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How to design learning to boost engagement in 8 simple steps

Curriculum Planning and Development

The end of the 2021/2022 academic session is on the horizon. The challenges presented to schools by the pandemic are easing somewhat and teachers can begin to look ahead with greater confidence. It is around this time of year that many academic departments will be looking ahead in terms of curriculum development. It can be tempting and understandable to build courses that are knowledge rich, however adopting a set of learning design principles can help focus the direction of such substantial teacher workloads.

A natural starting point when developing or re-developing course content can be to ask:

‘What do I want the students to know and be able to do by the end of this course?’

This is an important question, but I would argue that it could lead teachers to focus on the course in isolation.

Imagine you are an architect designing a house for a client: you would listen carefully to the needs of your client and understand what success looks like to them. You would be driven by the flow of the space so that it makes sense and works for the client. Sensitivity to the surrounding environment would also be a consideration so that the design is sustainable, inclusive and accessible. Government planning guidance would provide constraints and perhaps conflicts, but could not be ignored. The ‘wow!’ factor of certain appliances or design features are also a key aspect of the client’s brief for the design.

All of these design processes are essential and speak to excitement, engagement, compliance, pride, resilience and sustainability.

Designing learning is much the same. If teachers approach curriculum planning and development with a set of core learning design principles, they will address student and teacher agency and ensure that they are not focused on transactional processes, but instead thinking about how to engage and help their students understand and make personal meaning of the curriculum.

Effective learning design (online, blended or in-person) must emphasise the cognitive, emotional, motivational and social aspects of learning.

What does this look like in action?

One teaching model I employ in my classroom because of its flexibility, iterative, ambitious and active nature is shown below:

Quinn (2021) points to the following as essential elements of learning design:

1. Clear/emergent goals

2. Balanced challenge

3. Thematic coherence

4. Relevance: action to get to the goal

5. Relevance: problem to the learner

6. Choices of action

7. Feedback

8. Novelty/unpredictability

Let’s see how this could work in practice with a political literacy course for a first year senior school class. The scenario that follows identifies the steps a teacher planning this new course might take to drive engagement in the course:

Topic: Democracy

What are the goals of the course?

  1. Students will develop their knowledge and understanding of the origins and meaning of democracy.

  2. Students will understand the differences and similarities between direct and representative democracy.

  3. Students will practise their research skills to identify global political systems that use either or both of these branches of democracy.

  4. Students will be able to compare and evaluate the concept of democracy in two countries.

How will students be challenged?

  1. Teachers will model sorting and ranking strategies to support students in their analysis and comparison of current political systems that are considered to be democracies. They will be faced with the challenge of creating their own comparison categories and assigning a score based on specific criteria. They will use their communication skills to discuss their analyses with their peers and justify their views. They will use the Project Zero Ladder of Feedback to scaffold such discussions so they can develop their understanding of ‘accountable talk’ and respect for others.

  2. Students will access the Democracy Index online to understand how countries are ranked according to levels of democracy (full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes). This will allow students to understand that democracy can be nuanced.

  3. Students will also be challenged by practising new research skills such as being able to remove invasive results from an Internet search and use a hyphen to exclude words, using Google Books to locate relevant information and understanding and placing a high value on academic honesty.

How does this course offer thematic coherence?

Context will be explicit in the teaching of the core content:

  1. The teacher will explore the context of Brexit and the Scottish Independence Referendum to facilitate students’ understanding of direct democracy.

  2. The teacher will draw upon students’ prior knowledge of the most recent UK general election. This will be prompted by a flipped classroom scenario of a 3 minute video outlining the process of voting in UK general elections from UK Parliament TV on YouTube.

  3. Using a story about Athenian democracy (video and text available), students will be able to understand the context in Greece in c.507 BC that facilitated direct democracy and then compare this context to political systems in the modern era.

  4. Students will consider how this course links with other ideas and concepts studied.

  5. Students will identify bigger picture questions that go beyond the obvious. These might be 'To what extent is democracy the 'best worst form of government'?

How is this course relevant?

(a) Action to get to the goal

Students will use prior knowledge through the flipped model of learning and teaching so they can build schematic understanding of the ‘big questions’ and core concepts.

Small and group discussions will be central to the learning process. During these activities, students will learn to practise active listening, accountable talk and respectful feedback. This will support the development of their communication and collaboration skills.

(b) Problem to the learner

Students will grasp the fact that they are future voters in both direct and representative democracies in the UK. This will facilitate personal meaning making which is central to effective learning. Some students may have experienced living in countries that are not full/flawed democracies and perhaps will be able to offer commentary on how life might be different in non-democracies.

How will this course afford choices of action for students?

  1. Students will independently select countries to study for the comparative analyses aspect of this course.

  2. Students will be able to choose the mode of presentation of their research findings.

How will feedback be provided to and by students in this course?

  1. Students will use the Project Zero Ladder of Feedback to give and receive feedback. This will ensure respectful and accountable talk among all stakeholders.

  2. Teachers have the option to provide oral, written or video feedback to students when offering final commentary on students’ presentations.

Where are the opportunities for novelty or unpredictability in this course?

To ensure that students do not become disengaged from their learning due to predictability, students will experience a talk given by a local MP and will have the opportunity to question him about his views and stance about democracy.

The flipped classroom resources will offer a degree of novelty for those unfamiliar with this approach. The teacher may wish to appear in the video or perhaps create an animation to disrupt the accepted format of learning and teaching.

An Instagram account will be set up for this year group. Students will not be able to direct message the account or leave comments. This is because monitoring the account would increase teacher workload. The Instagram account content would provide snippets of content to support students’ understanding of the key concepts.

When teachers intentionally ask themselves how they are using these principles in their planning, they promote accountability and commitment to the science of learning. This is a big part of the 'why' of being a teacher.

Departmental Case Study: Plotting literacy across a course

Departmental planning of this nature can be an effective strategy to manage teacher workload and keep students on track in terms of knowledge, skills and assessment performance.

If you would like a walk through to understand how this can be achieved, take a look at the video on literacy mapping across a subject department using Google Sheets:

If you are looking for ideas to invigorate the learning and teaching in your classroom or school, take a look at my new Teaching for Learning digital training. This asynchronous, online professional development course is focused on research and experience informed practical strategies that any teacher can use in their classroom today.

Learn new teaching models and teaching and learning strategies to continually improve the quality of education in your school and ready your students for the skills they need now and in the future.

This course is just one component of the The Hexis21 Professional & Personal Development Online School which helps busy educators find strategies to develop curiosity, creativity, and courage to develop effective ways of thinking and doing within themselves and the young people they inspire.

If you are a school leader and would like to take a look at the course to understand and experience the value it would bring to the teaching and learning in your school, please send me a message on LinkedIn or email me at

If you would learn more about my work and the professional services I offer, please follow me on LinkedIn where I regularly publish content about education, learning, teaching and well being.


Windschitl, M., Thompson, J., and Braaten, M. (2018). Ambitious Science Teaching. Boston, MA, USA: Harvard Education Press.

Quinn, C. N., (2021). Learning Science for Instructional Designers: From Cognition to Application. ATD Press

Quinn, R. E., Heynoski, K., Thomas, M., and Spreitzer, G. M. (2014). The Best Teacher in You: How to Accelerate Learning and Change Lives. San Francisco, USA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

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