Course Design – Course Components, Structure, and Style

Course Design: Course Components, Structure, and Style

The design of something refers to what it is comprised of and how it will look and function. Use the information that you gathered about your audience, course goals and the learning environment to inform your decisions about what to include in the course, how to sequence topics and concepts, and how the course will look and function.

See Designing a Course – The Analysis Phase

Note: At CITL, we typically take the following steps in course design. You may complete these steps in the specified order or you may complete them in an order that meets your needs.

Step 1: Write Learning Outcomes

Well written learning outcomes will specify what learners will need to know and be able to do as a result of learning. They will also help you select, create, and organize the content, activities, instructional strategies and assessments for the course.

Review the information about course goals and your audience from your analysis and blueprint and write the associated learning outcomes. See the resources on Learning Outcomes for information about learning outcomes and how to write them.

Step 2: Determine Course Structure

Using the learning outcomes and information from the analysis and blueprint, determine how you want to organize and structure various pieces of information, and sequence the content. For example, content should flow from basic and broad concepts to more complex and specific ideas. Content organization can be based on theme, or related concepts, issues and topics. Options include:

  • Organize the content by week with learning outcomes for each week
  • Subdivide the into units and modules with learning outcomes for each unit or module

Appropriate organization and sequencing will help students feel the connectedness of the content and will provide students with what they need in order to scaffold their learning and meet the more complex learning outcomes.

Overview or guide pages

Your course design can include an overview or guide page for each week, module, or chapter. The content of these pages will act as a map for students as they engage in the materials and it would typically include information such as the following:

  • an introduction,
  • learning outcomes,
  • readings and resources,
  • topics for the week or module, and
  • learning activities.

Step 3: Determine Assessment and Feedback

It is important to think about assessment, evaluation and feedback early in the design phase as it may be easier to determine instructional strategies, learning activities, and learning materials and resources after you determine the main assessment for the course. Fink (2013) notes that “if we deal with assessment first, it greatly enhances our ability to identify what learning activities are needed” (p. 70).

Note: Students in on online course will be looking for information about assessments and evaluation on day one. Communicate details using rubrics and an evaluation page, including the evaluation breakdown and descriptions of each evaluation item.

How can learners demonstrate that they have met the learning objectives? Would one of the following assessment types work? Are there other types that would work for this course?

  • Assignments
  • Projects
  • Presentations
  • Quizzes and exams

What do students need in order to complete the activities and assessments? How can technology help or what technology tools will you use? Examples include:

  • Assignments folders
  • ePortfolios
  • Rubrics
  • Online quiz tools
  • Grade books

How will you provide feedback? Examples include:

  • Automated or manually provided feedback via the quiz tool
  • Scores and comments provided via rubrics
  • Grade books
  • Written or audio recorded feedback on assignments

Step 4: Select or Design Instructional Strategies

Now it is time to integrate instructional strategies into the course structure. Instructional strategies are methods and learning activities that are arranged and used strategically in order to maximize students’ ability to learn. An instructional strategy will likely include the following:

  1. An introduction or preparation phase
    • Exposing students to subject matter, concepts and ideas
    • Introducing and demonstrating skills
  2. Opportunities to practice with feedback
    • Coaching and providing feedback to ensure students can perform to expectations
    • Providing opportunities for students to collaborate
  3. Assessment of performance
    • Assessing learning and performance with feedback incorporated into the assessment activity
  4. Time for personal reflection on learning and performance
    • Incorporating reflection activities

For each learning outcome, and with the course assessments in mind, think about what learners will need to know and be able to do. Then, design and or select the learning resources, learning activities and instructional strategies that will provide learners the best opportunity to meet the learning outcome. Ask yourself:

  • What are the readings, videos, notes etc. that learners need in order to learn about the topics related to the learning outcomes?
    • Will you edit existing resources or do you need to develop new resources?
  • What are the learning activities and experiences that learners can engage with to apply their knowledge, master the related skills, and complete the course assessments. Examples:
    • Answer a reflection question for a concept or scenario
    • Engage in a debate, case study or role play
    • Complete an experiment
  • What are the teaching strategies that an instructor can use to help learners engage with the content and understand the concepts. Examples:
    • A flipped classroom strategy for a specific concept
    • Inquiry-based or problem-based learning
    • Reflective practice
    • Scaffolding the learning activities to help students complete the final assessments

How can technology help?

  • What tools and technologies can help assess learning and provide feedback?
  • What are the specific technologies that students will be required to use for learning? For example, a specific database.
  • How can technology help in creating learning resources for the course?
  • How can technology aid in making accessible and functional online activities?
  • How can technology increase student engagement with the course, the instructor and each other?

Step 5: Prepare Your Course Syllabus

Use the syllabus to communicate details about the course and to set expectations for students.

Syllabus contents/topics:

  • Course Instructor
  • Contact Information
  • Course Description
  • Course Objectives
  • Course Resources
  • Course Assessment and Evaluation
  • Course Schedule

See course Syllabus resources for detailed information.

Step 6: Describe or Design the Course Style, Theme and Context

You have to decided on the course structure, (organized by week, modules or units) and now you can design style and theme. This can be done after you have a design for one or two weeks, modules, or chapters.

Describe the course style or theme, and design elements that can facilitate the instructional strategies. You may need to do this for the course as a whole and for specific learning outcomes.

