Course Design

Course Design Overview

Whether designing a new course or preparing to adopt a standardized curriculum, you will find it helpful to begin your course preparation by clearly defining what you expect your students to have learned by the end of your course or section. You can then put together course materials, or select new ways of presenting course materials, that serve the learning outcomes you have chosen.

Consider the topic and level of your course, and ask yourself:

  • What is the most important information students should learn and remember from this course (facts and other kinds of core knowledge)?
  • What are the most important ideas that students should understand after taking this course (theories, approaches, perspectives, and other broad themes in your field)?
  • What are the most important skills that students should develop in this course (laboratory skills, problem-solving skills, creative skills, writing skills, etc.)?

(Some faculty also ask what attitudes they want students to develop as a result of their course, such as love of the field; a critical, questioning stance toward texts; or an appreciation of cultural differences.)  See also Thinking about Your Course Goals.

Be as specific as possible. For example, an instructor of modern Chinese history might identify the timeline of key historical events and periods as important Course Preparation information, competing theories about the causes of the Chinese Revolution as important ideas, and the ability to compare modern Chinese history to other significant historical trends as an important skill. An instructor of product design might identify fundamentals of descriptive geometry as important information, the relationship between form and function as an important idea, and the use of a design software program as an important skill. Different courses may emphasize one type of learning outcome more than others; you may have an enormous amount of facts to cover in an introductory course or you may find yourself teaching a highly skills-specific course for advanced students. However, most courses will have a combination of all three kinds of outcomes.

If you get lost in a sea of possible learning outcomes and find yourself overwhelmed, consider dividing the outcomes into those that are essential (students must reach these goals in order to continue successfully in their program) and those that are desirable. To decide which outcomes are essential, you can talk to upper-division students and to faculty members whose courses follow yours in a major. If the curriculum is already established, use previous syllabi or talk to previous instructors to find out what has historically been considered essential in the course.

Desirable outcomes, on the other hand, reflect your idealistic side: What are your dream learning outcomes for a student taking this course? Do you care more about breadth of knowledge, imagining your students fielding a broad variety of questions on your field (as an instructor of an introductory course might)? Or do you care more about depth of knowledge, imagining your students deep in the trenches of a specific research problem or creative project (as an instructor of a seminar might)? What kinds of intellectual and practical challenges would your students ideally be able to face headon and conquer? For a professor of any science, a desirable learning outcome might be the ability to design, run, and analyze an innovative study; for a professor of business, it might be the ability to put together a business plan that a potential investor would get excited about.

You will, of course, need to take into account such practical considerations as what you can realistically fit into a quarter, what your department expects from your course, whether or not it is part of a sequence, how prepared and committed your students are, what resources are available for the classroom and students, and your own strengths and experience as a teacher. For these reasons, it may take several rounds of teaching and revising a course before you feel confident about your ability to achieve all of your desirable goals. Give yourself room to grow. Emphasize the essential learning outcomes first,with an eye to facilitating desired learning whenever possible.

Translating Goals into Course Content

Once you have identified the most important learning outcomes for your course, you are ready to assemble the means that will best support your goals. In doing so, you will want to focus on three questions:

  • What materials (textbooks, articles, lecture content) do students need access to in order to achieve your learning outcomes? Choose your reading and resource list based on the quality of the information, ideas, and training provided, and use classroom time to fill in the gaps between your goals and the content of those readings/ resources.
  • What assignments (papers, problem sets, projects) and experiences (discussions, labs, field trips, collaborative activities) will give students the opportunity to reinforce the information and ideas of the course, as well as practice key skills?
  • What should students be able to do to demonstrate that they have met these key learning goals? The answer(s) to this question will be the basis for your grading structure, as well as the format and content of graded exams, homework, and projects. For example, if one of your essential learning outcomes is improved analytical thinking, make sure that your exams and assignments require it.

The next step is to select the specific readings, lecture and discussion content, class activities, practice assignments, and graded assignments that will make up your course. You can weed through the course materials already prepared by previous instructors of similar courses, with an eye for those materials that best meet your goals. If you are lucky (and brave!) enough to be embarking on a new course, you have the freedom and challenge of building your course materials from scratch. The next section provides some practical advice on meeting this particular challenge.

Course Outline

The next step is to develop your course outline.Your previous work, defining your teaching goals and the most important learning outcomes for your course, will serve as a guide as you make specific decisions about course materials and content.

Choose the Readings

A major decision will be whether or not to adopt a general text. If you are like most teachers, it is unlikely that any one book will meet all your needs.However, most students prefer some textbook that integrates the course for them, as long as it is reasonably well-written. One solution is to make the students responsible for mastering the text, and then use your lectures to present alternative points of view or to fill in the textbook’s gaps. Since students are often confused by contradiction between textbook and lecture, be sure to explain to them what you will be doing, why it is useful, and how they can best integrate lecture and textbook when studying. If you don’t choose a general textbook, it’s even more important to consider how your readings relate to each other and your lectures. Again, make sure your students understand how to integrate multiple readings and lecture content. From the student’s perspective, it is also considerate to minimize the expense of using several books or the inconvenience of placing a large amount of material on reserve. Such seemingly trivial factors can influence whether or not a student takes your course.

