Our iLumenation series explores relevant topics and challenges that faculty across higher education institutions are facing today. In this final post, we take an in-depth look at and share tips on how to identify course materials that support and improve learning. 

A recent survey of 4,000 instructors by Tyton Partners listed the top instructional priorities for faculty. “How to identify high-quality instructional materials that are aligned to learning objectives” was cited as a top priority by 43 percent of faculty from two-year institutions and 51 percent of faculty from four-year institutions. However, in order to do this well, instructors need to sift through an array of choices, at times confusing and similar features, and even complex technology.

To help make this choice easier, here are four essential tips to keep in mind when choosing course materials that align to your learning objectives. 

Look for evidence of learning science

Learning science matters both in how course materials are constructed and how they are improved. The Johns Hopkins Science of Learning Institute defines learning science as “an approach that recognizes the value and importance of cross-fertilization across traditional fields of study, drawing on many different methods and techniques to understand how learning occurs — with the ultimate goal of optimizing learning for all.” 

In this post, we list features and best practices that provide evidence that courseware is designed using learning science research (keep reading!). A second critical, but often overlooked, component is the application of learning science to the continuous improvement of course materials. 

“Improvement requires a capacity for measurement,” explains Dr. David Wiley, Chief Academic Officer at Lumen Learning. “We can say we’ve changed course materials without measuring the impact of those changes, but we can only say we’ve improved course materials when we have measured student outcomes and confirmed that they have actually changed for the better.”

Nearly all courseware providers will say that they use data to drive the improvement of their products. There’s reason to be skeptical and conduct due diligence as to what this actually means in practice. Make sure that your course material provider is transparent about their improvement process. For example, at Lumen Learning we leverage a community-based continuous improvement process that starts with an analysis of course content and learning data. We then publish the results of these analyses openly in order to share what is happening with our continuous improvement work. 

Look for a range of instructional practices

Learning science tells us that students benefit from a range of instructional strategies. Students require experiences and tools within courses that help them become better learners, and faculty need space to leverage their own pedagogical approaches. 

Faculty benefit from courseware that includes opportunities for various strategies such as direct instruction and collaborative, active learning. Both faculty and students benefit from features such as scaffolding and differentiated instruction to meet the needs of each learner in the class. 

Students need the ability to self-direct their own learning. Some products may even have features that are specifically designed using learning science to help students become stronger self-directed learners. These might include lessons or tips on how to use study time efficiently and when to ask for help. These student-centric features boost student success in individual courses and more broadly throughout their educational experience. 

Related to offering a range of instructional practices, students need to be engaged with active learning. Courseware that offers students the opportunity to actively participate in the learning process and has multiple opportunities to engage with the material helps them move toward mastering the content. 

Ross Strader, Lumen’s Director of Learning Engineering, concludes: “Instead of only reading text or watching lecture video, these passive activities can be improved by the frequent addition of interactive questions and activities that engage students, target common student mistakes and misconceptions, and correct those misconceptions right as they occur.”

As students practice, take assessments and receive feedback in real-time, faculty can check for understanding and comprehension of the learning objectives and intervene when appropriate. A 2019 National Academy of Sciences study that compared “passive lectures with active learning using a randomized experimental approach and identical course materials” found that students in the active classroom learn more, even though they felt like they learned less. (This perception is associated with the increased effort that active learning requires, which we discuss in more detail in the next section.)  

Avoid “black box” data

Courseware houses valuable data. Yet not all courseware makes that data easily available or actionable to instructors and students. Look for course materials that provide students with access to their own data and provide tools for making data visible and actionable for both students and faculty to aid the learning process. 

As noted, it’s critically important to allow for self-directed learning. Making data available so students understand where they are in their learning journey and what content and practice are available to them, instead of automatically serving students predetermined paths, allows for more effective self-directed learning to occur. This can help them develop critical metacognitive skills to make good decisions that will help them throughout their academic career.

Students need to be able to monitor and reflect on their own learning. However, just as the aforementioned National Academy of Sciences study demonstrated, student perception matters. Students may not immediately believe they are progressing because “when students experience the increased cognitive effort associated with active learning, they initially take that effort to signify poorer learning.” Faculty can boost student motivation and engagement in the learning process by improving “students’ response to being actively engaged in the classroom.” Courseware that makes data available should also give faculty actionable tools to support learner-centered, student-driven environments. 

Look for flexibility in any modality

Last but certainly not least, flexibility in any modality is an important feature to consider when selecting course materials, given that the delivery of instruction can change due to unforeseen circumstances. Faculty face the challenge of continuing to effectively meet learning objectives, even if engaging in remote instruction, a hybrid environment, or other modality.

Look for materials that allow for easily and quickly modifying a course based on modality, term length, or other factors. For example:

  • Facilitating interaction and communication between faculty and students with flexible tools,
  • Pacing and course design suggestions on how to organize the content for various term lengths,
  • Integration into an institution’s learning management system so students have consistent access to their learning materials, 
  • Ability to easily reorder or adjust content to match desired learning outcomes; and
  • Assignments and discussions that can be easily modified.

The vast marketplace of course materials is often overwhelming. Yet, with a clear idea of what features, practices, and supports to look for within courseware, faculty can better assess how materials best support learning goals.



“Time for Class: COVID-19 Edition, Part 1 A National Survey of Faculty During COVID-19,” Digital Promise, Every Learner Everywhere, and Tyton Partners, 2020.

“Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019. https://www.pnas.org/content/116/39/19251