Visualize The Possibilities: Using Visual Elements to Enhance Online Learning

Visualize The Possibilities: Using Visual Elements to Enhance Online Learning
Contributed By

Philip Pulley

Social Studies and Communication Teacher

Visualize The Possibilities: Using Visual Elements to Enhance Online Learning

Posted in Evolving Ed | July 06, 2018

Did you know that the design of your course can affect student learning? Research has shown that the design of online course materials can impact students’ perceptions of the course and their course outcomes. In a 2016 article on student engagement in virtual classrooms, Dixson and her fellow authors found that online nonverbal immediacy behaviors or design aspects, including visual imagery, audio, and video, are related to higher levels of course engagement by students.

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That reinforces 2014 research of the effects of shapes and colors on learning by Plass and others showing that attractive visual design (layout, colors, imagery, etc.) can evoke positive emotions in learners that can help facilitate the learning process. Making your content in Schoology visually appealing is a great step towards having students readily engage with your course materials. But it is about more than just making your course ‘look pretty.’


As Castle and McGuire’s 2010 research on student perceptions of online, blended, and face-to-face courses notes, “the purpose of media elements should be to deliver the content and instructional methods, not to make a program merely look appealing. A judicious use of a selection of visual design elements lets the student instantly know where he is, what he is doing, and how things are ordered” (p. 69). This is echoed by Dixson, et al who note “that visual appeal therefore is simply a byproduct of good instructional design” (p. 38).

So, how can you add educationally effectively visual appeal to your Schoology course? First, make make sure the visuals support or reinforce the other materials. Second, make them serve as a way to provide students multiple pathways (and shortcuts!) to materials. Third, make sure they serve as a way to help organize your content in a consistent manner for them.

Livingston and Shaw 2018 post on using graphics in online courses lists four main types of graphics to enhance students learning: representational, organizational, relational, and decorative. Decorative elements are used most often, but add little instructional value. Relational graphics help illustrate relationships between variables such a can be seen in a graph. In order to help students with your Schoology course, focus on representational graphics that describe or portray content and organizational graphics that help students grasp your course flow and sequence.

In my opinion, consistency is key to making your course a vehicle that increases what is possible for your students in the classroom. Using visuals as part of that organizational pattern of course materials helps students quickly find and access the required readings, assessments, and videos while saving time so they are not hunting around course materials for resources.

5 Visual and Consistency Tools for Effective Schoology Courses

There are a ton of tools for designing the learning experiences you want your students to have in Schoology. The visual and consistency tools that I use (and that you will learn about in my Schoology NEXT 2018 session) are:

  • Unit folders with images and a consistent set of subfolders
  • Course Banners and Images
  • Unit Homepages
  • Embedded Unit Plan Google documents
  • Completion Rules for Assignments

Unit Folders

All of my unit folders have an image and text added into the description box which helps provide a visual idea of what that unit will be covering.


Additionally, all of the subfolders in the unit folder have an organizational pattern that is the same for each unit.


By keeping this organization the same, students always know where to go to find any specific materials for each unit.

Course Banners with Hyperlinks

This adds another visual element to the course’s homepage and links to materials in the current unit. It also provides students another pathway to access the materials for the current unit.


The hyperlinked icons on the banner correspond to those on each unit homepage.

Unit Homepages

I use unit homepages as a way to provide my students a visual home from which they can access the content for each unit.  This provides them with yet another visual path to material. Each page includes images hyperlinked to unit materials, assessments, and other ‘extras’ for the students.


Included on each homepage is an embedded calendar of assignments and activities.

Embedded Google Doc Calendar

Another tool I use to let students know upcoming activities and assignments for each unit, is an embedded calendar on each unit’s homepage. This is a visual way for students to get an overview of the entire unit. The embedded document also includes hyperlinks to the assessments and activities for the unit.


The calendar not only provides another way to access course materials materials, it helps keep students on track for the unit.

Completion Rules

The last trick I use to keep my students on track for each unit is completion rules for the daily assignments and activities.  These require students to view videos, submit assignments, or post to a discussion.


The completion rules make sure that students complete all of the items in the order they need to be done, but it also offers them a semi self-pacing option for the unit. Students can work ahead to plan around work in other classes or extracurricular activities they participate in.

Those are the tools I use in Schoology to help keep my students on track, with visual cues including hyperlinked course banners, visual unit homepages, and embedded unit calendars. Those visual elements not only add to the aesthetics of the but provide multiple pathways to materials. Along with the visual elements remember that the use of unit folders with a consistent set of subfolders and completion rules for assignments can help your students quickly find material and keep them on track.

Learn from Philip in His Schoology NEXT Session

If you want to learn how to add these elements to your Schoology courses, join me at my session at Schoology NEXT. We'll cover the following standards:

ISTE Standards for Educators

  • Learner—Educators continually improve their practice by learning from and with others and exploring proven and promising practices that leverage technology to improve student learning.

ISTE Standards for Coaches

  • Teaching, Learning, and Assessments—Technology coaches assist teachers in using technology effectively for assessing student learning, differentiating instruction, and providing rigorous, relevant and engaging learning experiences for all students.
  • Digital Age Learning Environments—Technology coaches create and support effective digital age learning environments to maximize the learning of all students.



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