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Designing your course


Introduction: designing before teaching a course

Designing a course goes through different phases: 1) the definition of the concepts and content of the course, 2) the definition of the learning outcomes, 3) the definition of a strategy to reach these outcomes, and 4) assessment. In the following we touch on different aspects of these four phases.

We suggest that you read this page before starting a course and teaching. For lecturers having their first teaching experience it is an opportunity to learn about basic techniques useful in designing a course. For already experienced lectures it is a chance to put some intuitions and known notions about teaching into a clear framework or correct some mistakes common in the teaching profession.

Before reading further take a look at the ACO tip on teaching and learning. We have also posted a tip on specific teaching tactics.


Mapping the concepts and defining the content

At the very early stage of designing a course, you should think about what you would like to teach and the content of the course. You can, for example, follow the table of contents of a text or a chronological or geographical perspective or explore different themes or evaluate the theoretical and practical aspects of a concept.

It may be a good idea to draw a map of the concepts that you would like to treat in the course. A first draft of the map would include very abstract and general concepts. At a later stage you should be able to revise the map and become more specific. Some teachers also use the conceptual map in class as a learning tool.


Identify the learning outcomes of your course

After defining the content, the next step to set the objectives of your course. Ask yourself: "What do I want my students to be able to do?" and "How should they be different at the end of this course?" By answering these simple questions, you will already come up with some learning outcomes for your course.

The education literature has come up with different types of learning outcomes in different domains. Moving from the most basic to the most complex, these domains are: psychomotor, affective and cognitive. In the first domain, students engage in some practical exercise. In the second, they develop an attachment to the subject of the course. In the third, they increase the knowledge of the topic and eventually become autonomous researchers.

In most cases, you will want to fix learning outcomes in the cognitive domain. In the following we provide a detailed list of the main learning processes that take place in this domain:

  • Knowledge: recalling previously learned material with no or minimal alterations. This implies that students will be able to recognise an issue from the course and define it.
  • Comprehension: understanding of material and ability to explain it. Students will be able to determine the meaning of a lecture message channelled through different forms of communication (oral, written and graphic). Overall, students will be able to interpret the material and make examples, classifications, summaries, inferences and comparisons. They will also be able to provide explanations.
  • Application: ability to use what has been learned in class in other situations. This means that students will be able to use abstractions and concepts learned in class.
  • Analysis: understanding the relationships between different parts of the content and relating it to a general structure or purpose. At this stage, students will be able to differentiate, compare, contrast, organise and attribute.
  • Evaluation: making judgments on the value of the material for specific purposes. At this point students should have developed a truly critical approach with respect to the content of the course and the discipline, including the ability to argue, justify and synthesise.
  • Creation:combining parts to form a new whole. This is the last stage of learning, which characterises higher education and implies the ability to generate new material and thinking related to the theme of the course.

A good idea would be to test these objectives during the first lecture and see what your students already know and what they need to learn.


Mapping the situation

When designing your course it is important to know who your audience will be and the context in which you will be working. You will structure a different course depending on whether your will be teaching undergraduate or postgraduate students, small or large groups. To start with, ask yourself and answer the following questions:

  • What kind of students enrol in this course? How many are there? Are they undergraduates, M.A. students or Ph.D. researchers?
  • What kind of course are you teaching? Is it elective or required? Is it a prerequisite for other classes? Is it specifically building on another course?
  • What is your learning space? Do you have access to a small or a large room? Has the room fixed desks and/or movable chairs? Is there some media equipment?
  • What is your timing? Is your course a full year or a single term course? Is it a crash course of a few days or a week? Do you teach early in the morning, after lunch, late in the afternoon or even close to evening time?

Determine the strategy and specific learning activities of the course

To reach a goal, you need to set a strategy. For each goal, think of what your students are going to do in class and the specific learning activities. Is "hearing" sufficient? Or "reading"? Or "doing" some practical exercise? Should you combine these different activities?

Choose the appropriate teaching strategies to achieve your goals:

  • "Hear - read - test." You will structure your course on the basis of a continuous series of lectures and reading assignments, interrupted by 1 or 2 mid terms.
  • "Read - write - talk." In this case, the course will be composed of a sequence of reading, reflective writing, and collective class discussion.
  • "Do/look - read - talk." You will first engage your students in some fieldwork, which will be followed by readings and collective class discussions.
  • "Hear - see/do." You will first introduce the topic through lectures, which will be followed by fieldwork or lab observations.
  • "Read-indiv./group tests-do." In this case you start by assigning readings, followed by small tests done individually and/or in small groups; then you will move on to group-based application projects.
  • "Know/know-how -do-do." In this case you will work through a series of developmental stages: build knowledge and/or skills (3-5 weeks); work on small application projects (3-5 weeks); and then work on larger, more complex projects (3-5 weeks).

