Solving the Jigsaw Puzzle: Improving Retention through Predictable Design

Katie Evans and Bill Beers (via Blackboard Collaborate!)
Instructional Design TeamKatie and Bill from Lake-Sumter College
Lake-Sumter State College (LSSC)

Katie and Bill have learned a lot together, and have adopted Quality Matters (QM). They use QM as their guiding light in the decisions they make surrounding course design.

A little bit about the school, the second smallest college in Central Florida. Lake-Sumter State College serves 5,000 students in Central Florida. There are 130 Faculty teaching in Blackboard Learn 9.1 SP 10. There are 7 eLearning Team Members and 2.5 student workers.

The Concept of Predictable Design

The problem: students become frustrated, not by the content of your course, but by the jigsaw puzzle course design which makes it hard for them to figure out the instructor expectations much less how to navigate a course. Eventually, these students fail or drop the course.

Faculty: “Students don’t read my syllabus – I have to explain things to them individually, over and over again.”

Student: “I can’t figure out what my instructor wants. I have to click all over the course to find the information I need.”

The solution: Predictable Design, a method of organizing course materials where students can find everything they need intuitively, with little instruction. It merges instructional concepts with the behavioral design concepts used to build websites.

Problems with Traditional Course Design and their Solutions

Problem #1: The syllabus is the roadmap for the course!

No one uses road maps anymore! (Have you been to lately and downloaded and printed a map? Even my mom has a Kindle and purchases eBooks from Amazon. :] )

Solution #1: Design your course so that it does not need a map. Instead use road signs to give students vital information in the places they will look for it, as they need it.


  • Create a course tour video for the first week – speak from a transcript, that way you can upload it straight to YouTube and have it sync your transcript with what you say and create captions. It also helps students get a feel for who you are, and what you want! Plus you can still lecture in the online environment using these videos!
  • Stop designing your course by chapter – design it by week! Tell students exactly what you want from them for the week in a detailed assignments list.
  • Create a weekly checklist of assignments your students must complete.
  • Repeat vital information in more than one place. (It is not enough to put those instructions for the discussion board in just the syllabus, put it in the directions for the discussions each week. Repeat what your late work policy is – don’t make students hunt for it.)

navigation menu example from an online courseProblem #2: Information is scattered all over the course, in left-hand menu headings for assignments, tests, modules, documents – and on and on. The course menu goes on and on forever!

Solution #2: Solve the Jigsaw Puzzle for your students. Use a short course menu and divide your content into weekly folders with a predictable structure. Everything is in the same place each week which makes it easy to find. Put together a weekly template for your course, and use it each week.

Problem #3: Your campus provides advising, tutoring and disability services, but your students do not use them. Do they even know they exist?

Solution #3: Inform your students about these services in places where they may need them.


  • Are you showing a video? Provide instructions for accessing captions or contacting the office of disabilities.
  • Are you assigning an essay? Are you giving a particularly difficult math assignment? Link to tutoring services in the instructions for the assignment.
  • Link to advising services web pages during “W” week. Remind students that they do have the option to withdraw.

Problem #4: Students submit assignments, but their work does not fit your instructions. You leave them feedback, but they still don’t get it.

Solution #4: Provide several examples of what a “good” assignment looks like, as well as some commentary on why the example is good.

Other ideas:

  • Give your instructions in a new way, like a video or interactive component.
  • Allow peer review for big assignments, using your discussion board. Provide strict peer review criteria.
  • Give your students “practice” exercises and quizzes so students can make mistakes in a low-stakes environment before it “counts.” If students have the opportunity to practice before a “test,” they will do better! 🙂

Course Tour of a Design in Progress

LSSC prioritizes online course redesign based on the retention rates. The lower the retention rate, the higher the priority. (Bill uses app sharing on Blackboard Collaborate to show the course, Introduction to Psychology, a very cool experience!) Introduction to Psychology was recently a course that had a very low retention rate at LSSC, and the team (Katie and Bill) are currently working on redesigning the course.

Bill then showed us the American Literature course that won a Catalyst Award this year. It is also being used by QM in their training. (Katie and Bill feel the course is mediocre, but there is a tour available on YouTube.)

How You can Begin Solving the Jigsaw Puzzle Right Now! (The big take aways…)

  1. Make an orientation video
  2. Make a welcoming course home page that contains your contact information.
  3. Design your course sequentially, by with, with “chunked” folders appearing in the exact same order each week.
  4. Give your students a checklist of what they must accomplish each week. (Assignment list)
  5. Repeat course policy information

My Big Take Away

Study games are still around! Katie and Bill use StudyMate and Respondus and have found ways to help their students practice and succeed with study games in some courses.


About Meegan
Meegan has over fifteen years experience working in higher education. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Statistics from Western Michigan University and a Master of Education with an emphasis on Instructional Technology from American InterContinental University Online. She is currently the Instructional Technologist/Designer at Grand Rapids Community College where her main focus is helping faculty to develop and deliver quality online and hybrid courses.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: