10 Ways To Organize Instructional Content

content organizationPeople who create online learning get involved in many types of content development tasks. In addition to researching and developing content for courses, you may find yourself creating training manuals for webinars or the classroom, writing web copy, making reference materials, and developing Electronic Performance Support Systems, Help documentation, presentations and so on.

During all of these tasks, you will be organizing content at a high level to give it a meaningful structure. A meaningful structure is logical, helping people to comprehend and retain the content as well as helping them quickly find the content they need.

Assuming that you’ve sufficiently wrapped your mind around the content, use the list below to find the most effective strategy for organizing it. Sticking to one high-level strategy will help streamline the design process and it helps learners and users understand the larger framework of a course, website or document. The content on this page is organized alphabetically.

1. Alphabetical

A conventional but important organizing principle for content is alphabetical order. Because most people learn how to use alphabetical order in childhood, it’s nearly intuitive. Alphabetical order allows for quick and easy access to information. Example: Help documentation, glossaries, lists like this.

2. Categorical

Some content has a flat structure. There is no hierarchy, no sequence and all of the topics are more or less at the same level of difficulty with no prerequisites. In this case, you can organize the content by category in a nonlinear structure. For example, content can be organized by tasks (e.g., teaching all of the editing functions in Word) or by products (e.g., information about cell phones with high-end cameras).  Example: A course for teachers presenting the rules of various children’s games might be organized by games for preschoolers, games for early elementary years and games for older children.

3. Cause and Effect

Organizing content by cause and effect may not be the first approach you think of, but it can be effective when used for the the right purpose. When the content presents problems and solutions, then a cause and effect structure is appropriate. Example: A course on troubleshooting a network for IT professionals could be arranged by problems and solutions.

4. Inherent Structure

Often content has its own structure that is cognitively natural to the subject. If the content presents events in a time line, then a chronological order is self-evident. If the content revolves around various geographical areas, then organization by location is natural. Example: A course teaching agriculture extension agents about soil could be organized by soil layers, starting with the topsoil.

5. Order of Importance

In a flat structure without hierarchy, the most effective approach for organizing content might be by the order of its importance. Because learners usually pay the most attention to the beginning and end of a topic, you have quite a few options for arranging the content. You can either: 1) place the most important content at the start AND the end or 2) proceed from the least important to the most important content or 3) go from most important to least. This last approach is my favorite. An analysis of your content will help you figure out which approach to choose. Example: In an online presentation for new employees, Human Resources might first want to introduce critical security issues and how to safeguard company information prior to discussing less important issues, such as the office holiday party.

6. Simple to Complex

Instructional content can be organized from the simple to complex even when the simpler content is not subordinate or prerequisite to the complex content. This strategy provides a slow initiation into a subject, building the learner’s confidence and knowledge base. Example: A course on personal finance might teach how a savings account works prior to teaching how to balance a checkbook. Although the savings account content is not prerequisite for balancing a checkbook, it’s an easier concept to grasp.

7. Sequential

When you’re presenting a process or procedure, it’s often most effective to structure the content as a series of steps. The structure of sequential content provides hooks for learners to remember the steps of the procedure. Example: A course that teaches how to draw blood from a patient would require a sequential structure.

8. Spiral

A spiral approach might be difficult to implement in a single course, but it is certainly appropriate for a curriculum. A Spiral structure revisits each topic in a systematic way at a more detailed and complex level each time. Example: A typical mathematics curriculum uses the spiral approach.

9. Subordinate to Higher Level (Hierarchical)

When the content requires that a learner master subordinate skills or knowledge to advance to a higher level skill, a hierarchical structure is effective. This is one of the most well-used structures for courses because much of what people learn is based on prerequisite knowledge and skills. Example: As a prerequisite to learning how to handle difficult customers at a call center, learners would first need to know the basics of effective customer communication.

10. Whole to Parts

An excellent approach to organizing content is to introduce the big picture or system view first and then to delve into the parts of the system. Providing the big picture helps adult learners make sense of information. It also provides a framework for fitting information together in memory. The whole to parts organization is similar to a general to specific structure. Example: In a course or in documentation about computer repair, first present the higher-level systems of the computer and then present the components of each system.

If I’ve omitted any approaches that you use, please add them to the Comments below.

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  1. Pamela says

    I think spatial needs to be added here – like anatomy – front, back, from the skin-in from the internal organs – out, top to bottom.

  2. Nile Stanley says

    Very useful strategies here for organizing my course content. I like the whole to part strategy a lot and have used it to organize a book once.


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