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Center for Teaching Excellence

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Course Design

In designing a course, start with what you want students to have learned by the end. Instead of asking, "What should I cover?" ask "What should they learn?" Course materials and activities should all support articulated learning outcomes which reflect what students should be able to do at the end of the course. So before jumping into creating your syllabus (the end product), follow these steps for course design.

Reflect on the most-likely student population of the class. The success of your course has much to do with how well you manage to match your course content to the backgrounds of your students.

The most fundamental consideration is the academic stage of your students. Are the students coming into the course with any background knowledge? Is this course a major requirement or a general elective? Can you expect the students to have even a basic interest in the course material? Considering where your students may be coming from as they enter the class should help you determine, up front, the scope of the course and should underlie many of the decisions you make as you design your course.

Learning outcomes describe the measurable skills, abilities, knowledge, or values that students should be able to do or demonstrate as a result of a completing your course. Learning outcomes are student-centered rather than teacher-centered, in that they describe what the students will do, not what the instructor will teach. For more information on learning outcomes, see Learning Outcomes.

In order to translate learning outcomes into course content, take an intermediary step to think about what skills will demonstrate the achievement of the learning outcomes. What content is required to support those skills? The skills will be informed by the readings, resources and class activities and will be embedded in the course assignments and exams. Student work becomes more obviously relevant to the topic and exams and projects become more authentic when tied directly to outcome skills.

What textbooks, articles and lecture content do students need to achieve your learning outcomes? Choose readings and resources based on the quality of information and ideas and plan to use classroom time to connect the readings and resources to the learning outcomes.

One major decision will be whether or not to adopt a general text. It may be unlikely that any one book will meet all your needs. Most students prefer, however, a textbook that integrates the course for them, as long as it is understandable and fair-priced. One solution is to make students responsible for mastering the text, and then use your lectures to cover difficult material and to fill in the gaps. You may also choose a textbook and additional readings. If you don’t choose a general textbook, it is very important for you to intentionally relate your content through readings and lecture.

You can also check the University Library’s Open Educational Resources guides for resources.

Look at table of contents from your textbook and check out other faculty syllabi for the course in addition to your own content knowledge to confirm which major topics to cover. Then figure out what sequence you should use. It may be chronological, thematic, or just the order of your textbook. Whatever you choose, try to make sure the student learning builds on itself. The order of your topics should support the development of key ideas and skills the students are working to master in the course.

Here you will need to think about activities and assessments in and outside of class. How exactly do you want to spend class time? Will you lecture or combine the class with other activities? What experiences (demonstrations, discussions, labs, field trips, collaborative activities), assignments (papers, problems, projects), and exams will give students the opportunity to reinforce the information and ideas of the course as well as practice any key skills? Diversify your approach as much as possible to hold student attention in class and to engage various learning styles. 

Once your calendar outline is complete, work to decide on a week-by-week sequencing which correlates topics, readings, assignments and exams.

The CTE provides Syllabus and Calendar Templates for academic terms. These templates incorporate MWF and TTh class sessions with class holidays. Start with a CTE template with dates for your class days and holidays, add the final exam date, and then add any noticeable dates which may impact your class to your template.


Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.