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How to design a course – an overview

Course design is a multi-step process that includes thinking about your course, its role in the curriculum, your students and administrative details. When designing your course, it is suggested you begin by “thinking backwards,” or thinking about student outcomes.  Student outcomes or objectives are what you want the students to know and do, and what attitudes or behaviors you want them to have at the end of your course.  Once you have those outcomes, you can plan the rest of your course.

Your student outcomes need to take into consideration where your course lies in the curriculum, which means understanding what knowledge and skills students entering your class have. It also means knowing what knowledge and skills they need for upcoming courses. You will also need to take into account more practical things, such as what you can reasonably expect from students at their developmental level, your own teaching philosophy, what you, as the instructor, can reasonability accomplish in a course, and student demographics.  Student demographics include the number of students in the course, whether the course is for majors or non-majors, and what classroom resources you have.  For these reasons, don’t expect your course to be perfect the first, second, or even third time you teach it.

The steps in course design are listed below.  Some of the steps are expanded on in this chapter and following chapters.

  1. Determine your student objectives (outcomes).
  2. Determine course connect based on those objectives. Based on that content determine:
    1. What course materials (books, audiovisuals, and so on) will students need?
    2. How will you know if students have achieved the outcomes?  In other words, what assignments, papers, projects and tests are most appropriate?
    3. What teaching strategy(ies) are best to achieve these outcomes?
  3. Develop your course outline.  What should be the order of topics, assignments, and student evaluations?
  4. Write your course calendar.
  5. Write your syllabus.
  6. Have a colleague review your work and give feedback.


Need more information?  Visit these websites:


  • Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA
Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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