Beyond the required books, readings can include articles that further illustrate applications or offer alternative points of view. Your own handouts are another valuable resource. They can be especially helpful to supplement or summarize your lectures, as long as you keep the number of pages to a minimum. Students will also make use of recommended readings if you provide structure for that use.When you give a list of additional readings, indicate which books students can consult for help in doing projects or solving problems, which works you suggest they refer to when writing a paper, and which resources can benefit students who lack certain background knowledge or who wish to pursue a favorite subject further.

Create an Order for Your Course Topics

You probably have a good sense of the major topics that you need to cover. However, to be thorough, you can check the major textbooks in your field, the concerns of the leading journals, and the syllabi of your colleagues teaching similar courses or courses that precede or follow yours in a sequence. How to best order these topics? A system may immediately suggest itself— such as proceeding chronologically or using the order of the textbook you adopt. You may also consider a meaningful order of course topics that builds from the abstract to the specific, or that alternates between theory and application, or that groups course topics by the kinds of approaches, skills, or methods they require.

Whatever order you choose, be sure that student learning builds on itself. For example, you would not expect students to synthesize alternative viewpoints until they were first able to compare viewpoints and you would not expect them to compare viewpoints until they had first learned how to analyze an argument.Nor would you expect students to design experiments that test complex hypotheses before they had first developed basic inquiry skills on more simple problems. For this reason, the order of your topics should complement and support the development of the key ideas and skills that students are working to master.

Design Class Activities

How exactly do you want to spend class time? Will you lecture throughout, or devote considerable time to other activities? Although lecturing might seem to be the natural mode, it can encourage passivity in students. You may want to build in other activities that require interaction with the class. Does it make sense to include short discussion periods in every class, or to schedule occasional days of discussion only? Are there guest lecturers or field experiences that could provide special insight into a topic? Will role-playing help students understand certain topics? Is there a film that does a particularly good job of covering a topic? (Note that film use is popular with students only when the film is excellent and is not perceived as merely a time-saving tool for a busy instructor.) Also consider delegating a certain amount of content coverage to peer instruction, in which students—through careful group research and presentations— teach their classmates. Studies have shown that students achieve the highest level of information retention and comprehension when they have taught the material themselves. Explain to students the value of such active engagement with the course content; you may also want to devote some class time and office hours to guiding students in their explorations and preparing them for peer instruction, so that they do not perceive peer instruction as an avoidance of your own teaching duties.

Plan the Course Calendar

Finally, of course, you will want to study the academic calendar and actually decide on a week-by-week sequencing of topics, readings, assignments, and exams. Check carefully for school holidays or other events (like “Big Game”) that might affect student attendance or ability to complete assignments. Consider leaving some flexibility in your outline for student feedback (e.g., on course topics, reading load, and coursework difficulty), as well as unforeseen complications (e.g., having to reschedule an exam if the majority of your students have another exam that day).

Get Feedback

Once you have your course outline, check it over carefully. Even better, have a colleague look it over and react. Is it meaty—is there enough material to challenge the students intellectually and sustain their interest? Is it flexible—if students make suggestions, do you have room to incorporate them? Is it coherent—is there a recognizable connection between the lectures, readings, and assignments? Do the major themes of the course stand out? Is there a sense of intellectual movement— will students emerge with not only more information, but also new skills and capabilities?


Once your course outline is finished, you can prepare a version of it for your students. Your syllabus is both an invitation to students interested in your course and a contract between you and the student. For these reasons, your syllabus should contain, at a minimum:

  • a course description, including your objectives for the course;
  • course prerequisites;
  • a list of assignments and due dates;
  • a description of exams (exam format and topics covered) and their dates;
  • statements on your grading, attendance, and other policies, including the University Honor Code and information about the Office of Accessible Education, including their recommended Syllabus Statement about how students with disabilities can arrange accommodations;
  • office hours and location, your telephone number and/or your email address, and the address for the course website, if you have developed one. Similar information should be provided for any TAs assisting in the course. The more you make the TAs full members of your teaching team, the more likely they will make significant contributions to the class, the students, and you.

In addition, you can attract or retain interested students by listing more specific details of the course, including the titles or topics of each lecture. Consider framing each lecture in terms of questions that the lecture will answer, for example: “What does it take to win a Nobel Prize these days?” (a lecture on the modern history of science) or “Why does tap water taste different at Stanford than in the Bronx?” (a lecture on water quality). Also consider leaving one or two days untitled, to invite students to choose a supplemental lecture topic or to allow for catch-up if necessary. Some instructors go further and include short summaries of the major themes or debates for each unit in the course.

If you are interested in going beyond the minimum requirements for your syllabus, consider the “learningcentered” model for syllabus design. A learning-centered syllabus not only outlines the instructor’s goals and objectives for the course, but also guides students to take responsibility for their own learning (Grunert, 1997). For example, a learning-centered syllabus invites students to:

  • Identify their own goals for the course: What are they hoping to learn? How does this course fit into their academic plan of study, their professional goals, or their personal goals?
  • Contribute to decisions about course content and activities. You might do this by offering a choice of reading materials for some topics, a vote on supplemental lecture topics, or options for final project topics. • Take responsibility for their own learning.You can facilitate this by providing students with information about university resources (e.g., academic coaching and tutoring services) as well as general study tips, a list of supplemental resources for the course, and suggestions for excelling in your particular course.

In these ways, the learning-centered syllabus becomes a guide for students, rather than just a summary of course details.

See Also