Why Course Design?

Planning a course is arguably the key ingredient in pedagogical success. Its tangible manifestation is the ubiquitous syllabus that provides both teacher and student with a ‘roadmap’ to guide them through the teaching and learning that constitute each step of an educational journey. Such a roadmap, which not only points out highlights of the trip but connects them as part of a developmental process, gains power by making all planned events entirely transparent to those involved. Finally, when the journey is completed and teacher and student alike look back on what has transpired, the syllabus is what allows them to productively critique their experiences. Plans for subsequent iteration of the same course depend on this transparency as the basis for improvement.

The central piece of any comprehensive syllabus is the selection and articulation of course learning goals or outcomes. Goals, outcomes, objectives (these are often used interchangeably) are important because this process of selection allows you to:

  • identify a focus for the course, and remain focused
  • select appropriate strategies
  • determine when a problem has arisen
  • measure whether you have succeeded or not
  • focus students energies on important work
  • articulate for students your expectations
  • provide a public record of your course

Step 1: Goal Setting

It is always tempting to select a set of readings or establish a set of topics as the first step in course planning, but it has been our experience that the most efficient and effective way to start the process of course design is to ask this question: what do I want students to be able to do at the end of this course? This approach is called ‘backwards design’, an idea drawn from early work on educational assessment. This approach urges us to start our planning by deciding on a set of outcomes. Describe these using concrete verbs that gives students a more palpable sense of what kind of learning to engage in.

Use analyze, solve, identify, compare, evaluate.

Avoid: understand, know, do

Pinpointing the knowledge and skills we want to students to acquire in our course partially depends on what we know about courses they will have taken previously and courses we believe they will take after our course. In short, consulting the place of our course in a curriculum of study will help us with this initial task of setting goals. Those new to a course, an institution, or a curriculum will find that consulting information regarding student profiles, curriculum descriptions, colleagues and syllabi affiliated with the same or related courses will be helpful in establishing goals appropriate for students learning at the stage your course represents.

Step 2: Sequencing the Learning

Once the endpoint in the course has been established by choosing a final exam, project, or paper that will demonstrate knowledge and skills acquired, the next step is to sequence the learning. Sequencing the learning is possibly the most difficult part of planning for any teacher since it depends on knowing what part of the learning entailed in the course will be most difficult for students. It requires instructors, accordingly, to break down the learning into component parts and then matching each with learning exercises. By using this method, students can practice each step in the learning process before assembling all these steps into a more complex series of operations that are required by the final project.

Sequencing is challenging because it requires instructors to think about the logic of organization and that question depends on the kind of outcomes you design for your students.

You might organize a course:

  • According to how it developed historically
  • According to how the discipline now organizes its material
  • How this material is typically used in the world
  • How students will most easily learn the material
  • Simplest to more complex
  • Closer in time to more distant in time, or the reverse

These are but a few examples of how courses can be sequenced, but no matter what the sequence of topics, we recommend that the learning involved in each instance be considered according to what is more or less challenging for students. Organizing a course by content alone does not take into account how the challenges involved in developing new thinking and skills in relation to that content affects the time it takes for students to learn new material. New skills may require more practice in the form of a low-stakes quiz, problem set, or writing assignment before the class is ready to move on to the next unit.

Step 3: Designing Daily assignments and teaching strategies

Following the overarching design for learning in the course, choose daily assignments that allow students to practice the learning you want them to acquire. Then choose teaching strategies that will support the goals stated for the assignments. For more, see our section on Assignments (link to internal page on Assignments)

Step 4: Designing Assessment Strategies

In choosing assessment strategies, it is important to consider:

  • Whether the assessment strategy will accomplish the goal for learning in this portion of the course
  • Whether all students will be able to perform it
  • How much preparation is required
  • Can you teach it?
  • Whether your goal is assessment or evaluation?
  • Whether the assignments and the materials used are inclusive enough?

In general, these questions are the same questions that ought to guide us in reviewing all assignments in the course as a whole.

Step 5: Articulate a Set of Policies

To provide conditions of fairness for all students in the course, instructors should attend to these areas of their course:

  1. Orient students to the work of the course by describing your expectations for their participation in general
  2. Establish policies for attendance and submission of work, late work,etc.
  3. Connect students to services and information that will help them in their coursework. You can link to offices on campus who help students with learning challenges, disability issues, mental health support, as well as those that provide resources. (eg., the library and Dean of Students list of advisors, Learning and Writing Centers)
  4. Clearly explain how they can avoid inappropriate use of other individuals’ work. This may appear on a separate sheet in connection with particular assignments. Warning them against ‘plagiarism’ may fall short, since protocols for citation differ from discipline to discipline.

Step 6: Consider Best Teaching Practices

From Chickering and Gamson’s study (Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, AAHE Bulletin, 1987) of teaching practices associated with deep learning, we offer the following list to consider:

  • Writing and discussion
  • Faculty-student contact
  • Collaborative work
  • Regular feedback to students
  • Communications of high expectations
  • Articulation of explicit standards
  • Help to Students in achieving standards
  • Respect for diversity
  • Problem/questions/issues as sources of motivation
  • Assignment-centered coursework (rather than text and lecture driven work)

Step 7: Considering the use of technology

Once you have established learning goals, sequenced the learning, chosen assignments and assessments and linked them with teaching strategies, you are in a position to consider how technology might support one or more phases of learning or assessment of learning.

What is important, as with any other assignment, is that the technology be chosen carefully with a specific learning goal in mind. Pedagogically speaking, it is always unwise to choose a strategy prior to determining a goal for the learning associated with it. For more on using media and technology in the classroom, see our section on Media & Technology.


Recommended Reading

  1. Course Design,” Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University
  2. Course Design,” Stanford Teaching Commons 


  1. Cutting Edge Course Design Tutorial 
  2. Designing your Course,” Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence