Course Design


Course design is a critical step to ensuring student success. A famous quote (often wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein) says: “Given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes understanding the problem and one minute resolving it.” The more time spent in the design phase of a course will go a long way to avoiding headaches for both faculty and students. Here are some recommended steps for designing or re-designing your face-to-face, hybrid (blended) or online course.


First, if developing a new online/hybrid course, please be sure you have read/are familiar with:

Objectives: Begin with the End in Mind

Write high quality, age/level-appropriate learning objectives using Bloom's taxonomy (or something similar.)

Bloom's taxonomy revised image

What will students know or be able to do at the end of the course – knowledge, skills, thoughts & ideas?

Defining learning objectives sets the foundational structure of your course. The objectives set the layout for what the content should be, the learning activities that are needed to achieve the objectives, and the assessments that ensure students have achieved the objectives.

Key features of course learning objectives include:

  • Student-centered description

  • Use action verbs, e.g. apply, decide, calculate (but avoid verbs like know, understand, discuss)

  • Measurable (see above)

  • Aligned with learning activities and student performance

  • It is highly recommended to consult with the IDEA Team to assist with this (see step 2).

Key readings:

Also, keep active vs. passive learning and their retention rates in mind. How much do you really want to rely upon lecture and/or reading to accomplish objectives? While the chart below has been somewhat debunked, and the percentages may not be super accurate, the general gist remains:

Map and Align Objectives/Assessments/Activities

Looking at your objectives, how can they be measured and achieved? Using a matrix like the handout below, enter your objectives and how they will be assessed. Then add the learning activities, tools and resources, to make sure that all are in alignment with your objectives.

In the well-designed course, the learning objectives serve to guide and direct the other various course components. The selected assessments will measure the learning objectives. Learning activities will promote mastery of the objectives.

All critical course components: learning objectives, assessments, activities, instructional resources and materials, learner engagement and interaction, learner support and even course technologies - work together to ensure that students achieve the desired learning outcomes. “When aligned, each of these course components is directly tied to and supports the learning objectives.” (Citation:

Is there at least one objective-driven purpose corresponding to each activity and assessment?

Key handout:

Create Assessments

How will you know what students have learned?

Assessments: As much for the student as they are for the instructor, this is the evidence that the learning objectives are being met, and that students are where you want them to be at each determined interval of the course. At the same time, assessments are a way to pinpoint misunderstandings and areas of potentially unanticipated importance to a particular cohort. Assessments may allow a course to evolve in small ways throughout the term to assure that the course meets the needs of the students.

Employ a mix of formative and summative assessment strategies:

Key readings:

Podcast listening:

Design Learning Activities

What will you do to facilitate learning?

A learning activity can be thought of as anything that helps your students learn the desired content. We often think of lectures as a way to present content that student should learn (and they are!) - but when designing learning activities, you should also consider other methods of engaging students with the content in a way that will help them learn the material that they need to learn. This section will give you tips on teaching techniques including lecture, case studies, problem based learning, discussion, and more.

Key readings

Write Syllabus

How do you communicate all of this course design to your students? How can your syllabus stimulate deeper and more enthusiastic student learning? What kind of syllabus do the most highly effective teachers use? Taking the elements you've defined in previous steps and considering the resources provided, create a comprehensive and thought-provoking syllabus for your course.

Key reading/handout/tools:

Clarify and Document relevant policies

What class and school policies do you want to draw to students' attention?

This may sound like the "dry" part of course design, but it's important to think about what policies you want to enforce in your class. Are laptops and cell phones allowed? If so, in what capacity? What's the late policy on assignments? Do you take attendance? Do you have additional thoughts on academic ethics beyond the school standard verbiage? All of these things should be part of course design, and should be included in your syllabus.

Key reading/handout/tools:

Also see: PDF guide to virtual teaching (30 page PDF)


Portions of the above were adapted or copied from the JHSPH CTL Teaching Toolkit, November 2016.

Online and Hybrid Classes?

See our list of short readings and resources to help prepare for hybrid and online teaching.