Part I: Analysis

Before you start designing your course, think about the pre-existing conditions of your course, including student characteristics, departmental requirements and available resources. This analysis will help you plan a course that is feasible and effective.


  1. Write down the requirements of the course, including credit hours, whether it is required for the major or an elective, and how it fits into the curriculum of your program or department. Does it have any prerequisites (and what specifically are the prerequisite knowledge or skills to do well)? Does it feed into more advanced courses, and what knowledge and skills do students need to learn to do well in those advanced courses?
  2. Next, write down what you know about the characteristics of the typical student who takes your course. What are their backgrounds, prior knowledge, majors and expectations? What technology do they have access to and are they comfortable with? Will they be physically on campus or remote? Are they used to group work and project work (if you plan to use those techniques)? If not, how will you orient them to those skills?
  3. Write down the resources available to you and your students, including materials, equipment, personnel, software and artifacts that you think might be useful or necessary for teaching the course. If there are materials necessary to the course which you need to locate somewhere, include those as well. If the course will be online or hybrid, note the relevant features of the online system(s) (such as Sakai, WebEx, Duke Extend) which are available to you to present the course.

Part II: Design

In this stage, you determine what your students will learn and how you are going to teach them that content.


  1. Create course learning outcomes. What should your students be able to do when they complete your course? What do you hope they will remember from your course 10 years from now? What knowledge, skills and attitudes would you like your students to have when they complete your course? What do they need to proceed to upper-level courses or to complete their major? What do professionals in your field do, and to what degree can you help your students learn authentically when designing activities? Consider these questions, particularly the first one, and refine the answers. The answers to these are your student learning outcomes, also called learning goals. It’s ideal to have a handful of learning outcomes at the course level, with some more specific objectives underpinning each of the high-level goals.
  2. Determine how you will measure whether or not students have met each learning objective. Include both the process or product (such as an exam or paper) and what level of expertise they need to demonstrate. Set explicit criteria for what constitutes mastery of course content, and make sure the assessment ties directly to the stated outcome. For example, if your stated learning objective is that students can critically evaluate a historical document, and the assessment is a multiple-choice quiz, there may not be a good match. What does “critically evaluate” look like, and what type of product would you want to see from the student to confirm that she or he can, in fact, critically evaluate a historical document?
  3. Brainstorm materials, activities and assignments that will help students achieve each objective. Refer back to your analysis, and think about where your students are starting from and where you need them to be at the end. How will you use each class period (or week, for an online course) and homework assignment to provide students with relevant, low-stakes practice on the things you will later grade them on? Grades and feedback on these initial assignments will help students know if they are “getting it,” and you can adjust your teaching as needed. Think about what tools and technical skills your students have, what they will need to learn in this realm, and how they will be accessing any online course materials and activities. You will need to decide whether to design within the constraints of your physical classroom or online system or, if you feel the materials and activities required to meet your learning goals can’t be met in your existing classroom or online system, locate another. Learning Innovation staff can advise you on online tools; for physical classrooms, consult with Trinity Technology Services or classroom tech support at Duke’s professional schools.
  4. Use these ideas and decisions to come up with a course plan and a learning-centered syllabus for your course. Make sure your student learning goals are kept at the fore, and focus on how you will use materials, activities and assignments to help students achieve the key goals. Review and refine to be sure you are addressing each of the high-level and specific learning outcomes. Iteratively develop your course plan by thinking through each class session or week of the online course, outlining what will need to be prepared prior to that session/week and what will be done as course activities during each session/week. Consult with Learning Innovation as needed to help hone your course plan.
  5. As you teach your course, keep notes on what works and what needs to be adjusted. Gather feedback from students through various means throughout the course. Adjust as you can, and revise and redesign before you teach the course again.

Additional Resources

Designing Effective and Innovative Courses – Dr. Barbara Tewksbury and Dr. R. Heather Macdonald
This tutorial helps faculty design a course centered around a set of overarching goals that answer the question, “What do I want my students to be able to do when they have completed the course?”

Writing Objectives Using Bloom’s TaxonomyUNC-Charlotte Center for Teaching and Learning
This resource helps align learning outcomes/goals with the level of knowledge the faculty intends to encourage (based on the learning model called Bloom’s Taxonomy).

Designing Courses for Significant LearningDee Fink
Summarizes key aspects of Fink’s popular and classic book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses.