Intentional Instructional Design

Intentional Instructional Design: One EdTech Strategy to Rule Them All

This content coordinates with “Intentional Instructional Design” – a presentation first given at InstructureCon 2023 in Denver, CO by Geneva Harline & Valentine S. King. We hope you enjoy the following content and resources.

Some of you may know that Lord of the Rings author, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote stories to deal with the trauma of war, some of the battles in Middle-earth were inspired by real world war battles he participated in. Beyond our catchy presentation title One EdTech Strategy to Rule Them All, we’ve used the Lord of the Rings motif in this presentation to demonstrate an idea: where we come from, who we surround ourselves with & their support, and ultimately our struggles – they impact how we present ourselves to the world and play a role in our success. Much like a learner’s journey.  Our learners either have or are currently experiencing trauma, especially coming out of a pandemic.

Trauma & How Common Is It?

Definition of trauma

We’re not medical professionals and thus, this session is not about diagnosing our students. Our focus remains on being aware of the impact of trauma, so we can plan courses that will give our students a greater chance of succeeding.

Defined by the American Psychology Association (APA), trauma is “an experience which threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others and also causes horror, terror, or helplessness at the time.” We are going to take into account the scope of trauma as defined by the APA. Also, we’re willing to acknowledge that sometimes there are traumatic incidents that threaten the psychological or social integrity of our students.

How common is it?

According to the APA definition, It is estimated that around two-thirds of incoming college students will have been impacted by trauma, and even more will experience traumatic events while in college. That two-thirds doesn’t include students who are impacted by trauma after they arrive at college.

When considering trauma aware design, it is important to note that you will have students in your class who have experienced some form of trauma, even if you never hear about it, and that it is important to understand that you shouldn’t take a student’s decision to not talk about their experiences personal.

Educational Impact of Trauma

Trauma impacts learning in a variety of ways. In our session, we describe three main impairment categories impacting focus, remembering, and communication.


Impaired ability to focus could be due to several factors, including: intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, overwhelming emotions, and sleep disturbances.

The ability to remember is also affected by trauma. Much of this stems from impaired ability to focus. In addition, when a traumatic event occurs, the brain tries to protect  itself  by avoiding reminders of that event. There are changes to the areas in the brain that handle short term memory and reduce a person’s capacity to recall information that way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just happen to your memory of the trauma. For students who experienced trauma while they’re in in college, it might to impact how they remember the course material.

Additionally, trauma negatively impacts communication. Trauma can change the brain itself and it does change some of the areas that access language, so students may struggle to find the right word. Another change that happens in the brain is that the brain of someone who has experienced a lot of trauma becomes more receptive to the hormones and emotional states related to what we consider negative emotions. Also, they will have a lower level of perspective of self-worth. This may lead to lower levels of engagement in course discussions and group work.

We recommend using intentional design strategies to design for trauma in mind, which can benefit all our learners.

What is Intentional Instructional Design?

Intentional instructional design is a deliberate and purposeful approach to planning and creating effective learning experiences. It involves carefully considering the learning objectives, the needs and characteristics of the learners, and the most appropriate instructional strategies and resources to facilitate meaningful and impactful learning.

Intentional instructional design focuses on:

  • aligning all aspects of the learning experience to support the desired learning outcomes
  • selecting appropriate instructional methods, materials, and assessments that are tailored to the specific learning goals and the diverse needs of the learners
  • making informed decisions about how to sequence and organize the content, so it is logical and scaffolded in a way that promotes understanding and skill development.

Intentional instructional design also considers the learner’s prior knowledge and experiences, taking into account their individual learning preferences, and strengths. It incorporates strategies such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which provides multiple means of engagement, representation, and action/expression.

UDL, TILT & the Canvas Certified Educator Program

UDL & TILT Frameworks

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Transparency in Learning & Teaching (TILT) are frameworks that can contribute to intentional instructional design and support learner success. UDL focuses on providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression to accommodate diverse learners. TILT emphasizes making the learning process and expectations explicit to students. Together, these frameworks create a foundation for intentional instructional design that addresses the needs of all learners.

UDL promotes the idea that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to instruction. By providing multiple means of engagement, such as incorporating varied instructional materials, multimedia resources, and interactive activities, teachers can increase student motivation and involvement in the learning process.

