By Naomi R. Aguiar & Tianhong Shi

For eight straight years, OSU’s online bachelor’s programs have been ranked in the top 10 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. How do we achieve that? One way is through collaboration between faculty and online learning design experts. Ecampus instructional designers support and partner with faculty to ensure that evidence-based research is applied in the courses we develop. 

Another way is through research conducted by our very own faculty at OSU. In the Research Unit at Ecampus, faculty can receive funding to conduct research in online teaching and learning through the Research Fellows Program. In this program, funded faculty members conduct original research with students and instructors over the course of a 15- to 18-month period. At the conclusion of their projects, faculty write white papers, which are open access articles published by the Research Unit and catalogued in the OSU Scholars Archive. These white papers provide actionable insights that both instructional designers and faculty members can directly apply to course design. Below, we share two specific examples from recently published white papers that can reinforce or inform decisions in course design.

Visual Design Matters

In a recently published white paper, researchers Yuzhi Sun and David Nembhard conducted an experiment examining how graphical displays of information and the use of highlighting can impact a learner’s engagement with the material, their “cognitive load” (i.e., the amount of information a learner is tasked with), and their learning performance. Using EEG (a method that measures different types of brain waves by placing electrodes on the scalp), Sun and Nembhard found that presenting information as tables rather than dot graphs increased students’ cognitive load, but also increased their engagement with the material and their retention of the information. Highlighting the most essential information also had a positive impact on students’ ability to retain learned information.

Sun and Nembhard’s (2022) findings support the Ecampus Essentials guidelines for online course design; specifically, visually representing course content in multiple ways that align with weekly and course outcomes. In many of our Ecampus STEM courses, data are presented in tables and explained by instructors in several different ways, such as in narrated PowerPoints, light board learning glass videos, or whiteboard screencast videos. 

Here is a specific example of how this is used in one of our courses, the Differential Calculus for Engineers and Scientists (MTH251). The figure below shows a table used in a math problem-solving video that helps students categorize information into what is already known and what needs to be solved for.

Another example comes from a habitat analysis course (Habitat Analysis 1), in which information is highlighted in videos to bring students’ attention to important content information. The red highlighted areas in the figure below clearly indicate a grizzly bear’s habitat.

On Writing Intensive Courses

In another white paper, Andrew Bouwma describes a study he conducted to help instructors provide timely feedback to students in writing intensive online courses. In a Zoology 349 course, Bouwma examined students’ acceptance of a web-based peer review tool, Peerceptiv, as well as the extent to which using this approach could improve students’ writing skills. Overall, Bouwma found that students’ acceptance of this peer review tool was high. Most students agreed that the Peerceptiv tool was easy to use and that comments from their peers were helpful. Students also agreed that the Peerceptiv assignments enabled them to think more critically about the subject matter and helped them produce better writing assignments. And beyond positive perceptions of the tool, students further demonstrated significant writing gains in both their thesis statements and in their essay structures.

Bouwma has since held several information sharing sessions about Peerceptiv tool for other instructors. Now, more biology and STEM courses are using the Peerceptiv tool, and it has even been creatively adapted into a Business Applications Development course (BA272) that teaches python coding. In this course, coding assignments were once assigned to students individually and debugging errors in coding could be a daunting task. With the use of the Peerceptiv, peer reviewing has assisted students in identifying coding errors more quickly. One instructor also noted that the use of this tool has improved the quality of peer feedback, as well as provided students with insights to improve their programming skills. The successful use of this tool in other courses highlights the broad application of Bouwma’s original study to other online learning contexts.

Want to Learn More?

Each year, the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit funds projects, up to $25,000 each, to support the research, development and scholarship efforts of faculty and/or departments in the area of online education through the OSU Ecampus Research Fellows program.

This program aims to:

  • Fund research that is actionable and impacts student online learning
  • Provide resources and support for research leading to external grant applications
  • Promote effective assessment of online learning
  • Encourage the development of a robust research pipeline on online teaching and learning at Oregon State

Fellows program applications are due Nov. 1 each year. If you are interested in submitting an application, reach out to Naomi Aguiar, the OSU Ecampus Assistant Director of Research. Research Unit staff are available to help you design a quality research project and maximize your potential for funding.


Bouwma, A. M. (2021). Testing the Efficacy and Student Acceptance of a Peer-Review Writing Program in an Online Course. White Paper. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit.

Sun, Y., & Nembhard, D. A. (2022). Modeling online learning performance with biometrics: Current study and future directions. White Paper. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit.

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