Course Design Considerations

The steps listed in our recommended course design process will help you make crucial decisions before you begin developing your course’s materials and assessments.

Pedagogical Statement: Who are You?

Thinking about a new course often begins with the broad topic at hand. Perhaps you have a textbook or two in mind, or you have taught this course at another institution and want to reuse some or all of its design. However, here is an overlooked angle to consider before you begin planning the course: you, the instructor.

Every instructor is not only a subject matter expert but also a person with beliefs and preferences about (a) how to best convey that subject and (b) how to interact with the individuals who will become your students. Consider your teaching philosophy, your own experience as a student, and how you would like to enhance its positive and minimize its negative aspects.

If you’ve been an online student, what about that experience worked for you? How do you want to re-create it for your students? Finally, what are your beliefs, preferences, and concerns about technology use? How do they impact your course’s design and your digital availability to students?

Consider your Course’s Format

Is your course fully face-to-face, fully online (i.e., asynchronous), or blended? It’s important to recognize that student interaction in each type of class modality is different. The manner in which students engage with your course content, each other, and you is different, and your course design should account for this.

In a three-credit, asynchronous online course, for instance, you’ll need to plan for about 15 hours of weekly information consumption (reading and watching videos), discussions, and assessment, all done online. Similarly, you’ll need to plan on being available online, monitoring and engaging in discussions, responding to questions, and providing written or media-based feedback on assessments. A blended course will balance these aspects with a plan that outlines which interactions are in person and which are in “real time.”

Also, if you plan to use technology tools beyond Blackboard in your online course, you’ll need to articulate how students will use them by providing tutorials and information and ensuring that support is available. Download our Technology Use Planning Worksheet [Word doc], fill it out, then share it with one of CTEL’s learning designers, who will help you bring together technology resources for your students.

Begin with the End in Mind

Now it’s time to start designing your course. There are many models of course design, and they have different starting points. Follow the links below to learn more about how each one works. You can choose the course design model you like best for your own purpose or try a combination of more than one. These models don’t have to be used independently—they not only complement but also build upon each other.

Backward design

With backward design, you begin with learning objectives and create assessments that align with them before curating and creating your course materials. (See Figure A.) The purpose of following this workflow is to ensure that more students understand your course’s concepts; the authors of backward design, Wiggins and McTighe (2005), ask you to consider:

What must our planning entail to have an intellectual impact on everyone: the less experienced; the highly able, but unmotivated; the less able; those with varied interests and styles? (para. 15)

Make a copy of our Lesson Blueprint [Google doc], and use it to plan out lessons in your course in which learning objectives, assessments, and course materials are aligned.

Significant learning

With the significant learning model, you take a learning-centered rather than content-centered approach and design a highly interactive course. (See Figure B.) According to the author of the significant learning model, Dee Fink (2013),

Teaching should result in something others can look at and say, “That learning experience resulted in something that is truly significant in terms of the students’ lives.” (p. 7)

Make a copy of our Course Design Blueprint [Google doc], and use it to plan the design of your course following the significant learning model.

Connection – Engagement – Empowerment

The Connection-Engagement-Empowerment model emphasizes a student-centered approach to course design that plans for three different types of engagement. Its creators, Yearwood, Cox, and Cassidy (2016), stated:

It is important that teachers employ connection or activating strategies to help students see how content and processes tie in to their own lives. Similarly, a need exists for meaningful student engagement at multiple levels, not only with the content but also engagement with student peers and with the instructor related to the discussions that take place around given topics. Empowerment can follow, during or much after a course has ended. (p. 13)

Graphic depicting the backward design process
Figure A. The backward design process
Graphic depicting the interactive nature of significant learning
Figure B. Model of the interactive nature of significant learning

Decide the Defining Characteristic of your Course

What’s your vision for your course? The answer depends (at least partly) on your goals for your course. The models listed above can help you shape them and your course’s consequent activities. Here are some approaches to consider:

  1. Highly interactive:
    • With content: frequent assessments, videos/podcasts, simulations/games
    • With other students: discussions, peer feedback, group work
    • With you: frequent feedback, feedback on drafts, live meetings, discussions
  2. Project based: research, long-term projects, prototype development, capstone project, presentations
  3. Writing intensive: research, creative writing, term papers
  4. Experiential: service learning, capstone project, data collection
  5. Memorization or fundamental content knowledge: tests

Course design and development are iterative processes; if you spot trouble with either, do not hesitate to modify mid-course or before the next time you offer the course! Your teaching will only get better with age if you remain open to change.


Bowen, R. S. (2017). Understanding by design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from

Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Yearwood, D., Cox, R., & Cassidy, A. (2016). Connection-Engagement-Empowerment: A course design model. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal, 8(3), 1-15.