Develop a weekly schedule for your course

A course normally lasts about 15 weeks. Think about when you are going to do what during the course:

  • What activities do you need to start with?
  • What activities do you need in the middle of the course?
  • With what activities do you want to end your course?


Identify resources: who and what can help?

Ask yourself: "What resources do I need (and can actually get) to support each of the general goals of the course?"

  • People? Staff, lecturers, guest speakers, etc.
  • Place? Indoor or outdoor, etc.
  •  Tools? Media, internet, etc.

When the course starts, evaluate your teaching performance

One good way of knowing how well your course is going or has gone is to ask your students for some mid-term and end-of-term feedback. Ask yourself and them about the effectiveness of particular learning activities. Then reflect on their degree of achievement for each goal of the course and what could be improved (eventually in your next course).

Do not hesitate to use audio/videotape, student feedback, questionnaires, and peer observers to improve your teaching performance: this will help you to enjoy your job much more!


Evaluate whether students have mastered the objectives of the course


Remember, first of all, that if your objectives are clearly defined it will be much easier to evaluate them. Also be realistic when deciding how much material a student can actually and effectively learn and digest in 15 weeks. A good idea would be also to focus on the skills that the material will help students to develop rather than the scope of the material.

Then, ask yourself: "What kind of tools do I have to evaluate each goal?" Possible answers are:

  • Multiple-choice questionnaires
  • Essay exams
  • Project assignments
  • Writing assignments
  • Other valid evidence

For example, if you want your students to apply the principles they have learnt in a new situation, you can test them by presenting precisely a new situation or a collection of new data. If your objective is to develop evaluation skills, present your students with different interpretations of an event and ask them to apply the criteria that they learned in class.


How are you going to grade your students?

To be fair and consistent in grading is far from easy. First of all you have to understand what your employer wants. Has your employer a preference for multiple choice questionnaires? Or for some "open question" type of exam? Or for a mix of both? And then: Does your employer want you to grade students using letters (A, B+, C-, etc.) or percentages? Are absences taken into consideration in the final grading?

Also consider that your grading should reflect the full range of goals and activities of your course. This does not mean that everything has to be graded, and you as a lecturer should have a margin of discretion in selecting what should be graded. However, it is important to grade each activity considering its relative importance during the course.


Double-check what could go wrong in your course design


Analyse and assess the "first draft" of the structure of your course by asking a colleague, friend or partner to have a look at it. Try to see what kind of situations might arise and focus on the following questions as a guide for assessment:

  • Will students be motivated to do the work? What if they are not?
  • Does the design encourage student involvement for each activity/part?
  • Will students get sufficient feedback on their performance?
  • How can you prevent (or at least minimise) problems on the way?

Preparing the syllabus

The syllabus is a key document. For many universities, this is the "contract" that the teacher "signs" with the students and will not allow for many changes, if any, after the beginning of the course. You should give the syllabus to your students before or during the first day of class. It should include the essential information that they need to know such as:

  • The course title and number
  • The prerequisites for the course
  • The building and room number where class will take place
  • The instructor's name, contact details and office hours
  • The text(s) and supplementary readings
  • The course website and suggested bibliography
  • The learning outcomes
  • The course format: how class time will be used
  • Your expectations as a teacher about student responsibilities with respect to, for example, participation or the level of work
  • The assessment techniques used to evaluate students, including information on grading policies
  • A schedule of weekly class topics, with reading assignments
  • Deadlines for the submission of papers, exams, projects, etc., including policies on late assignments
  • Information about academic procedures (class attendance, making up assignments, and university-wide policies).



Below are some links to websites - including university websites - providing instructions related to teaching:

Here is a list of books and manuals that can help you with understanding teaching and learning. We give you references that cover different aspects of the four phases of planning teaching that we have introduced in this career tip.

Content and conceptual maps:

Jonassen, D., Beissner, K., & Yacci., M. (1993). Explicit methods for conveying structural knowledge through concept maps. Structural knowledge: Techniques for representing, conveying and acquiring structural knowledge (155-163). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Learning outcomes:

Bloom, B. S. (ed.) (1956). "Taxonomy of Education and Objectives, The Classification of Educational Goals," New York: McKay.

Leckie, G.J. (1996). Desperately seeking citations: Uncovering faculty assumptions about the undergraduate research process. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 23(3), 201-208.


Bligh, D. (2000). What's the point in discussion? Exeter, UK: Intellect.

McAlpine, L., (2004). Designing learning rather then designing teaching: A model of instruction for higher education that emphasizes learner practice. Active Learning in Higher Education, 5(2), 119-134.


Angelo, T., & Cross, P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Page last updated on 30 July 2015

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