Article Review: Exploring Design Elements for Online Stem Courses: Active Learning, Engagement & Assessment Design

Kokila Ravi

Chen, B., Bastedo, K., & Howard, W. (2018). Exploring Design Elements for Online STEM Courses: Active Learning, Interaction & Assessment Design. Online Learning22(2). doi: 10.24059/olj. v22i2.1369

Article Summary:

This article aims to identify effective design elements for online courses in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine fields at a large four-year public university in southeastern United States. A survey was conducted to find out how design elements influence students’ perception of learning and overall course satisfaction.  An online survey was distributed in the spring of 2016, to 537 students from 15 online STEM courses. 

The results of the survey indicated that student learning and satisfaction rates were directly related to course elements like active learning activities, integrated learning, and robust assignment design.  Specifically, more thoughtfully designed assessments that are inclusive and cater to the needs of diverse populations, positively impacted students’ perception of their own learning and level of satisfaction with the course. 

The research findings inform STEM instructional designers and instructors to incorporate active and interactive learning strategies along with robust high and low stakes tests in order to increase student engagement, persistence, and success.  In addition, the survey includes questions regarding Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as increasingly online platforms attract students with a variety of learning styles as well as those that face significant learning challenges.

Implications of the Results of the Study:

In the current reality of burgeoning online courses, it is no surprise that over six million higher education students are taking online courses and 30% of all higher education students now take at least one course online (Allen & Seaman, 2017).  STEM education becoming a national priority, rising cost of college education, democratization of education, and huge forward strides in technology have contributed to the rise of STEM courses that are offered online.  The proliferation of online learning has also made instructors aware of the reality that instructional technology as well as the methodology used to teach humanities and social science courses may have to be tweaked to deliver STEM courses online.  While the authors claim that the use of active learning strategies and interactive discussions improve student outcomes in STEM courses, I believe that across the board these strategies will improve student engagement and learning in all disciplines.  A well designed online course will provide ample opportunities for students to engage with the a) learning materials, b) instructor, and c) peers, share knowledge and learn. 

Another important point the authors make and cite research to support their claim is the use of Universal Design in Learning (UDL) principles, when applied to STEM courses, will improve course completion rates.  Keeping UDL in mind, some instructors utilize a variety instructional strategies that address the learning needs of a variety of students and see their course completion and student success rates going up.  Again, I believe these strategies must be universally adopted in all courses, not just STEM, as they are proven strategies that work in all learning environments.

Researchers Chen and Howard conducted a research study to investigate the quality and quantity of design elements in STEM courses, their impact on student perceptions of learning, and student satisfaction.  Chen and Howard have identified that students rated software applications relevant to the course, solving real world problems, and analyzing scenarios or case studies (2017). After thorough analysis of the data obtained, they indicate that students included reading course news or announcements and receiving email messages from the instructor were the top two interaction activities identified by the students.  I believe that students in any course will benefit from the personal interaction with the instructor via email or through asynchronous meetings.


I think this research is very timely and will be of great use to online instructors.  As more and more institutions are moving towards online learning, it is essential that more research needs to be conducted on online courses in other disciplines to ascertain that the same strategies will benefit students taking other online courses too.  The study concludes that “…perception of assessment method efficacy is the most significant factor that was correlated with students’ perception of learning and learning satisfaction for all student demographic categories” (Chen and Howard, 2017).  However, one must carefully determine that assessments truly reflect student learning and mastery of concepts taught.  With the proliferation of online courses, we also have seen a flooding of “papermills” that will gladly complete the course for a student or simply take tests for the student.  In order to ensure test integrity as well as make certain that the student has a rich and meaningful learning experience, it is important that instructors focus on making the assessment personally relevant and rewarding to the student.  While this will require a major overhaul of our current assessment methods, we may have to customize our assessments to use real world examples, case studies, portfolios etc. that do not merely assess knowledge and understanding of the curriculum but go beyond to ensure that students are able to apply, analyze, and synthesize their new knowledge with what they already know and construct meaningful artifacts that are personally significant.

Allen, E., & Seaman, J. (2017). Digital Learning Compass:  Distance education enrollment report 2017.

Babson Survey Research Group, e-Literate, and WCET.  Retrieved from

Chen, B., Bastedo, K., & Howard, W. (2018). Exploring Design Elements for Online STEM Courses: Active

                Learning, Interaction & Assessment Design. Online Learning22(2). doi: 10.24059/olj. v22i2.1369

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