Tips for designing a course

After the joyful experience of being hired to teach a college class comes the often gut wrenching fear accompanying the realization that we have to design a course. For the most part, your experience with course design comes from reading a syllabus as a student. You know when a course worked well and when it worked poorly, but you often do not know why. Course design is a big part of the answer. Here are some tips to help you design a well rounded and effective course.


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  • start with the goals in mind
  • consider assignments that challenge and engage
  • help students learn how they learn
  • flip the class
  • include real life issues and experiences

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  • forget what it is like to be a student
  • try to do too much
  • restrict yourself to the textbook
  • be afraid to ask students for input
  • feel constrained by the syllabus

[publishpress_authors_data]'s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do start with the goals in mind

Course design starts with the end goals. What are students going to walk away from this class knowing and being able to do? What do they have to learn in order to be able to take the next course in the sequence or to go on with their career goals? Write these goals with specific objectives, or steps, you will use to help students master the goals with the end product in mind.

Do consider assignments that challenge and engage

Course design in high school might have included a midterm and final test along with several quizzes, but this is not the most effective way to measure learning. No matter what the course is there are many other options for assignments that help students learn while simultaneously acting to measure progress. Think about experiential projects, case studies, annotated bibliographies, mock conference presentations, computer simulations, or reflective learning journals. Any of these can be used to enhance learning and student engagement.

Do help students learn how they learn

Take the time to give students a learning styles inventory, or have them discuss learning styles. We all benefit from understanding how we learn, and it is worth the time it takes to help students understand their personal learning style. This will also help facilitate the class. While we need to adapt to all learners, knowing the best strategies for the students in the class helps make a class work. This is true for online courses too. Students can discover their personal style and discuss how to adapt to the online environment.

Do flip the class

Flipping the class means that lectures are listened to at home, and homework is done in the class. Think about using technology to record lectures, and having the students listen to these at home or while in transit. Then the class time can be spent on what would usually have been considered “homework.” Students can work together on projects that apply information, review, or build on case studies or solving problems.

Do include real life issues and experiences

Most students want to know when and how they are going to use the information from the class in the real world. Build this into the class by using assignments that connect the content to current work or life issues for the students. Students want to leave a class and start using the information in some useful way. The more they do so, the more they remember.

[publishpress_authors_data]'s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not forget what it is like to be a student

It takes courage to walk into a classroom. For some of our students, college is an exciting adventure, but for some it is a mysterious and frightening challenge. Faculty are not there to demonstrate superior knowledge, but to help students learn. When people are asked about a favorite teacher from the past they say two things. First, the teacher was caring and compassionate. Second, the teacher pushed me to do my best work. It is this combination of kindness and high expectations that brings the best out in students.

Do not try to do too much

This can be the downfall of a new faculty. Somehow we want teach everything we know about a topic in our introductory course. We expect graduate level thinking and writing from first year freshman, or try to cover the entire history of a discipline in 15 weeks. Review the goals and the outcome if you can for the program. The chair of the program should have this information. Then ask for any goals or outcomes for the course. These will help guide you. We do not have to teach everything we know in each course. It is more important to make the students mentally hungry so that they want to learn more.

Do not restrict yourself to the textbook

Standard text books are expensive and limiting. They usually have 14 to 16 chapters to match the length of a typical college semester. They just suggest to faculty that each week should cover a different chapter. There are so many other options though. Students can be given a topic for each week and told to find a journal article. Think about using one chapter from a book and using the library e-reserves. Think about trade books and Ted-Ed Talks and all the other resources that can replace a text book.

Do not be afraid to ask students for input

Each class has a chemistry based on the students in the room or in the online shell. These students bring knowledge and experience to the course. Use the students to enrich the class by asking for their feedback on the syllabus, readings, assignments, and overall course design. Bring them on as partners in learning.

Do not feel constrained by the syllabus

Be ready to change the course content or weekly plan based on student issues, questions, or world events. There are teachable moments in the days after an environmental catastrophe, political event, scientific discovery, or global issue. Use them. Do not be afraid to bring in new information or to link the course to the events going on in the world.


Building a syllabus and designing a course can be a challenging exercise. One hint is to start with the institutions goals and outcomes for the program and the course. This guide can be used to sketch out weekly assignments, readings, lectures, and projects. But the syllabus is not meant to be a restrictive document, it is meant to guide the relation between faculty and learner in a class. Students can enrich the course, as can examples from the world outside the classroom. Focusing on student learning rather than specific amounts of content helps engage students in the topic and enlivens the class. Learning is a dynamic activity, and classes should be equally dynamic so that faculty and students have a powerful and enriching experience.

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