may find it difficult to engage with academic and student services at a distance. This blog post describes how Northwestern’s Writing Place can tutor students who never come to campus.

Connecting with Northwestern

Beyond the critical resources that students (and faculty!) need to succeed in their coursework, it is important to cultivate a sense of belonging in the Northwestern academic community. This blog post provides examples of informal resources such as the university’s social media accounts and student newspaper.

Accessibility and Usability


It is important that all students be able to use your course site with ease. To this end, the Accessibility and Usability standard asks your class to commit to making your course, well, accessible and usable. That sounds like a simple goal, right?

But what does that mean, exactly? Your course should be easy to navigate, multimedia should be easy to use, and content should be easy to read. Your course should include institutional accessibility policies and provide alternative means of access to course materials.

Best Practices

Organizing the content in your course can seem daunting, but a few best practices can make navigation simple. Think chronologically so that students can see the week’s tasks at a glance. Customize navigation bars so that any unused course components are hidden and critical portions of the course are shortlisted. Ensure that important, commonly-used course features (like the syllabus, assignments, and Course Reserves) can be found quickly and easily from a homepage.

Some accessibility considerations may include:

  • Providing captions or transcripts for audiovisual content.
  • Using alt-text to describe images.
  • Formatting tables with clear headers and content cells.
  • Ensuring color combinations are high contrast and can be perceived by students who are colorblind.
  • Creating descriptive and unique links.
  • Writing descriptive page titles and headings.
  • Sharing information for students who need accommodations.
  • Using high-quality digital texts.

Please review the [link to main accessibility section of website] for our detailed accessibility policies and workflows.

Additional Resources