Instructional Design: Are you a grouper (Sandbox) or a sequencer (Leveler)?

organizeOne of the fun things about designing classes is the wide variety of approaches. This is especially prominent in the online environment where in a lot of cases, “anything goes.” One of the number one mistakes many online instructors do when they start building out an online course is they grossly underestimate the value of organization. Not only organizing content for the instructor but for the student. This organization can be come the deciding factor in a students failure or success.


Typically most online courses fall into two categories: grouping and sequencing. Grouping means you organize your work into chunks. Below is a simple outline example

  • Topic 1
    •  Readings
      • Reading 1
      • Reading 2
    • Class/Homework
      • Assignment 1
      • Assignment 2
    • Prove your learning
      • Assessment

This creates a very easy to understand pattern for students. It also groups work together so a student can look at similar content pieces at once. While some online instructors can restrict access to things out of order, in the courses I built as groups I don’t. I never saw a negative impact on letting a student see their homework before it is due.

As a gamer I tend to associate this style of course design to be similar to a sandbox style game (think Minecraft or GTA where there are things to do but in whatever order you want).. Each section can be like a town with objectives within each town to complete. You can jump around and complete them in any order, but you have to jump.


The other approach I like to call sequencing and it looks similar to this:

  • Topic 1
    • Reading 1
    • Assignment 1
    • Reading 2
    • Assignment 2
    • Assessment

In this example things are pre set in a specific order, and typically students are restricted to going in that order only. This restricts students from jumping around but does provide them with a followable path. This is more like a shooter style (shmup), or “on rails” game where you have a start and an end and a specific approach.

Now the question comes where you say “Well, which one is best?” While it looks simple this can be an incredibly complicated question that will have an impact on the success of your students.

The grouping approach has a major benefit of being open. I love as a student the ability to jump from thing to thing. Being able to run ahead and do homework maybe even before doing the readings can be a fun adventure in doing your own research. However, in an online environment I tend to be highly self motivated. Non-self motivated students and/or first time onliners may find themselves hopelessly lost and overwhelmed with managing their own workload.

It also can turn into a jump around festival that can be very frustrating. I hate having to sit through reading a 20 page .pdf followed by another, then I have to answer questions on the first. Yes it forces me to take notes, but my mind tends to have the most activity about a piece of content right after I read it. Having something in the middle can be super frustrating.

Sequencing is nice since it takes some of the guess work out of the picture and provides students with a clear path. You can also put work right next to readings or content which means students can respond quickly. For less self motivated students and first time online learners this can be a great approach.

For years I was always a grouping champion and tended to hate on courses with rigid sequential control. However, over the years I’ve come to enjoy and advocate for sequencing. Some courses are highly chaotic and in an online environment that pathway can be a lifesaver when it comes to turning in content on time.

So to summarize. Course design tends to (these are not the only choices) fall into two types of categories. One (grouping) allows for students to complete work in the order they choose while the other (sequencing) goes in a very specific order. There is no “right” solution and really it comes down to what you as the instructor is comfortable but you have to keep in mind it’s the students that really matter here. If you have younger students it might be better to have some sequencing. If it’s the 5th course in an online degree program maybe open it up a bit more.



2 comments on “Instructional Design: Are you a grouper (Sandbox) or a sequencer (Leveler)?

  1. Interesting discussion on the different paths you can set for a course. A learner analysis is probably useful in determining how structured the course should be. The subject matter is also an important ingredient. Personally, I sometimes enjoy both styles..

    • Thanks for the comment Justin! I do agree having a a baseline for your students is great. Sometimes time plays a factor in that since you may not have your students until then. Personally I’ve always used the 4MAT learning styles test which I have found to be a little less cumbersome than the BMS, plus I find it really accurate.

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