Using Supplemental Resources in the Online Classroom

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When you design or teach an online course, it’s critical that your objectives, assessments, and instruction align with one another. Creating this type of cohesive structure isn’t just for your own benefit; it helps students, other instructors, and even deans or department chairs understand why every course component exists in conjunction with the others. Although having tight alignment is an efficient way of designing an online course, it does have its drawbacks. What about students who want to know more about a topic? Or what about those who need additional help meeting a particular objective? One way of addressing these needs is through the use of supplemental resources.

Supplemental resources refer to any nonrequired instructional materials included in an online course. Simply put, they’re materials students can engage in, not materials they have to engage in. Although adding supplemental resources can create a gray area when it comes to your course’s design and context, when used appropriately, these types of resources can encourage learning, enhance student motivation, and even provide support for students who need it. This article will provide course facilitators and course writers with suggestions on how to use these types of resources in their online course.

Selecting Supplemental Resources

As with all elements of an online course, you must select supplemental resources carefully. Although supplemental resources are not a part of the Course Design Triangle, you can still use this model to help you choose these materials. First, consider your course context—your students, your course’s place in its program sequence, your class size, and any other unique identifying factors for your course. With this in mind, consider some of the following questions when selecting supplemental resources:

  • What are my students interested in?
  • How do my students learn best?
  • What are my students’ learning preferences?
  • What content covered in other courses in my program can I review?
  • What future content can I preview?

In addition to your course context, your learning objectives, assessments, and instructional materials all play a critical role in the selection of your supplemental resources. Supplemental resources can enhance these elements of your course, and can also add to the structure you’ve put in place for your students. For example, if you know about your students’ personal interests, you can include supplemental materials tailored to those interests. Or you can provide real-world examples and materials, which encourages learning and practical application.

Including Supplemental Resources

As with other elements of your online course, it’s also important that you add supplemental resources both purposefully and strategically. Students in your course should know that these resources are optional, not required. For example, you can label them as supplemental resources or group them together in their own module. Labelling can prove helpful if you want to include the resources as part of a specific module, whereas a stand-alone module might be better if you are going to use your supplemental resources throughout the entire course. There are many ways to include supplemental resources in your course, so consider what works best for you, your students, and your course.

Using Supplemental Resources to Encourage Learning

Supplemental resources can be a powerful tool for encouraging students to stay up-to-date in your field. By including resources that are related to your learning objectives, students can continue to explore topics that are of interest to them, which can increase their motivation in subsequent modules or courses in your field. In this respect, supplemental resources encourage exploratory learning and help students stay up-to-date with what’s occurring in the industry. And because they’re optional, students don’t have to stress about completing them. This can help you design for the margins; for example, students who might have mastery of a module’s objectives (or accelerate through them) have relevant resources in which they can engage if they choose.

Remember: Always clearly label your supplemental resources as such. Although these resources can encourage additional learning, if they’re not labeled as optional or supplemental, they can distract students who don’t want to read or take part in them. As with all aspects of the online classroom, clarity is key!

Using Supplemental Resources to Provide Support

Supplemental resources aren’t solely limited to encouraging exploratory or additional learning. You can also include supplemental resources in your course to help students who might struggle or need additional support. By doing so, you provide students who might otherwise find the course difficult with additional opportunities to succeed. This can take one of two forms:

  • Proactive support: These are the resources you select during the instructional design process. It can also refer to materials you add during course enhancement to address areas where students have struggled in past offerings of the course. When providing this type of supplemental resources, you anticipate areas you think students might find tough or problematic.
  • Reactive support: These are resources you disseminate during course delivery, typically in conjunction with formative assessment results. For example, if students struggle with an assessment and aren’t making progress toward learning objectives, you could send out supplemental resources to help them succeed.

Regardless of whether you use supplemental resources proactively or reactively, it’s important to remember that they shouldn’t be required course elements. In this respect, these resources aren’t necessary for students to achieve learning objectives and should instead focus on providing support to students if they choose to take it. Supplemental resources do not take the place of proper scaffolding in the online classroom.


Supplemental resources can be a powerful tool in your online course. When used appropriately (and not distractingly), they can help motivate, engage, and support students as they make their way through other course elements. By considering your course context and the other components of the Course Design Triangle, you can create valuable opportunities for your students to explore your content area and find support in more difficult times.

Posted November 1, 2017
Author Adam Shaw