TILT complements UDL by explicitly communicating the learning goals, expectations, and assessment criteria to students. When learners understand the purpose and relevance of their learning, they are more likely to engage and take ownership of their education. TILT encourages instructors to be transparent about the learning process, sharing the rationale behind instructional choices, and providing clear instructions & guidelines. This transparency helps students by allowing them to plan and organize their efforts, monitor their progress, and seek appropriate support when needed.

By combining UDL and TILT in instructional design, an inclusive and supportive learning environment where all students can thrive can be created. UDL ensures that instruction is flexible and accessible, and catering to diverse learning preferences and abilities. TILT establishes clear expectations and fosters a culture of transparency, empowering students to become active participants in their own learning. Together, these frameworks promote learner success by enhancing engagement, comprehension, self-regulation, and achievement.

By embracing the principles of UDL and TILT, educators can cultivate an environment where every student has the opportunity to excel.

Canvas Certified Educator Program & Intentional Instructional Design

To implement UDL and TILT effectively, instructional designers and teachers should engage in collaborative planning, reflecting on the diverse needs of their learners to design instructional materials, activities, and assessments that offer multiple options and clear guidelines.

Educators can benefit from professional development opportunities and resources that delve into the principles and strategies of UDL and TILT, providing guidance and inspiration for intentional instructional design practices. The Canvas Certified Educator Program is one such a professional development opportunity, embodying several key frameworks promoting intentional instructional design.

The Canvas Certified Educator (CCE) certification requires completion of four core courses and two elective classes. If you’re not familiar with the program, review the CCE FAQs.

Valentine is a facilitator for #CanvasCertified classes and enjoys teaching the first core class of the program. In additional to being onboarded to the program, Core 1: Foundational Frameworks provides educators the opportunity to workshop a lesson that integrates technology. It encourages participants to consider their learning objectives, while also considering alignment and the type of rigor of the lesson, ie level of skills targeted.

Several Core 1 graduates who appreciated the course stated it was an exercise in “intentional design” and those statements influenced the title of this presentation.

Quality Standards, Rubrics, & Templates

There are quality standards available that can help with the intentional design and development of online courses. Quality Matters Program rubric requires a subscription membership. The OLC Quality Scorecard suite is free to download but not eligible for review/endorsement without membership. However, both the OSCQR rubric and ISTE Standards are freely available online. The #CanvasCertified Educator courses utilize the Canvas Evaluation Checklist 3.0.

Some institutions will use templates across an university, a program, departments, or grade level to foster similar design and navigation. Even when using a template, it doesn’t require each course look exactly the same. Some will use a consistent structure in their modules to set expectations, similar to the PANDA method.

PANDA is used in the Canvas Certified Educator program and refers to: Prepare to Engage;  Activate your Knowledge; Navigate the Resources; Demonstrate your Understanding, and Articulate your Learning. Prepare to Engage provides an outlook for the lesson with an introduction, learning outcomes, and tasks. Activate your Prior Knowledge provide guiding questions to review learning resources, while Navigate the Resources is a segment for interactive content to enhance new knowledge (ie an assignment). Demonstrate your Understanding provides an opportunity to apply what you’ve learned and Articulate your Learning asks the learner to reflect on the lesson and its activities (ie a discussion).

There’s many ways to design a great course, but the best of course sites often include general best practices. Our colleague Becky Moulder of Wharton Computing shared “How to Have a Well-Designed Canvas Site” (62 minutes).


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Questions & Answers

Barriers to Students Asking for Help

Other than knowing about resources, what are some of the barriers to students asking for help in the classroom and with their mental health in general?

There are many barriers to students asking for help, either with classroom activities, or with their mental health. We often promote (intentionally and unintentionally) the importance of working alone on the school work, and try to instill a sense of responsibility into students. For some students, this may play against an enculturated understanding that it is not acceptable to ask for help, that help is not available.

When it comes to mental health specifically, I am going to break down some of the barriers into three categories: external factors, internal factors, and “the unknown.”

