Reimagining the 5 W’s: Online Course Quality and Alignment

by Dolly Lemke



At Northwestern, we ascribe to extremely high educational quality standards, and this of course extends to the online courses and programs we design, implement, and maintain for graduate and undergraduate adult learners. But, what does a quality online course look like? How do we define and measure quality? Those are both tough questions that we regularly ask ourselves as we design and develop online courses. To answer these questions, let’s consider them through the lens of the Quality Matters (QM) standards.

Quality Matters Standards and Alignment

The Northwestern University Distance Learning department uses the QM Standards to ensure our courses provide exemplary learning experiences that help students achieve the program and course goals. The QM Standards were developed out of a faculty-centered, peer review process designed to certify the quality of online courses and online components (About Quality Matters). We use QM as framework for quality throughout our course design process, from start to finish, revisiting the standards along the way to make sure we are on track to creating a high-quality course. The QM Standards help us define and successfully design high-quality courses.

One of the hallmarks of the QM Standards and a quality online course is alignment among learning objectives, instructional materials, and assessments, ensuring critical course components work together so learners can achieve desired learning outcomes (QM Course Design Rubric Standards). Alignment also drives the development and implementation of effective assessments (Northern Illinois University, Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center).

In theory, quality and alignment sound like excellent concepts, but what does alignment look like in practice? How do we make sure essential components are truly working together? And how do we know students recognize alignment and can make connections?

Helping Students Make Connections  

In order to succeed in the online classroom, students need to know how everything they are interacting with works together. You may have clear and well-written learning objectives, but without clear alignment of how the instructional materials and assessments support those objectives, students can feel lost and frustrated by the online learning environment (Alignment: A Proven Method to Help Students Achieve Learning Goals). Students should be able to quickly and easily identify the five W’s:

  • Who needs to do the work?
  • What work needs to be done and in what order?
  • Where the work is?
  • When the work is due?
  • Why does the work need to be done?

Strategies and Examples of Alignment

We have identified that effective alignment design strategies include:

Weekly overview narratives that “tell the story” of each week. This is a great opportunity to clearly and precisely communicate some or all of the five W’s. The narrative should be student-focused so they know who needs to do the work and why the work needs to be done. Starting students off on the right foot each week will reduce frustration and confusion.

MHI 409: Biostatistics: Weekly Overview Example

Weekly roadmaps that guide students through tasks by giving them a snapshot of what to expect for the week(s) and help them manage their time. Including reminders of course-wide project milestones or deliverables of what’s coming up in a few weeks is a good practice as well. Learning Designer Krissy Wilson has a blog post about Building Roadmaps with Canvas Icons if you want more information on how to apply this alignment strategy in your course.

ORG BEH 395: Practicum: Weekly Roadmap Example

Alignment tables that map out what instructional or educational materials will help students complete specific activities or assessments and what objectives students are working towards. This can also be done during course development to ensure alignment and can be written as part of the weekly narrative.

ENG 385: Literature and Leadership: Alignment Table Example

Reading and resource annotations that explain and contextualize the purpose of the materials. There are many ways to accomplish this: call out sections to focus on in longer works, provide guiding questions, write a teaser that gets students excited to engage with the materials, and indicate an order or group materials, among others. Check out Learning Designer Krissy Wilson’s blog post 10 Great Ways to Annotate Resources.

MSGH 417: Global Health Systems: Reading Annotation Example

Implementing these strategies requires designers and developers to ask themselves questions before even getting started: What does alignment look like during your course design process? What kinds of conversations do you have about alignment with faculty, course developers, administration, and others? What does alignment look like in your online courses? What kinds of strategies do you employ to ensure alignment?


According to the peer-reviewed QM Standards and adult learning theory principles, clearly and transparently communicating alignment to adult online students is necessary for designing and delivering a quality course, which in turn, creates a learning environment where students are poised for success. When students know and understand the five W’s of course quality and alignment, we know we are providing exemplary educational services.


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Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. (N.D.). Formative and Summative Assessment. Retrieved from

Postins, M. (2013, April 18). Alignment: A Proven Method to Help Students Achieve Learning Goals. [Blog]. Retrieved from

Quality Matters. (N.D.). About Quality Matters. Retrieved from

Quality Matters. (N.D.). Course Design Rubric Standards. Retrieved from

Wilson, K. (2016, June 6). 10 Great Ways to Annotate Resources. [Blog]. Retrieved from