Course Design Heuristic

Designing a course is a significant task, but following a proven strategy can help. The following design sequence is one possible order of completing a course design. Please feel free to start wherever you are most comfortable. Be sure to check all new input against your existing input to ensure that your ideas are complementary, not contradictory. Your goal is to create an integrated course design.

Setting the context: situational factors

  • What is the context of the course? For example, is it a required or an elective course? How does it fit within the larger curriculum? Does it count toward professional accreditation requirements? What makes it different from other courses in your department, program, or area?
  • Who are your potential students? For example, what background knowledge and experience do they possess? What are their interests? What expectations might they have about the course and how will it be taught?
  • How many students will you have? Do you consider this to be a large class?
  • What kind of learning space do you have? Is it a classroom or lab, or is it online? Is the furniture fixed or movable? What media equipment will you have access to?
  • Where else have you taught and at what level? What was the learning environment like there? How does this new one differ, if at all?
  • What are your strengths as a teacher? What are your targets for change?
  • Which course activities would be more effective in face-to-face classes or tutorials? Which can take place online or elsewhere?

Assessing your teaching philosophy

Our beliefs about teaching and learning inevitably inform our course design. Reflecting on your teaching philosophy and making explicit connections between various elements of your course design (e.g., the teaching methods you use in class, the forms of feedback you give and how often, how you choose to assess students' learning) will allow you to evaluate whether or not you are effectively putting your teaching philosophy into practice. 

If you have yet to flesh out a statement of teaching philosophy or would like to revisit yours, consider reading our "Exploring Your Teaching Philosophy" teaching tip. The following questions are also helpful prompts to help you design a course that puts your philosophy into practice:

  • What do I believe about teaching and learning?
  • What do I want my students to gain from my classroom?
  • Why do I choose the teaching strategies/methods that I use?
  • Why do I select particular assignments/experiences for my students?

Alternatively, you might imagine an ideal teaching situation. What would you do (or would like to do) when teaching this course and why? The “what” reveals teaching strategies and the “why” reveals your philosophy, your beliefs about teaching and learning. Generate 4-8 brief responses.

“When I teach, I (would) ________ because _______"

For example: When I teach, I encourage students to ask questions because it allows me to assess their understanding of the material, helps to establish an open classroom environment, and builds their confidence in their own knowledge and analytical skills.

Setting initial course learning goals

Now work on setting four to six overarching goals for your course and your students’ learning. These are not plans for what you will do, but rather plans for what your students will do. Try to be as specific as possible and focus on what your students will be able to do, know, or feel by the end of the course. Learning implies change. How will your students be different? What will they have learned? It is often much more than just course content. Avoid only using words such as “understand” and “appreciate.” Instead, use stronger action words such as “explain,” “compare,” or “evaluate.” Use the following prompt to help you:

“By the end of my course, students will________”

For example: By the end of my workshop, students will have started to design their own course.

Selecting feedback and assessment

What would the students have to do to convince you that they had learned what you wanted them to learn? Check your goals carefully to ensure that you are assessing them. Consider giving both ungraded, dialogue-based feedback and graded assessments. Also consider if you can work in student self-assessment (your assessment criteria need to be clear and illustrated to the students). To further define your assessment choices, read our "Learner-Centred Assessment" teaching tip.

Choosing teaching and learning activities

What would have to happen during the course for the students to do well on the feedback and assessment activities? Consider what amount of hearing, talking, reading, writing, looking, and doing is sufficient, required, and possible, and create a mix of activities to facilitate this. Your students are not necessarily the same as each other (or you), so varying your methods should be helpful to them. Structure your activities to allow time for your students to incorporate the feedback received (whether from you or their peers).

Evaluating your course

During your course, consider soliciting feedback on your teaching from your students, a peer, or a teaching consultant. Once you have an idea of your course’s strengths and targets for change, you can assess these and consider what you can reasonably change while the students are still in your course. Also, consider keeping a teaching journal for each course in which you record your own impressions of each class and the course in general. Keeping such records makes course revisions, and future offerings of the same course, much easier to do. At the end of term, you will also receive course evaluations from your students. Read them and focus on more than the quantitative data. Analyze the qualitative data for trends, and use those as benchmarks to learn about your course. Course evaluations can provide very useful data to help you hone your teaching, but avoid focusing only on the negative or taking the comments too personally. Celebrate your strengths and reflect on the areas for improvement.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 


CTE teaching tips

Other resources

The following resources can be found in the CTE library, EV1 325.

  • Bean, J.C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (PE1404.B35)
  • Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (LB2331.D37)
  • Diamond, R.M. (1998). Designing & assessing courses & curricula (revised ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (LB2361.5.D5)
  • Fenwick, T. & Parsons, J. (2000). The art of evaluation. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing. (LB3051.F46)
  • Fink, L.D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (LB2331.F495)
  • Forsyth, I., Jolliffe, A. & Stevens, D. (1999). Delivering a course: practical strategies for teachers, lecturers and trainers (2nd Edition); Evaluating a course: Practical strategies for teachers, lecturers and trainers (2nd Edition); Planning a course: Practical strategies for teachers, lecturers and trainers (2nd Edition); Preparing a course: Practical strategies for teachers, lecturers and trainers (2nd Edition). London: Kogan Page Limited. (LB1025.3.F67)
  • Lowman, J. (1995). Mastering the techniques of teaching. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (LB2331.L68)
  • Lovell-Troy, L. & Eickmann, P. (1992). Course design for college teachers. New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications. (LB2331.L67)
  • Maki, P.L. (2004). Assessing for learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution. Sterling: Stylus Publishing. (LB2366.2.M35)
  • Menges, R.J. & Weimer, M. (eds.). (1996). Teaching on solid ground. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (LB2331.T418)
  • Neff, R.A. & Weimer, M. (eds.). (1990). Teaching college: Collected readings for the new instructor. Madison, Magna Publications, Inc. (LB2331.T33)
  • Newble, D. & Cannon, R. (1995). A handbook for teachers in universities and colleges: A guide to improving teaching methods (3rd Edition). London: Kogan Page Limited. (LB2331.N43)
  • Pregent, R. (1994). Charting your course: How to prepare to teach more effectively. Madison, Magna Publications, Inc. (LB2331.P6813)
  • Walvoord, B.E. & Anderson, V.J. (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (LB2368.W35)
  • Weimer, M. (1993). Improving your classroom teaching. London: Sage Publications. (LB2331.W38)
teaching tips

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