Designing a course can seem like a daunting task, so we break it down into a few easy steps to help you navigate creating a structure that's engaging and fun for your students.
Begin the process early, giving yourself as much time as you can to plan a new course. Successful courses require careful planning and continual revision. Consult with colleagues who have taught the same or similar courses to learn from their strategies and their general impressions of the students who typically take the course. If you are team-teaching, you and your teaching partner(s) should begin meeting well in advance to discuss course goals, teaching philosophies, course content, teaching methods, and course policies, as well as specific responsibilities for each instructor.
Define course goals. Determining the goals for the course will clarify what you want the students to learn and accomplish. Having these course goals in mind will then help you make decisions about which content to include, which teaching methods to use, and what kinds of assignments and exams are appropriate. For a useful introduction to curriculum planning that begins with defining goals for student learning, rather than with course content, see Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design (1998).
When you define the course goals, focus on student learning. One way to formulate these goals is to determine what students should be learning in terms of content, cognitive development, and personal development. Be as specific as you can and make sure that the goals define learning in ways that can be measured. Consider the following questions:
- What do you want your students to remember from your course in 5-10 years?
- How should taking your course change students?
- What skills should students gain in this course?
- How does this course relate to other courses in the discipline? How, then, might you define the course goals accordingly (e.g., for an introductory, fundamental, or advanced course in the discipline)?
In addition, you should learn about the students who typically take the course (their level of preparation, their majors or academic interests, etc.) in order to think about how your course will help this group of students build their knowledge and understanding of the topic.
Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956) provides a helpful framework for identifying the observable and measurable skills you would like your students to learn. Bloom identified six types of cognitive processes and ordered these according to the increasing level of complexity involved: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. This page provides resources for using Bloom’s Taxonomy to help write learning goals.
Below is an example of a list of course goals, as developed for a General Chemistry course. (At Washington University, General Chemistry is a foundational course for several scientific disciplines; it attracts mainly first-year students who were in the top one percent of their high-school classes and whose academic interests represent a variety of disciplines.)
General Chemistry: Course Goals
- Teach chemistry topics that must be covered to help students prepare for other courses and for standardized exams.
- Teach study skills that students need to succeed in university-level science courses; these skills are distinct from those required to succeed in high-school science courses. For example, teach students how to study effectively in a group.
- Teach students problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
Demonstrate how chemistry is used in other fields and in everyday situations.
- Teach students the beauty of chemistry.
Determine course content. Select the major topics and determine the order in which you will teach them.
- Select the main topics to be covered. To obtain an initial list of course topics, look in current textbooks or the current literature (for a special-topics course). Determine whether there is a consensus concerning the necessary topics by obtaining previous course syllabi and discussing potential topics with colleagues. Refine your list by considering your course goals and the characteristics of your students. At the same time, use the desired content to refine the course goals.
- Pare down and refine your initial list of topics. Instructors often plan initially to teach more material than they can cover in the allotted time.
- Determine the structure of the course; arrange the topics in a logical order. Developing a rationale that guides the structure of the course can help you explain the material more clearly to the students. In other words, you can discuss how and why you have organized the material in a particular way, helping them to see, for example, how one topic builds on, illustrates, or offers a different perspective on another. Articulating the rationale behind the course structure also increases and maintains the students’ interest in the course content. Determining the course structure can help you decide which texts are most appropriate.
You can choose to organize the topics in a variety of ways, whether chronological, topical, conceptual, survey-oriented, or process-oriented. Think about how the structure of the course will contribute to student learning. Ask questions such as the following:
- Can I organize the topics according to a theme or storyline?
- Do I need to teach certain skills initially and then discuss applications?
- Do I want to introduce a particular theory before illustrating it with specific examples or problems?
Develop teaching methods and tools. Once you have determined the course goals and content, think about how you will present the content. Select and develop teaching methods and tools that are 1) appropriate for the size of the class and 2) consistent with the course goals. Consider the following questions and suggestions:
- What is your teaching style? How will you apply or adapt your style to suit the course goals, the size of the class, and the types of students who are likely to enroll?
- Which types of teaching methods will best fulfill your course goals?
- When deciding whether or not you will use technology in your teaching, identify specific goals that technology will help you reach. Plan carefully to determine how you will integrate technology with more traditional teaching tools, such as the chalkboard.
- Whenever possible, use a variety of approaches, taking into account that students use a diverse range of learning preferences.