External factors

  1. The trauma itself can impact a person’s ability to see help as a possibility
  2. Stigma
    • This can be stigma related to the type of trauma, stigma against having a normal reaction to the trauma, stigma of a mental illness/therapy/ect., societal stigma against asking for help
    • Stigma can include a need to “prove” they experienced trauma before receiving help (i.e. it has to be documented in some cases)
    • The stigma around trauma can make people question whether what they experienced is “bad enough” to warrant receiving help
  3. The symptoms get in the way of reaching out or pursuing help (such as needing to overcome exhaustion or anxiety)
  4. Familial pressure to succeed above everything, and/or pressure to maintain appearances, or because the family has caused the trauma but is also the person’s support system.
  5. Pressure from friends to not rock the boat (real or implied)
  6. They don’t have time between work and school, to include grade and attendance policies
  7. Waiting lists for therapy can easily be 6-12 months, if it’s not a good fit, they may need to go back on a waiting list

Internal factors

  1. Prohibitive financial cost associated with help
  2. Fear they would ruin their future if they go into the hospital or get a reputation as a trouble maker
  3. Concern over the impact of medication side effects on education and life.
    • This is a real concern, and it takes time to find the right meds and adjust to them (a person may need to play “side effect roulette” several times, with 6-8 week adjustment periods for each one)
    • Stopping a medication (or being unable to access it for cost or other reasons) can cause a person to experience withdrawal symptoms along with the return of original symptoms

The unknown

  1. Not realizing there is a problem or that it can be helped. This is more likely if a person has experienced long-term trauma and is used to the symptoms.
  2. The problem is new and the person recognizes that things are weird, but doesn’t realize this is a change for the worse rather than just getting older or new environment
  3. Not knowing what resources are available
  4. Misinformation – they may be seeing information which doesn’t apply locally, or is just wrong [-Geneva]

Should I eliminate all due dates in my classes?

No. While it might seem a beneficial gesture to students to eliminate “deadline” anxiety, it is not recommended. Many learners who experience stress related to due dates, struggle with executive function. Executive function provides learners with the ability to analyze tasks & how to do them, develop timelines for completing tasks, and execute completing the task in a timely manner. Review more on the topic of learner procrastination.

Providing structure for course content and assignments can help those struggling with executive function have a greater chance of success. Structure in a course can be demonstrated though scaffolding assignments (ie creating deliverable milestones for a lengthy assignment or breaking down a complex project into smaller task deliverables) and by using set deadlines. However, don’t be dissuaded from offering flexibility with extensions, when appropriate. [-Valentine]


There is a huge push for regular and substantive interactions in our online class, measurable engagement, what are some considerations when designing these that could cater to trauma survivors?

When considering RSI, I would go back to the ideas of transparency and flexibility. When you clearly communicate the objectives of each lesson, and allow students flexiblity in how they participate, it empowers the students to contribute to their learning by determining what is within their capabilty. I do want to caution that some students may not know what they need or feel comfortable expressing an opinion, especially if they have been enculturated to follow the people in “authority.”

Ultimately, it is important for you to feel confident in your teaching, so make small adjustments to your delivery rather than completely scrapping everything and starting over. [-Geneva]

Resources located inside or outside of course site?

Is there a benefit to having a central student course that has these resources and other? Or do you think they should also be in every course?

Generally we’d recommend hosting them within each course (which is helpful if using a Canvas Blueprint to push out updates to multiple sites). If updating this content individually within each course (especially if we are talking at a program or institution level) doesn’t seem feasible then hosting on an external website would make sense.

However, no matter how you do it- the instructor/teacher should review these resources during their beginning of the term/semester course onboarding process (and not just gloss over them, ie here are resources). In my class at my previous university, I used to say something to the effect that “Buddhists believe that ‘life is struggle’. We all have struggles and even more so when juggling family, work, and getting that degree. There is also a saying that ‘It takes a village.’ We don’t have to go through our life path, our struggles alone. It is often helpful just to talk to another person vent, get suggestions. These resources are here to help.” As an instructor, you can share your general experiences with counselling or not, but it can be helpful to normalize mental health- as well as identify there are different types of counselling and counselling styles and thus it’s not necessary to stick with the first one you meet with. [-Valentine]

Race Related Trauma

Any suggestions for how to help avoid adding more trauma related to race? How can we beat support our students of color facing microaggressions and institutional systems made to oppose them?

I want to start my response by setting some boundaries. My expertise is in the area of trauma and education in general and in shifting social perspectives, as such, I am going to focus on those aspects of this question and provide advice for approaching published resources from people who are better qualified to speak to the microaggressions which stem from deeply rooted systemic racism. My response will be in multiple comments, and I will include a few recommended authors at the end, so please bear with me. (There are many more great authors, feel free to add any you feel are appropriate.)

To start: it is essential to acknowledge that most of us have been enculturated in a world which historically privileges white people, and as such, we will make mistakes. Even if we have the best intentions, ideas we have grown up with will be built into our subconscious, and confronting them is uncomfortable. This is not an excuse for not working on it, but must be acknowledged because it is going to take time and relatively consistent work to change the thought patterns which are a product of systemic racism. In order to change thought and speech patterns, you must first recognize and acknowledge them, understand that they are unwanted, and consider why you have them. It is essential to learn how to acknowledge our speech and behavior problems, apologize gracefully and succinctly, then work to correct those thoughts and behaviors.

Once you have acknowledged something you need to change, you should take time to consider alternatives and practice them – write out and run scenarios in a private space in which you avoid microaggressions and support your students. Do this multiple times, until it becomes reflex, then tackle the next thought pattern. Correcting problematic thoughts and behaviors will take a lot of repetition, and it is important that you practice speaking the new patterns as well as thinking and writing them as this will help embed them in multiple areas of your brain.

A concurrent step in this process is finding the thought patterns you are countering. You will encounter some as you go about your teaching, but to help minimize this occurring, start or continue reading the large body of published works written by BIPOC people which can help, as well. As you read these resources, keep in mind that the goal is not to race through them, but to consider deeply what they are saying directly and indirectly. As the authors describe microaggressions they have faced, consider very honestly where the microaggressions came from and whether you may have similar thought or behavior patterns. If so, where do they come from, and how can you change your approach to similar situations? Write out what a more appropriate response would be, then rehearse it.

At this point, I want to direct attention to some of the resources I have found useful. There are definitely many more than I can list here, and I welcome other recommendations as well.


Beneficial to include meditative practices? If so, recommendations?

Would it be beneficial to incorporate meditative practices in courses? If so, what would be recommended to accomplish this?

Meditation can be helpful, especially if you use it on a regular basis and it is guided. Using grounding techniques such as having students silently or quietly name five things they see (use a specific prompt, like “green” things), three things they can touch, two things they hear, etc. can help them in the moment. If you have meditations which are just time to be silent and self-reflective, it could be difficult for students who are dealing with intrusive thoughts or overwhelming emotions to experience the benefit. [-Geneva]

Best assignments to assign & Emoji feedback

Since trauma affects memory, what would be the best type of assignments to give?
Would simple feedback such as emojis work best for those who are impacted by trauma and cannot communicate?

The type of assignment you give should be dependent on your course objectives, but in general, avoid assignments that have a high degree of rote memory requirements. If you are teaching a subject which does require students to memorize specific facts, data, or processes, there are a couple of things which can help:

  • Tell students *why* they need to have these things in their memory rather than knowing how to find a good source. If they know why, it will help provide some context for how they will be using the data and help them remember.
  • Devote time in class to helping students memorize them – using in class time, and making the memorization a community activity, will add some extra context to the items which will make them easier to remember.

The types of assignments which are more friendly to people with memory issues are assignments which require more contextualization and critical thinking (such as case studies) can help students because you are asking them to apply concepts to scenarios rather than remember specific facts. Scaffolding assignments is also highly beneficial because it allows students to reflect on earlier assignments, revise their work based on specific feedback, and have more confidence that they are working in the right direction. A side benefit of these types of assignments is that they are also recommendations for reducing cheating. Again, tell students what course objectives the assignments are meeting, and what skills they are developing with the assignments and this will help them contextualize the work and therefore make it easier to remember.

Regarding using emojis to respond to students, there are a couple of issues with this. The first is that emojis are often ambiguous, and a student who is primed to expect the worst by traumatic experiences may interpret them in a manner that is more negative than you anticipate. The second is that there may be meanings assigned to specific emojis that are inappropriate for an instructor to share with a student, and unless you are certain you are up to date on emoji innuendos, it is best to avoid any miscommunications. It is better to provide clearly worded feedback which includes positive aspects of their work in addition to any constructive elements. [-Geneva]

Trauma Related Resources

Resources for Intentional Instructional Design

Resources for Syllabi

In addition to institutional counseling resources, campus LGBTQ+ support groups, and other local community resources, the follow specific resources may be beneficial to include on a syllabus.

Images Used for the Presentation Slides