Designing a Course

Course design need not be a regimented process - it's an intensely creative act. You'll need to consider a lot of variables and make many choices. Below are some suggestions and worksheets for how to design a well-planned course. 

Background Work: Clarify the Rationale and Context for the Course

  • Sometimes you will design new courses; at other times you will be asked to teach a course that already exists in a program's curriculum.
    • If you're taking over an existing course, talk with others who have taught the course before and examine previous syllabi.
    • Speak with the directors and other faculty members in your students' programs.
    • Research syllabi for similar courses. (Even if a course hasn't been taught at The New School, it may still be a common course in a particular discipline.)
  • Consider the role that your course plays within the program's curriculum as a whole and its relationship to other courses.
    • Is this an introductory (1000- or 2000-level) course or a more advanced course?
    • What will the students have learned before reaching your class? What texts will they have read? What skills will they have practiced?
    • What are other instructors depending on you to cover in your class?
  • For an elective course, you may need to appeal to students from multiple programs and build "hooks" for students with varied interests and ways of learning.

Backwards Course Design

Many faculty are tempted to design a course by listing the readings or topics we want to cover. A "learner-focused" approach starts with determining the short-term and long-term learning goals and "designing backwards." This approach is called "backwards design" because, although it is logical, it begins at the opposite end of the traditional planning process. This template (PDF) may help you to design your course backwards.

First Step: Identify Learning Outcomes for the Students

The first step in "backwards design" is to create learning outcomes for the course (PDF). What do you want your students to know and be able to do at the end of the course, and, recognizing that learning does not stop when the semester ends, what do you want your course to prepare the students to do one year or five years into the future? Answering these kinds of questions will guide help you make wise decisions about the course. The program may provide you with a list of learning outcomes for the course if the course is a required program offering taught by several different faculty members.

Second Step: Determine Assessments

The next step in "backwards design" is to think about how students will demonstrate that they've achieved the learning outcomes. How will you know whether students have accomplished the desired learning? Assignments both help students learn and can be used to assess student learning. Keep this in mind as you plan course assignments: Is the purpose of the assignment to aid students in achieving the course learning goals, to demonstrate what they have learned, or both? Align your assignments and assessments with the course learning goals rather than peripheral aspects of the course. There will be other considerations in finalizing assessments as well:

  • Consider how different formats (and technologies) of assessment can allow you to assess different learning goals.
  • Gauge the workload of each unit and the class as a whole. Remember that most students are taking several other courses. In addition to formal, graded assignments, student learning can be assessed through less formal means, such as response papers, class discussions, and more.
  • Space assignments and assessments throughout the semester so that students have adequate time to complete them.
    • Ensure that students begin to receive feedback on their work (graded or ungraded) by at least the middle of the term.
    • Cut back on readings and recurring assignments when major assignments are due.
    • Consider implementing incremental assignments that build upon each other toward the creation of a comprehensive final project.
  • Determine your grading system and weight the assignments appropriately.
  • This template (PDF) may help you plan your assignments.

Third Step: Plan Student Learning Experiences

Once you've decided what students should accomplish and produce during the course, consider how they will achieve this learning. What reading assignments, lectures, quizzes, in-class activities, and more will aid them in learning?

In selecting texts (and reading, listening, screening assignments), prune and prioritize:

  • Select texts or a textbook that works well with your course learning goals and your own views of the material (students can find it confusing when the instructor expresses significant disagreement with the primary textbook).
    • Consider the level of difficulty for students, the cost of the materials, the clarity of the material, even minor factors like size of a book or its layout.
    • Many experienced teachers recommend supplementing textbooks with current articles or replacing them with shorter texts that provide differing points of view.
  • Contextualize your chosen texts: explain their value to students, particularly in terms of how they assist students in achieving the learning outcomes.
  • Define what's essential, what's recommended, and what's supplemental.
    • You can add endnotes to your syllabus or create a "supplemental materials" section for your course website rather than overload your students with too much reading. Students can use these materials in their independent research, or you can integrate them into your prepared lessons.
  • Order textbooks and other materials for your class early to ensure that students know what they will need to purchase by the time they register for the class and will have the texts and other materials by the start of the semester.
    • The Textbook Provision of the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) mandates that students are able to learn what the cost for purchasing books and course packets will be for each class they take. For that reason, the university uses Barnes & Noble as a repository of this book information. Ask the administrator of the program for which you are teaching for contact information to submit your book order to Barnes & Noble.
    • Contact New School librarians for assistance with reserves. You can schedule a library instruction session tailored to your course, arrange library tours, and name proxy borrowers. See the online guide to library faculty services.

Final Step: Putting It All Together

Once you've determined what you want students to learn, how they will demonstrate that they've learned it, and what learning activities and assignments will help them with their learning, you can then put the syllabus together. Determine your conceptual framework, organize your content into conceptual units, and sequence it appropriately.

  • If you use a textbook, some of these "framework" decisions may have been made for you.
  • Consider how the building blocks fit together, the interrelationships between particular topics, activities, and assignments.
    • Possible organizational strategies: Theoretical, Applied, Micro, Macro, Chronological, etc.
  • Determine how and why each major idea or subject fits into the broader conceptual framework of the course. Provide "signposts" throughout the semester so students can see where they are in relation to the whole, so they understand the logic of the course design.
    • You can build these signposts into the syllabus via narrative introductions to or transitions between thematic units, or you can discuss the course structure with the class.
  • Build in time for review and reflection.
  • The most difficult part of planning a course is usually deciding what to leave out. New teachers in particular are likely to pack a course too full of topics, readings, and assignments, and overwhelmed students may learn less than they would in a more streamlined course.

Other Things to Consider or Do Before Classes Begin

  • Evaluate different technologies that could be used to support student learning. Assess your own and your students' skill levels and availability of the technology before making a decision.
  • Presentation media for delivering content: Power Point, Prezi, etc.
  • Comprehensive course management software
  • Blackboard, a password-protected Ning site, etc.
  • Resource provision, e.g., posting readings and/or supplemental materials
  • Interactive media, e.g., discussion boards, required blog posts
  • A useful article by Barbara Gross Davis has specific advice for those planning auditorium-style lecture courses: "Preparing to Teach the Large Lecture Course."
  • Before classes begin, you'll also want to handle a number of administrative matters:
    • Schedule A/V equipment if required; schedule guest speakers, etc.
    • If possible, visit your assigned classroom prior to the first meeting. Is it appropriate size-wise and for your educational purposes? Does the technology work? Will you need to bring chalk or dry-erase markers? (Your department office may be able to assist you with these basics.)
    • Print out your class list from Self Service, found under the "Faculty" tab of MyNewSchool. Self Service provides easy access to much information important to many aspects of teaching, including class rosters, grading policies and procedures, and faculty compensation policies.
    • Familiarize yourself with your division's policies regarding overtallies and any other relevant university or divisional policies.
  • For additional advice, consult L. Dee Fink, "Integrated Course Design," Idea Paper #42 (PDF).

Thanks to Shannon Mattern, Assistant Professor of Media Studies, The New School for Public Engagement, for her contributions. Some of the information on course planning was drawn from these sources:

  • Barbara Gross Davis, "Preparing or Revising a Course" in Tools for Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993).
  • Bob Fox and Alex Radloff (Curtin University of Technology), "How Can We 'Unstuff' the Curriculum?" in Romana Pospisil and Lesley Willcoxson, eds., Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, Australia (1997).
  • L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).
  • Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki, Eds., McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers, 12th ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).
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