Page design considerations include the following:

  • Stylized headings provide structure and organization for the content and make it accessible to screen readers and easier to read in general
  • Icons convey meaning
  • Stylized boxes for reminders and important information
  • Stylized tables, charts, and lists make the content easy to read and use
  • Colours and images help the learner engage with the materials
  • Provision for accessibility features such as image descriptions and transcripts for videos

Note: Follow web accessibility guidelines when designing your course online. This will benefit all learners including those with disabilities.

Related Resources


Resource created by Denise C.

Designing a Course – The Analysis Phase

Designing a Course: The Analysis Phase

Instructors are not only responsible for teaching course, they may also need to develop new course or re-develop an existing course. The course may be part of a larger program, or it could be a “mini” course or seminar. This resource will describe the first steps in designing a new course or updating an existing one:

  • Step 1: Analyze your learners/audience, course/subject area, and the learning environment
  • Step 2: Identify and describe assessments, activities, and resources

Step 1

The first step in the design process involves completing an analysis of your learners/audience, course/subject area, and the learning environment. After this analysis you should:

  • be familiar with the general characteristics of the students who will take your course,
  • know the course goals for this group of students, and
  • know how the learning environment can impact teaching and learning.

Gaining a deep understanding of your audience, course goals and the learning environment will impact the choices you make when you design your course and its resources. By leveraging learners’ unique characteristics in relation to the course goals and the learning environment you will be able to design a course that engages learners and helps them in their learning journey.


Start by thinking about the learners who will take the course and their their needs, interests, experiences and achievements. Ask yourself:

  1. Who are my learners and why are they taking this course?
  2. What is their background and what experiences do they bring
  3. What is their “view of the world.”
  4. What prerequisite knowledge do they bring?
  5. What misunderstandings do they bring?
  6. What challenges will they likely face?
  7. What types of content—text, visuals, audio and video—would be most appropriate for these learners?

Course Goals

With your understanding of the learners in mind, think about what you want them to know, value and be able to do as a result of completing the course.

You can draw on the following to determine the course goals, as discussed by Carriveau (2016):
  • Personal expertise in the discipline
  • Expertise from colleagues and practitioners in the discipline, including publications
  • Existing outcomes, objectives or goals related to the course theme
  • Student and teacher textbooks
  • Department and institutional goals
  • Professional accreditation standards
  • Course descriptions and topics

Ask yourself the following questions to uncover the course goals:

  1. What topics, concepts and events should be included in the course? What are the big ideas, the things that really matter and will have a lasting impact on students?
  2. What are the skills and types of thinking that students need to be able to apply?
  3. What are the challenges or challenging areas?
  4. What are the global competencies, such as effective communication, problem solving, critical thinking, and digital citizenship, that students should acquire?

Learning Environment

The learning environment may also impact learners’ ability to learn and meet the learning outcomes. The answers to the following questions will inform the design of learning activities and the course structure.

  1. Is the course face-to-face, online, on-campus, or a blend of online and on-campus? Is there a choice? If so, which format would best suit the learners and the course goals?
  2. What will the learning environment look like and feel like? How will it be organized? How will students navigate in it?
  3. How will the learning environment contribute to or hinder the learning? How will it affect learning activities, assessment and feedback?
  4. What are the administrative considerations related to the course, such as evaluation requirements, timelines, and how the course fits into the larger curriculum, that may impact teaching and learning for this group of learners?

Step 2

The second step in the design process involves identifying and describing assessments, activities, and resources that will provide the specific group of learners with the best opportunities to meet the course goals.

GoalWays to Assess the GoalLearning ActivitiesResources

With your course goals and students in mind, ask yourself key questions to help you discover the critical components of the course and how they can work best together.

Assessment and Feedback

  1. How can I assess learning and performance and provide timely feedback?
  2. What should students be able to demonstrate in order to show that they met the course goals?
  3. What should I include that will allow instructors and students to identify when students are understanding or misunderstanding a topic?
  4. What types of feedback (video, audio, written etc.) would work best for this audience and the assessment?
  5. What types of assessments would work best in this learning environment?

Learning Activities

  1. What learning activities will enable students to get the information and ideas that they need related to the subject matter and course goals?
  2. What types of activities or experiences will help students engage with the materials?
  3. What will students need in order to reflect, practice, and improve?
  4. How can reflection questions and summative feedback be used with the learning activities to encourage deep learning?
  5. What types of activities would work best in this learning environment?

Learning Resources

  1. What types of resources would work best for these goals and this audience?
  2. Will learners need demonstrations, practice opportunities, supplemental resources, etc.?
  3. What specific resources will students need in order to learn about the topics related to the learning outcomes?
  4. What types of resources would work best in this learning environment?
  5. Are the resources needed for this course readily available or will they need to be created or edited?

Capturing Information

It is important to capture information and ideas during this phase of the planning process so you can use it when you are designing and developing your course. You can capture the information in a table similar to the one above or in any way that works for you. A few things to keep in mind:

  • The information that you capture will inform your course design; keep it simple but with enough detail to ensure that you can use it, and will use it, later
  • If you add specific resources to the plan, such as images found on a website, keep track of the source of each resource for use during the design and development phases

Note: If you use a table similar to the one above to capture information, it is important to review the table to ensure that the goals, assessments, activities, and resources are integrated and will support one another. See Learning Outcomes and Course Alignment for more information.


Resource created by Denise C.