How To Keep Students From Getting Lost In Your Course

by Jessica Mansbach

If you have to reach an unfamiliar destination, a common practice is to use a road map. The road map shows you where to go and how to get there. The road map gives you information about what you can expect to see along your journey, what kind of progress you are making on your journey, and where you need to travel to reach your final destination. There are also landmarks that serve as indicators of whether you are following the right path to reach your destination.

In the same way that a road map provides you with a route to your  destination and prevents you from wasting time with aimless wandering, students need a route through your course to use their time efficiently. You can offer this route by providing students with a road map. As the expert in the course content, you know the lay of the land and have traveled this road before. Your students are new travelers and need directions from you. Think about your students’ progress through your course as a journey with multiple signs  along the way that guide them to their final destination: achievement of the course learning goals. The signs  along the way are the weekly learning outcomes and assessments you have carefully crafted. Students’ ability to find these signs gives you information about how their journey through your course is going.

Creating a road map for your course provides several benefits for instructors. The process of creating a road map helps you to design your course in a more strategic way, because you take the time to set a final destination for your students in the form of clear course learning goals. As you construct your road map, you also must think about the signs students will see along the way that signal to you and to them whether they are on the right path to the final destination. These signs function as assessments you will  use to determine students’ progress to the final destination.

When students have a road map through the course, they can more easily make sense of how to proceed through the course and how to use the course resources. With a roadmap to use as a guide, students have a better idea of what is expected of them as they travel to their final destination. Clear expectations help students succeed. In a recent blog post about adding context to the resources in your course, Instructional Technologist Jackie Wickham described a road map as a quick and easy way to orient students and set expectations for the week.  Jackie pointed out that roadmaps are useful for showing students where they are, where they have been, and where they should be going.  Roadmaps also alert students to important instructions and assignment deadlines.

In her post, Jackie pointed out several items that should be included in the road map:

  • information about the course resources (readings, videos, discussions) available for the week
  • how the course resources relate to the learning outcomes
  • how students can use the course resources to complete the assessments

Other important items to include in the road map are:

  • a brief overview of the week (in text or video) that tells students what to expect during the week and how they might use their time
  • a brief elaboration on the week’s learning outcomes

Explaining the road map in a short video helps you add your voice and presence to the course. 

In addition to all of the benefits of creating road maps described above, providing students road maps is a marker of a high-quality online course. The nationally recognized Quality Matters Rubric Standards includes a section on Instructional Materials. In this section, instructors are encouraged to describe the purpose of the instructional materials and how students should use them–the type of information you would include in a road map. The Distance Learning Team is implementing these Quality Matters Rubric Standards in their design of online courses. Get a head start on incorporating these standards into your course by including road maps for your students.  



Johns Hopkins University: Learning Roadmap for Online Instructors


Learning Solutions Magazine: Keep Learnings On The Right Track: Course Road Maps


Oregon State Campus: Overview of Best Practices for Online Course Design


Palomar College: Online Course Best Practices Checklist