- Plan to use teaching methods that will require and measure active student learning.
Determine how you will evaluate student learning: Plan assignments and exams. The evaluation must go hand-in-hand with course goals. For example, if one course goal is to improve problem-solving skills, the exam should not contain only questions that ask students to recall facts; it should contain questions that ask students to solve specific and well-chosen problems. By the same token, homework and class activities leading up to the exam must include some questions that require problem-solving skills. Consider the following questions:
- Do assignments reflect and help achieve course goals? For example, are the papers required for the course an appropriate genre and length? How much time will you give students to complete these papers?
- Do exams and quizzes reflect course goals? Do they measure the extent to which students are achieving the learning objectives you have set out for the course?
- Will the students have an opportunity to acquire and practice the skills that are required for exams and major assignments?
Select text(s) and other materials. If you are using texts, decide whether the course goals will be best met by using a published text or a course reader that compiles material published elsewhere (and unpublished material, if applicable). Take into account the cost of all materials. Consider placing some of the material on reserve at the library so that students can borrow, photocopy, or download the material themselves. Order texts early and call the bookstore about a month before the course starts to ask if the texts have arrived.
If you are compiling a course reader, consider copyright issues (see the University’s guidelines on copyright and fair use). If you need to obtain permission to reprint or otherwise use published material, allow at least 3 months to complete the process. Keep in mind that some publishers now offer faculty the option of creating custom readers, for which the publisher has already obtained the necessary permissions. You can also use commercial copyright clearance services.
Before the semester begins, order text(s) and other materials, including films, videos, or software; contact guest speakers; and arrange field trips. If you plan to use instructional technology or multimedia equipment, ensure that you will have the necessary equipment, software, and training. Reserve a classroom that has all the necessary components. Classroom reservations are handled by the Office of the University Registrar (OUR), formerly the Office of Student Records. Typically, requests to register classrooms for a course are forwarded to OUR by departmental administrative assistants. To learn about the process in your department, ask the department chair or administrative assistant. Contact The Teaching Center at 935-6810 to schedule training on how to use the classroom multimedia or to arrange for additional, licensed software to be installed on the classroom PC. If you would like to reserve a classroom to practice using the multimedia before the semester starts, or when classes are not in session, please contact Jeanine Gibson in the Office of Student Records by email, or by phone at 935-4145.
Define course policies. Determine how you will grade all required work, including all assignments, papers, exams, and, if applicable, class participation. Decide ahead of time how you will deal with such issues as tardiness, attendance problems, work turned in late, and requests for extensions or the rescheduling of exams. Learn the Policy on Academic Integrity and develop strategies for preventing and responding to plagiarism and cheating. Include all course policies on the syllabus and plan to review them with students on the first day of class.
Develop the course schedule. The tendency is nearly always to try to accomplish too much during each class period. Allow time for active learning to occur during class and for students to complete major assignments and prepare for exams. When preparing the schedule, consult the relevant academic calendars, and keep in mind major religious holidays and significant campus events (for example, Homecoming and Thurtene Carnival).
Write the course syllabus. At a minimum, the syllabus should contain the following: course title, time, and location; prerequisites; required texts and other materials; course topics; major assignments and exams; course policies on grading, academic integrity, attendance, and late work; and contact information for instructor and assistants to instruction (if applicable).
Refine the Course Design. Course planning is a continual process, as illustrated by the diagram below. Each of the steps is necessarily undertaken with the others in mind, and each will necessarily undergo revision each time you teach a particular course.
As you plan and revise courses, remember the importance of teaching core concepts and critical-thinking skills. Focusing only on content can quickly lead you to over-emphasize knowledge-based skills and to ignore the teaching of the higher-level thinking skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Nilson, L. (2016). “Outcomes-Centered Course Design” in Teaching at It’s Best, 4th edition. Jossey-Bass.
Fink, L. D. (2005). A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning.
Bloom, Benjamin (ed). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Vol. 1: Cognitive Domain. New York: McKay, 1956.
Davis, Barbara Gross. “Preparing or Revising a Course.” Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993.
McKeachie, Wilbert, et al. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 12th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
“Planning Your Course: A Decision Guide.” Center for Learning and Teaching, Cornell University.
Stout, Julie. “Radical Course Revision: A Case Study.” National Teaching and Learning Forum 10(4). May 2001.
Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998.