Unit site design in Blackboard

A well designed, user-friendly Blackboard site is essential to effective teaching and learning. A good design has a consistent 'look and feel', which provides ease of navigation, familiarity and promotes student engagement.

Each Blackboard site is created with a default unit template that includes section headings and preloaded content. The aim of the template is to provide consistency for students as they navigate multiple sites and learning environments. However, this foundation is only the starting point for designing an effective and engaging unit site. There are many ways that staff can customise their Blackboard site to meet the needs of their students. The MySCU unit site design checklist supports this creative process by outlining important design considerations and recommended practice.

The checklist can be used to review existing sites or to plan a new site. For example, a site review may focus on how well the structure and content support student learning. In unit planning, it can help you organise the design of your teaching.

Access the MySCU Unit site checklist located on the Managing your unit page.

The 2-minute test

Smith's (2014, p.14) research found that students most frequently criticise courses that are confusing and unclear. They apply what she calls the 2-minute test. That is, they know how good the course/unit is going to be in the first two minutes based on how well it is organised and whether they can navigate a proper path.

Utilising instructional design strategies will help you to design and create an effective online learning site. 

Here's why - consider that the student is viewing Blackboard (Bb) sites created by various people and possibly from a variety of schools across the University. They may have already used Bb or another LMS at other universities and they will certainly have accessed the internet. This means that they come to your site with expectations about how to navigate an online space. When we design a site that doesn't conform to those expectations, we add an extra layer of learning before they get to the actual content or activities. 

Instructional design is thinking about the way the learners will interact with your materials, not about the way that you are teaching. As part of this process, you will need to decide on what content is really important for the students in relation to what you are expecting them to do, and to achieve, as part of your unit. You may have content that you feel that they 'should' know but that may have no place in your unit design and as such will seem superfluous to the students. This overuse of content, that they see as unnecessary, will lead to a disengagement with the unit as they sift through what they actually need.

Instructional design theory utilises a variety of models or frameworks. Some you may have heard of, such as the ADDIE Model:

  • analyse

  • design

  • develop

  • implement

  • evaluate.

This process helps you to structure your site and the learning sequence that the student might take. It also involves the step of evaluation in order to refine your design. 

The practicalities of the actual design include ways to minimise cognitive overload such as:

  • use a limited colour palette (not too many colours on a page, colours must not clash)

  • keep colours consistent for what they are trying to highlight (e.g. all headings in dark green)

  • use colour, size and emphasis to create a hierarchy (e.g. headings in larger text, important points emphasised in bold)

  • be conservative with the use of images, animations, and videos on any one page - think about what it is really adding to the intention of the learning

  • chunk information (see below).


Chunking is a way of creating manageable bits of information to avoid cognitive overload. Miller (1956) suggested that a person's ability to recall information from working memory diminished with the increase in volume. This seemed to peak at about 5 and his paper at the time talks about 7+/- 2. It has been suggested that in relation to presenting information to a person who is learning something new that maintaining the number of chunks of information to a minimum is likely to have a greater effect when the student is attempting to understand and remember this information.

With this in mind, design your study guide with chunks of content and/or activities. It is easy in Bb to visually chunk ideas through adding sections as files within the one folder (often a topic or module).


Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81.

Smith, R. M. (2014). Conquering the content: A step-by-step guide to online course design (2nd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.