Resilient Course Design

What is Resilient Course Design?

What do we actually mean when we talk about resilient courses? Thinking about some of the more common definitions of resilient, we might use the term simply to refer to a course that can "rebound" from disruption; one that is either "not susceptible to" change or is specifically designed to be "able to recover from" disruptions. But we might also aim a bit higher, drawing on definitions of resilient that incorporate the spark of teaching and learning to work toward courses that are "buoyant, "irrepressible," "adaptable," and "robust."

For college faculty, resilient course design is an approach to structuring courses in a way that seeks to minimize the effects of external disruption on student learning. One of the lessons learned in the last year and a half is that disruption "happens": it's unavoidable and that it can take many forms beyond a pandemic, including inclement weather, illness/injury, and travel. 

Educational research indicates that a resilient course design is one that is mode-agnostic in nature and that capitalizes on the richness of the on-campus, synchronous format, along with the flexibility of the online, asynchronous format. Resilient design also stresses the importance of pedagogy that focuses on students' psychological needs to feel competent, to be heard, and to be autonomous, as this "leads to desired academic outcomes, including enhanced academic achievement and long-term retention on content and skills" (Guay et al 2008). With this in mind, we can prepare for the inevitable by introducing such principles in our existing course delivery.





Resilient Design Choices

The Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) and the Learning Design and Technology (LDT) teams have been listening to faculty and have been following the external conversations about the kinds of formats that transitioned well from an in-person to a remote delivery. So, what do these formats look like in practice?

First, a thoughtful course organization is key. This might include:

  • Making a detailed plan describing how course operations and interactions will support learning, clearly linking what students are learning to do, how they will practice, and how mastery will be assessed.
  • Crafting a syllabus that is informational and that outlines a clear path to mastery and course success.
  • Establishing a course rhythm that outlines a repeatable pattern of course interactions.
  • Offering a high level of student support, providing a "road map" of sorts that informs students when to start studying, when project stages begin, etc. Such clearly articulated expectations build students' feelings of competence and tend to be impervious to disruption.

Second, certain instructional strategies prove to be resilient over time. These include:

  • Built-in opportunities for student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-content interaction that can take place successfully either face-to-face or virtually. These opportunities might take the form of icebreaker discussions, student surveys, or group work.
  • High-levels of student-choice woven into the course, which might include offering a content menu or multiple paths to demonstrate mastery.
  • Reservation of synchronous experiences for objectives that cannot be met any other way. In other words, carefully plan synchronous and asynchronous content delivery that optimizes valuable face-to-face time. For example, you might consider spelling out instructions, assignments, schedules, etc. asynchronously so in-person sessions can be devoted to instruction.

Third, assessment plans that use the tiered (low- and high-stakes) assignment and feedback model tend to withstand disruption. These assignments might include:

  • Alternative assessment opportunities that require a distillation of the most essential course objectives and measurement that offers multiple ways (and modalities) for students to demonstrate their learning. 
  • High-impact assessment practices, which might include collaborative, experiential, or portfolio-based assignments.

Five Actionable Strategies

To conclude, we recommend five actions you can take before the next disruption occurs, along with some associated resource links.

  1. Continue to familiarize yourself with Zoom and its features.
    • Become comfortable using pedagogical features such as breakout rooms, the polling tool, and whiteboard/tablet functionality, and technological features such as audio-video settings and uploading recordings to CanvasExperiment with Panopto if you haven't already
  2. Create video assets such as announcements, assignment instructions, and instructional segments that are evergreen and reusable over time.
    • Try using a new or different functionality in Canvas
  3. Make regular use of the Canvas announcements tool so that students get used to checking for updates in-between class meetings.
    • Group course content into Canvas modules to logically organize course flow.
    • Administer quizzes, exams, and other assessments online.
    • Explore discussion options, such as small groups, journals, and debate.
    • Use the team and individual project topic selection tool.
    • Employ the Collaborations tool to facilitate Google G-Suite-supported team projects.
  4. Explore assessment options and supportive ed-tech tools
    • Create a Slack course channel for eliciting questions and comments during class meetings.
    • Take advantage of ed-tech tools available to Dartmouth faculty, including VoiceThread (multimedia discussion and presentation), (collaborative document annotation), and Miro (whiteboard and visual collaboration).
    • Explore the use of audio and video feedback in Canvas' native SpeedGrader tool.
    • Improve grading speed and feedback efficiency with Gradescope.
  5. Re-evaluate course policies with a heart-forward, flexible approach 
    • Tweak your syllabus language to emphasize invitations over demands, initiatives over requirements, and incentives over expectations.
    • Review traditional policies such as late work, assignment retakes, and extra credit to ensure they are accessible to all.
    • Build flexibility into grading distributions.

As did many educational institutions, Dartmouth needed to rapidly adjust to changing events. Now, there is a responsibility to learn from these experiences in order to create a more resilient future. Although on-campus classes are key to the Dartmouth experience, we must blend the advantages of the live classroom with the flexibility of the virtual classroom in a way that furthers student engagement and learning.


Gardiner, E. (25 Jun 2020). Resilient pedagogy for the age of disruption: A conversation with Josh EylerTop Hat

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What are they, who has access to them, and why they matterAssociation of American Colleges & Universities.

Popovic, K., Reyes, E., M., O'Connor, J. B., Dee, K. C, & Ingram, E. L. (2021). Creating adaptable courses: A course design approach that accommodates flexible delivery. In Thurston, T. N., Lundstrom, K., & González, C. (Eds.), Resilient pedagogy: Practical teaching strategies to overcome distance, disruption, and distraction (pp. 148-165). Utah State University.

Pacansky-Brock, M. (9 Jun 2020). Humanizing pre-course contact with a liquid syllabusHumanizing Education.

Thurston, T. N., Lundstrom, K., & González, C. (Eds.) (2021). Resilient pedagogy: Practical teaching strategies to overcome distance, disruption, and distraction. Utah State University.

Works cited

Guay et. al (2008) via Masland, L. C. (2021). Resilient pedagogy and self-determination: Unlocking student engagement in uncertain timesResilient Pedagogy. Utah State University.