Defining Quality Learning at Cengage

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CNOWv2Learning DesignResearchWebAssign
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When we ask our customers why they adopt Cengage products, they overwhelmingly say it’s because of the “quality.” But what does that mean?

Our goal is to put the learner at the center of experiences that will prepare them for careers in which they can solve problems and think critically. We are guided by our Four Quality Learning Principles—intentionality, inclusivity, authenticity and personalization—which allow us to focus on the pedagogical quality of our materials and keep our learner at the center of our efforts.


Intentionality is the foundational principle of quality learning at Cengage. It informs every decision we make as we design learning content—what topics to cover in a textbook, what activities and assessments learners will complete and how all of those elements are sequenced.

An intentional learning design ensures that a learning experience will be effective, that learners will be consistently challenged without being overwhelmed, and that they will be motivated to accomplish increasingly complex goals.

We root our approach to intentionality in the backwards design method: Establishing learning objectives first, then identifying the types of assessments that will best measure learners’ progress toward achieving those objectives, and finally, creating educational resources and activities that support the objectives and advance learning.

What does it look like in practice? In one recent example, our Developmental Math team, including Senior Learning Designer Powell Vacha, applied strategies from video game design to create online assignments that allow learners to develop skills through a steady lessening of scaffolding and a subtle increase in complexity as they progress through the assignment.

In a more traditional assignment, a learner would work through problems that covered each learning objective, but would not necessarily progress from less to more difficult problems. In the intentionally designed activities, learners build mastery by working from abstract to more concrete uses of each assignment’s learning objectives while staying in an optimally engaging flow state in terms of difficulty.


One of the most important goals of education is to prepare learners for life outside the classroom. Authentic learning design supports that goal by connecting learners with the kinds of activities, tasks, and problems they’ll encounter in the real world.

This means designing not just online textbooks and resources that are grounded in relevant real-world contexts, but also simulations, virtual worlds and other activities that are access points to the real world.

These kinds of real-world connections make learning content and activities inherently more engaging for learners, but authentic learning design is also grounded in learning science. It’s easier to recall new information when you learn it in a context similar to the one where you’ll be asked to remember it, and relating new information to real-world contexts that learners are already familiar with helps them create more robust mental frameworks for retention and recall.

Sometimes the real-world problems and tasks are obvious, but in some disciplines, learners may need a little more guidance on how they will use their new knowledge in their everyday lives. Learners in an automotive technology program need to practice diagnosing and repairing issues in realistic situations. Learners in a U.S. history course need to analyze how the provisions of the First and Fourth Amendments affect their everyday lives in the United States.

In Programming and Web Development, students can practice coding using GitHub Codespaces in MindTap. This is the largest developer platform that web developers use to store, manage, track and control changes to their code.

In the world of Accounting, our product team developed a new type of activity for Introductory Accounting courses called Data Analytics Skill Builders. These CNOWv2 activities introduce learners to using large algorithmic data sets, pivot tables and functions to extract relevant information and insights from the data.


Inclusivity is a core principle of quality learning not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because research supports the value of inclusivity in student learning. Learners who feel welcome, and who feel like they can identify with what they encounter in learning content, do better than those who don’t.

Dr. Liz Co’s “Anatomy & Physiology” provides a more comprehensive diversity of images and models. Individuals are depicted to showcase the more inclusive framing than is typical for this type of learning. Clinical examples detail the predispositions of certain racial and socioeconomic groups to display health care disparities, like sickle cell anemia.

Our goal is to create learning resources that recognize, reflect and support all learners—that consider the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age, life experience and other forms of human difference.

This is an intentional and deliberate process, because social, cultural and economic inequity can be inadvertently built into the way learning content is developed. It’s not just about ensuring our products adhere to the highest standards for bias-free language. We also pursue diverse scholarship and representation in our learning content, and work to design learning experiences that are equitable as well as accessible.


Personalized learning design recognizes that every learner is an individual. We focus on meeting learners’ needs for competency, autonomy and belonging, because these needs feed into learners’ sense of intrinsic motivation, self-regulation and well-being—all of which affect their success.

Our Statistics team applied the concept of personalized learning design in the development of Select Your Scenario Questions in WebAssign.

These problems personalize the learning experience for students by providing them with three different contexts to choose from. Students select the scenario most relevant to them and then solve the problem. Regardless of which scenario the student chooses, they will have to answer questions to demonstrate knowledge of a learning objective.


Jennifer Reed, Senior Instructional designer at Cengage


Written by Jennifer Barnett Reed, Advanced Instructional Designer at Cengage.




This article focuses on quality learning at Cengage. Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, discussing our learning design process.