Preparing the Structure of a Unit
Structuring Your Ideas
Preparing a content outline is the first step in writing a distance learning unit / lesson. If you are asked by an institution to write a unit, probably you already have a structure and/or the learning objectives of the unit. Whatever may be the situation, it is a good idea to develop your own outline to help you write the content in a storyline. Understanding the target group is highly important, as a topic can be written at different depths for different levels of learners. The unit outline shall lead to the structure of the unit.
Based on the demand of the topic, your structure / outline could be either expert-centred or learner-centred. In the expert-centred or subject-centred approach, you may like to browse through some of the books available on the topic and see how the contents are organized. In the learner-centred approach, you would probably rely upon the needs analysis, and emphasize the content areas by appropriately prioritizing them. However, you can’t go into any application of the concept, without explaining the concept proper.
The best approach to develop an outline is to prepare a ‘Mind-map’ (Buzan & Buzan, 2003). By taking a plain paper and writing the important components of the unit and then establishing their coordinate and sub-ordinate relationships to draw a picture is an excellent idea. The mind-map so developed can be shown to other colleagues, who can critique and provide further insights before you start writing. The mind-map can be transformed into a structure by using a hierarchical pattern of numbered levels to show the relationships of topics and sub-topics. Use of hierarchical structure is an aid to memory and recall (Bower, Clark, Lesgold & Winzenz, 1969).
Sequence of Topics
While preparing the structure, it is important that the topics and the sub-topics within the unit are arranged in a ‘helpful sequence’ to promote learning. The structure can also be treated as an ‘advanced organizer’ that presents a structured set of ideas to the learner prior to the material to be learnt (Ausubel & Robins, 1969). Meta-analysis of 135 research studies by Luiten et al (1980) concluded that ‘advanced organizers’ have a facilitative effect on learning and retention. Therefore, the use of numbered hierarchical structure is an important component of self-learning materials. However to keep this simple and effective, the use of more than 3 levels of hierarchy in the structure is not recommended. In order to present the topics and sub-topics in a sequence the following principles (Ranganathan, 1991) may be used:
- Principle of increasing concreteness (abstract to concrete)
- Principle of Later in evolution (earliest first)
- Principle of Later in time (earliest first)
- Principle of spatial contiguity (centre to periphery or vice-versa)
- Principle of increasing complexity (simple to complex)
- Principle of canonical sequence (if no principle can be applied, use traditional / conventional / popular sequence)