Building an Activity Catalog to Improve Course Design


As teachers and instructional designers, one of the biggest challenges we face is trying to come up with multiple creative and appropriately challenging activities for our courses. We have to consider the diverse needs of our learners and the goals of the course and then figure out a whole bunch of details to ensure that those needs and goals are met. At our college, instructors and instructional designers were feeling the burden of the workload involved in creating activities for multiple courses a year. We wanted a way to store our best activity ideas and share them with one another.

To meet this goal, the Office of Digital Learning at Lancaster Bible College created an “activity catalog”—a database designed to collect all of the assessments that you have ever used or found somewhere and thought “that looks interesting.” It provides a place to store these activities, tag them in various ways, and use them as a starting point when designing a course. A similar repository will help any instructor create richer, more effective online course content with less work.

Design of an activity catalog

To design our activity catalog, we began by grabbing our favorite assignments and discussion prompts. We copied these to documents in a shareable, cloud-based storage area so that others could see them. Then each activity was made generic by reviewing the wording and removing anything that was course specific. We used the signifier [parenthetical information] to indicate where instructions would need to be customized but also tried to make as much of the text as possible work in any setting. Once an activity was “genericized,” we allowed other instructional designers to review it to ensure that it was clear.

At first, this was all we had: a bunch of collected “best of” activities with generic instructions that faculty could use in any course. Our instructional designers would review these when helping a professor create a course and suggest appropriate ideas. As we used them and added more entries, we discovered that it would be useful to have a way to locate a specific type of activity. This is when we began to create a database.

We started by deciding what kinds of sorting would be useful. We determined to tag for assessment type (discussion, journal, short paper, etc.); Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (our preferred method of measuring cognitive level); estimated hours (roughly based on the Wake Forest Workload Estimator 2.0); size of project (how many weeks will it be spread across); and student grouping (individual, groups, whole class, etc.). We then created a spreadsheet to capture this information. We added activity names in the first column and then the other information in successive columns. For the tagging areas, we created drop-down lists to allow for quick completion and easy sorting. We finished things off by adding a column that linked to the specific document for each activity instruction sheet.

As a by-product, creating the spreadsheet allowed us to see that there were gaps in the types of activities we were collecting. There were also some more basic activities (not necessarily “best of” ideas but still useful ones), such as read-and-respond discussions or papers, that were not included. So we went out and gathered more ideas to include. Over the coming days, our activity catalog doubled in size. This more comprehensive set of activities made the tool significantly more useful.

Another by-product of having the spreadsheet was that we now felt that we could allow professors to look through the activity catalog themselves and gather ideas. Before it would have been challenging for them to sort through and discover what they needed. Now, though, they could search for specific kinds of activities and find just the right one.

Our activity catalog was now ready for wide usage. And, as with most new tools that come into regular use, we started to see the flaws. First, we noticed that most of the activities, while containing useful instructions for the students, lacked any explanation that would help a professor who had never used them before know how they were meant to work. Some activities are pretty easy to figure out, but others really need more explanation. We also added a rubric for each activity. Additionally, there is information that we need when building an activity into a course, such as what kinds of file uploads are acceptable or whether students need to post before seeing other student posts within a discussion, that was not included in the activity information sheets. This led to a period of revision that elevated the usefulness of our activity catalog significantly.

Today, our activity catalog is a robust database containing a guide for nearly every activity that a professor might want or need in their course. Exploring the catalog is part of the design process for every new course that is built. Our instructional designers have watched as courses have become more diverse in types of activities being used, and our professors have expressed that the activity catalog saves them time while helping them to build courses more effectively.

Building your own activity catalog

To create an activity catalog, you should first select a cloud-based tool or tools where you can create and collect documents and a spreadsheet. We elected to use Quip to store our documents and Airtable for our spreadsheet. Next, gather the different activities that you have used in past courses. As you do this, you will likely notice that some of your activities are similar in nature, so you may need only one entry may to capture that activity for broad use. Then gather activity ideas that you have found and want to try and locate new ideas. Try to get as many ideas in your activity catalog as possible. If you are working on this alone, consider asking other instructors whether they would be interested in sharing ideas.

After gathering your activities, create activity information sheets that provide the following: a descriptive title; brief information an instructor would need to use it successfully, genericized instructions with parenthetical, customizable pieces marked; and any details needed to build the activity into your LMS.

Finally, you’ll want to set up your spreadsheet. Begin by determining the criteria that you will need to use when sorting and then create your columns for each tag needed. Consider creating dropdown lists when possible to allow for easy completion of entries. Then, add all of your activities to the spreadsheet and include links from the spreadsheet to each activity information sheet.

When you complete your initial activity catalog, we recommend identifying possible gaps and searching out additional ideas to fill those gaps. This will provide you with more robust options that lead to creative, differentiated education for your students. We hope you find, as we did, that the investment of time in developing an activity catalog is soon returned with interest in both time saved and more effective course design.

Debra Johnson-Cortesi, PhD, is the senior instructional designer and associate professor at Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School.

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