Selecting and Organizing Course Content

You're working on designing your course and now it's time to decide on the content and how to organize it. As is often the case, there's far more to say about the topic than you can possibly discuss in a term. Given that you should aim to have students spend 8-10 hours per week on your course, including in-class time, how do you decide what to include and what to exclude? 

Selecting Course Content

  • Compare your course description with the official course description in the university's course calendar to ensure they are comparable in scope and depth. 
  • If you are offering a pre-existing course, check with your department for previous course outlines or talk to colleagues in your department who have taught the course.
  • If your course is new (or you would like some new ideas), compare what you are planning to similar courses at other institutions.
  • Include only content that supports the learning outcomes of your course.
  • As an alternative to a traditional textbook, consider using an Open Educational Resource (OER), which you can use and freely adapt -- for example, you can remove content from an OER that is not relevant to your course. You can also create your own OER (though this usually requires a lot of time and might require getting copyright permissions)
  • When selecting content, consult the following repositories and subscription services: 
  • Include course content that represents the diversity of student backgrounds. Consult with CTE's Leslie Wexler about strategies for Indigenizing and decolonizing your course. 

Organizing Course Content

  • Consult textbooks (or OERs) in your discipline area to see how they organize the content.
  • Consider common organizational approaches such as: 
    • Topic by topic: there are no set relationships amongst the topics, so the ordering is not critical. This works well for courses that, for example, revolve around current issues.
    • Chronological: for some courses, progressing from past to present can be an effective organizational structure.
    • Causal: each concept or unit builds on the one that precedes it.
    • Cumulative: the course gradually pulls together a number of events or issues that culminate in some final effect or solution.
    • Problem-centred: problems, questions, or cases serve as the principal organizing principle of the course.
    • Recursive: key topics or concepts are revisited throughout the course, with new information or insight developing each time.
  • As an alternative to a hierarchical outline, consider whether a concept map might be more effective at conveying the "messier" inter-relationships among various components of the course. Of course, you can present the course content in outline form and concept map form (and share both with your students).

Selecting and Organizing Class Content

Within each class or unit, also consider the most effective organization of content. Common approaches are:

  • Starting with what students already know and then moving to an abstract model or theory.
  • Starting with concrete examples, such as cases, news items, or other real-world situations, then generating the abstract concepts.
  • Starting with a solution, conclusion, or model and working backwards to the question.
  • Starting with students taking time to reflect, individually or through discussion, on what and how they are learning.
  • Switching back and forth between mini-presentations and having students apply their learning to concrete problems. 


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. 


teaching tipThis 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 content selection and organization. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.