Course Design: Questions to Consider

Here are some questions to consider when designing a course. Exploring these questions should help you develop a detailed course plan. 

The questions are organized into the five interrelated areas of the model depicted below: Intended Learning Outcomes, Context, Content, Teaching Methods, and Assessment Methods. Course evaluation processes should inform ongoing design decisions as should your philosophy of teaching and learning. Feel free to enter the model wherever it makes sense to you. For each area, keep in mind how your answers mesh with and help you to identify your overarching intended learning outcomes for the course. Also, consider the interrelationships among the five components. For example, if you respond to the course evaluation by changing one component, you should double check your overall course design to ensure that your plans are still realistic and achievable. 

Context, Goals, Methods, Assessment, Learning Outcomes

Figure 1: Model of the components of course design. Source: Ellis, D., Light, T., & Pryde, K. (1999). TRACE Course Design Workshop. University of Waterloo.

Intended Learning Outcomes

Identifying and articulating intended learning outcomes is key to successful course planning. To identify the learning outcomes for a course, consider what you want your students to leave the course knowing, thinking, feeling, and/or able to do. List four to six main outcomes and be as specific as possible. The time you spend identifying and articulating the outcomes can pay off in many ways. It can mean less time spent selecting and/or designing assessment tools and can result in a well­-designed course with integrated outcomes, content, teaching methods, and assessment methods. Best of all, if you are very clear about the outcomes you want your students to achieve, the more likely they are to attain them.

  • Are the intended learning outcomes reasonable given the contextual issues?
  • How well do my content and methods work to ensure that students can achieve the learning outcomes? What could I change to improve the fit?
  • What learning outcomes outside of course content do I have (i.e., writing skills, presentation skills)? Are my outcomes theory-based and/or skill-based?
  • Are the learning outcomes specific, attainable, and measurable?
  • Which (aspects of the) learning outcomes are essential? 

Contextual Issues

There are many contextual issues that will affect how you shape your course. You should take time to think about who you will be teaching, how your course fits within their studies, and about the facilities and resources that you have access to as an instructor.


  • Who are my students (i.e., age range, program of study, year of study, experience)?
  • What are their interests? What are their needs? What are their goals?
  • What are their expectations of this course? Of me?
  • What are my students' goals? How can I incorporate them into the course content?
  • How can I respect the diverse abilities and needs of my students (i.e., language or cultural differences, or students who learn in different ways)?
  • What teaching methods are most likely to engage my students?
  • Do I need to assess their incoming skills (i.e., a writing or technical diagnostic)? If so, how?
  • What is my maximum class size?
  • What are my goals for my TAs? Do we know each other's goals?

Course Within Program:

  • Where does my course fit within the degree program (i.e., what pre-requisites or anti­-requisites exist, what year is the course taught, is it required or elective)?
  • What is the department's goal in offering this course? How can I incorporate their goal into what I am offering?
  • What course should my course prepare students for (if any)?
  • Is the course practical or theoretical? Is my course skills-based, theory-based, or both?
  • What extra resources are available for students (i.e., tutors, TA's, etc.)?

Course Description:

  • What does the calendar description tell me about what I need to do in the course?
  • If a description does not exist, how do I accurately describe my course?

Course Location:

  • Where will the course take place and at what time? What facilities are available?
  • Will the students have access to computers?
  • What A/V equipment will I have access to?

Content Issues 

Choosing what to cover in a course can be very intimidating – there are often so many different ideas and perspectives to choose from within each topic! Here are a few questions to think about when you are narrowing down your choices.

Textbook/Readings/Other Resources:

  • What resources will I use and where do I find them (i.e., journals, libraries, student bibliographies, online searches, etc.)?
  • What has been used in the past (i.e., textbooks, reading packages, notes packages, computer packages, etc.)?
  • Are my students the same as those for whom the resources were prepared?
  • Should I vary the types of resources for different learning styles (i.e., concrete vs. abstract learners, students learning in different languages, etc.)?
  • Are there new resources I want to add? Would a course notes package be useful? Do I want to put any resources on reserve in the library? What is my deadline for selecting a text/compiling a book of readings?

