Designing Self-Paced Units That Work


Unit overview

SP curriculum, since the students will be moving through it independently, depends on having content that can communicate the important concepts of the module effectively. In this unit, you will learn how to subdivide your curriculum into appropriately-sized modules, how to sequence them properly, and then how to generate self-paced content for each module that students can use effectively to absorb the desired material.

Pre-activity: choose a sample module

Activity overview

To get the most out of this module, you should apply the skills that you learn as soon as possible to curriculum that you are currently teaching or will soon be teaching.

Choosing your target module

Choose one of the modules that you are using in your classes that you think would benefit from additional SP learning, based on the advantages that we outlined in the previous unit.

Open a new document in your word processor and put the name of your module at the top. Then below that title, create a new section labeled "Module Overview". Write a short paragraph that provides a narrative description of what you want students to understand after they complete the module.


  • Unit Title: Becoming a British Secret Agent
    • Module Overview
    • In this module, students will learn the basic skills they need to become a member of MI:6, the British secret intelligence agency. Topics will include becoming fluent in several dozen languages, learning to wear a dinner jacket effectively, gaining a taste for martinis, and developing relationships with alluring but ultimately irrelevant members of the opposite sex.

Identifying and sequencing module topics


The next step is to take the overall topic you outlined above and break it down into its component sub-topics. In order for SP learning to be effective, students must be able to absorb the material in small, discrete chunks. They need to be able to master each topic before proceeding to any future topics that require that skill as a prerequisite.

Approach #1: bottom-up

Brainstorm concept ideas

One method for identifying module topics is to simply brainstorm as many concepts as you can think of that relate to the module that you have chosen. Don't worry at this point about how those concepts relate to one another or even to the overall module as a whole. Brainstorming is an activity designed to generate quantity, not necessarily quality.

Revise and refine the list

Once you have finished your brainstorming (which should not take long -- 3-5 minutes is a LONG time for that activity), you should go back and edit your list. Delete the ideas that clearly don't make any sense within the overall context of the module. Combine and consolidate ideas that are not different enough to merit their own topic. Add any ideas that you realize that you may have overlooked during the initial brainstorming process.

Sequence the concepts

Since your list is currently unordered, you need to put it in some kind of logical sequence. One easy way to do this is to first make sure that you number each of the items in your list. Then take each item and list the numbers of all its prerequisites -- the topics that a learner needs to have already mastered before learning this concept.

Create an instructional curriculum map

As a last step, it may be helpful to actually draw a visual representation of the sequencing that you identified in the previous step. Take a blank sheet of paper and draw boxes for each concept that your list. Try to begin with the concepts that have no prerequisites, and then work ahead slowly until you reach the end of your list. Here is an example: Media:Rwistar_Instructional_Curriculum_Map.pdf‎‎

Approach #2: top-down

Define ending point

In the top-down approach, you start at the end and work backwards until you reach the most basic skills. The easiest way to do this is by drawing an ICM for your curriculum (see above). This time, however, begin by drawing a box that summarizes the overall concept that the course is trying to teach.

Defining prerequisites

Now determine the 3-5 prerequisite skills that the students will need before they can accomplish this overall concept. Create boxes for each one of these and draw arrows linking them to the first box. Repeat this step for each of the prerequisites that you just defined. When your finished, you should have a fully developed ICM like the one that you created in the bottom-up approach.

Developing module content


Once you have mapped out the modules that will make up your curriculum, you need to design the content for each module. The best general advice for this section is the classic mantra of public speaking: "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. Then tell 'em. Then tell 'em what you told 'em." In other words, your module should be divided up into three parts:


Each module should have at least a brief introduction. This is the place where you describe generally what the skill or topic is that the students will be learning in that module. This is also a place where you can specify which prerequisites students need to have to be successful with this module.

Lesson content

The bulk of the module will be the content that you are delivering to the students. There are a variety of ways to structure this section (see below), but generally there should be some explanation of the material, some examples for students to follow, and some suggested exercises for reflection and practice.

Mastery test

The last part of a lesson will be the mastery test that you use to determine if the students have correctly absorbed the material and are ready to progress to the next section. For more on this topic, see the next module of this mini-course.

Creating the module document

Once you have decided on the content for each concept, you need to put it in some document that the students can access when they study that module. Depending on your delivery method, there are several media you can use for this document.

If you are delivering the content via the Web, you can always just put it in a web page using your web site editor of choice. (I happen to prefer Dreamweaver.)

If your students will be accessing the module content in person, or through a content management system (such as Blackboard), then you may want to create a printed document using Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat. Here is an example of a Word document that you can use for your modules: Media:CO335_history.pdf

Tips for creating module content

A picture is worth a thousand words

Especially in modules that contain instructions for performing some task or skill, showing the students examples of effective use of that skill is essential. You can use a digital camera to take pictures of the process that you are trying to illustrate. Another useful technique if you are using a computer for your module is to take screen shots of the program you are using. There are a variety of third-party programs available to help take screen shots.

Keep it simple

Ideally, you should divide up your curriculum into enough small modules so that each one does not take too long for the students to complete it. Students should be able to complete at least one module each class or each homework session in order to maintain a feeling of accomplishment as they work through the material.

Post-activity: develop a module

To complete this section, you should develop an instructional curriculum map for your lesson as described in this module. Then use this module template to outline the content for one of the modules in your lesson. Don't worry yet about creating the mastery test yet -- we will do that in the next section.

Next steps