Class by Class Plan:

  • What will I teach? Are there department regulations regarding curriculum?
  • Do the students have pre-requisite knowledge or do I need to refresh them?
  • What will I teach each class? How much can I cover? How long are my classes?
  • How much time should I spend on each topic area?
  • What concepts are particularly important, difficult, or complex?
  • Given that the average attention span is 15-20 minutes, how can I divide the lecture content for each class into short, manageable chunks?
  • How much reading or other types of activities will I assign outside of class?
  • How much time will students need to devote to my course each week? How well to my plans for content coverage correspond to this amount of time? (More information about time expectations is available in the expandable box below.)

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There are several ways of conveying how much time a student should typically devote to his or her academics. Here are some approaches taken by different faculties, programs, and support units at Waterloo:

Per hour of class time

Per course per week (including attending classes and tutorials, preparing for classes and tutorials, doing assignments, studying, and so on)

For a full course load per week

  • Management Sciences advises that a full-time student should work 60 hours per week on academics: i.e. attending classes, preparing for classes, doing assignments, studying, etc.

Drawing on the foregoing, it’s clear that expectations about how much time students should devote to their courses vary somewhat depending on the faculty or program, but generally fall within a range of 7 to 12 hours per week per course for the sum total of all course-related activities (attending classes and tutorials, preparing for classes and tutorials, doing assignments, studying, and so on).

The amount of time will also likely vary from week to week within a single course, in sync with the rhythm of due dates for assignments and tests. 

Individual ability will also affect the amount of time that a given student needs to spend on a course: a third-year student taking a first-year course will likely need to spend less time on the course than a first-year student.

A useful resource regarding this question is How the Student Credit Hour Shapes Higher Education (number 122 of New Directions for Higher Education). It's available in the CTE Library

Assessment Issues 

There are many different types of assessment designed for use in a university course (see the CTE Teaching Tip “Types of Assignments and Tests”) and the key is to choose assessments that allow you to evaluate whether students have attained the outcomes you have set out.

  • What assessment tools will I use (i.e., assignments, exams, projects, collaborative work, peer assessment)? Why?
  • What am I trying to accomplish by using these tools? What do I want the students to get out of them? Are they consistent with my beliefs about student learning?
  • Given the classroom environment I wish to create, how well do my assessment methods work toward creating this environment?  What could I change to improve the fit?
  • How do my assessments help students learn the difficult concepts in my course?
  • How can I limit the possibility of plagiarism and cheating?
  • What weights will I assign to my assessment methods? Why?
  • If I want flexible grading criteria, how can I build this into the course?
  • Are there expected grade distributions in my department? If so, how do I build that into my assessment methods?
  • When does assessment fit into my course?
  • How well do my assessment plans match the guideline that students should spend approximately 10 hours/week on a half credit course?
  • Is the workload reasonable, well timed, and sustainable for my students and me?
  • What can I learn about my students’ learning from the assessment results? How will I analyze and use these results?

Teaching Methods Issues

Teaching methods include lecturing, facilitating discussions, inviting in guest lecturers, guiding group activities, and organizing many different types of active learning exercises both in and out of the classroom. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. You need to select methods that support your plans for the course and that help students be able to do the assessments.

  • What teaching methods am I familiar with? Comfortable with?
  • What methods fit with my own teaching philosophy?
  • What methods are my students likely to be familiar with? Comfortable with?
  • What other methods might I consider for this course? What methods would I like to learn more about?
  • How do I believe that learning happens and what methods can I use that will support my beliefs?
  • What methods will help me emphasize particularly important content and/or help students understand particularly difficult content?
  • Given the classroom environment I wish to create, how well do my teaching methods work toward creating this environment?  What could I change to improve the fit?
  • Would a learning technology help me to better convey certain concepts?
  • Are the necessary resources (funding, technology, guest lecturers) available?
  • What teaching methods seem appropriate given the assessment methods?
  • Given that the average attention span is 15-20 minutes, what methods can I use to help me maximize my effectiveness?
  • Given my students, my context, my content, my time constraints, the intended learning outcomes, and myself, what methods are reasonable to use on a class-by-class basis? Remember, instructors do not have to use the same method(s) all of the time.
  • What materials can I use to supplement my classes (i.e., videos, graphs, slides)?
  • How can I evaluate my methods (i.e., student feedback, peer feedback)?


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. 


teachingtipThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Course Design: questions to consider. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.