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Design and plan courses and programmes

Course design is the idea that our teaching and learning should involve some degree of planning.  In other words, the way we structure our courses, should be informed by principles of good practice.  

These principles include:

  • clear and concise course aims and learning outcomes
  • appropriate teaching and learning activities
  • appropriate learning supports and resources
  • assessments that appropriately measure learning (valid and reliable).

You should first determine what you want your students to learn. A good place to start is to distinguish between teaching aims and learning outcomes.

Learning Outcomes outline what your students are expected to know, understand and be able to do once they have completed your course.  These should be aligned to the overarching goals of your discipline and course programme as well as relevant University graduate/ postgraduate graduate profiles. You can access the University's graduate profile here.

A conversation with the Director of the programme (that your course is a part of) is an important early step.  The Director may have advice on gaps in the programme's graduate profile that your course should address.  They might also have suggestions about skills and capabilities that the course might addrsss in addition to its knowledge outcomes. Learning outcomes for a programme with be relatively broad compared to outcomes at a course level, which will be more specific.

Components of Course Design

There are three main elements to consider when planning our courses

  • learning outcomes 
  • teaching and learning activities
  • assessment 

More on writing learning outcomes

Learning Outcomes:

We want students to learn certain "things" - they might be basic facts, complicated theories or particular skills.  We need to be able to tell our students what we expect them to know, understand and be able to do - whether this is during a teaching session or once they have completed our course.  This is the main reason we write learning outcomes.  Learning outcomes orient students to content and help them to make sense of what is presented. Learning outcomes also allow students to make judgements about their own learning.

When writing outcomes, always start with a stem, such as:
                      'At the end of this session, learners will be able to ...'

then use a verb, that states specifically what the learners will be able to do, e.g.

followed by a clear statement of the topic of interest
                        '...that they can administer an intramuscular injection'.

We can write learning outcomes for three domains:

  • knowledge (cognitive domain)
  • skills (psychomotor domain)
  • attitudes (affective domain).

Learning outcomes within these domains can be categorised into hierarchical levels. For example, learning outcomes in the cognitive domain can range from the lowest level of factual recall (which can be very important) to  the higher level of evaluation and application of knowledge in a new context (also very important).

To learn more about translating Blooms taxonomy into learning objectives, you might like to visit this website, which explains the theory in greater depth.

Bloom, B. S. and Krathwohl, D. R. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain.New York: Longmans.

More on designing teaching and learning activities

Learning activities are a core element of course design.  They need to be carefully crafted, and clearly aligned with assessment to provide learning opportunities to achieve the intended learning outcomes of the course.

Learning activities also need to take learners' different learning styles and preferences into account, and cater for a diverse range of learning needs and contexts if students are learning flexibly. There are many kinds of learning activities we can design.  

These include:

lab reportsfield trips
essay writingexperiments
creative projectsconstruction projects
reading exercisesquizzes
literature surveyswriting tasks
team-based projectsgroup work
presentationsrole plays
simulations, modelsworksheets

More on assessment methods

  • Consider your learning objectives.  Assessment is the student version of the learning outcomes for your module/ course.  Thus, any assessment strategy must mirror your learning outcomes.  Think in terms of how you can "trap" your students into achieving the learning outcomes via assessment.  You might like to revisit the page on constructive alignment to learn more.
  • Remember when we assess our students, we need to make it explicitly clear what is expected of them.  The purpose of assessment is not to trick students but to measure their learning.  You should provide clear instructions and a detailed marking schedule.  
  • We may need to consider/ reconsider our assessment descriptions: Are these sufficiently clear?  Do students understand what is expected of them?
  • You may like to consider designing an assessment rubric. This webpage from the University of Hawaii (Manoa) provides a very good overview of rubrics with guides for creating and using rubrics.  
  • If you are considering using an innovative assessment strategy ensure that it is purposeful.  

We should also consider the resources and supports we provide students throughout a course as these are important components of course design.  For example, if the learning activity is to follow a woman through her pregnancy, then you could provide your students with readings, websites, and a lecture around the topic to ensure they are well prepared to complete the task.  You could support this task by providing a discussion forum or regular office hours.

Colleague's view

Helen Sword talks about her approach to course design and planning

Portfolio Possibilities

 Writing Learning Outcomes


  • Do I draw on educational theory when I plan my courses?
  • Do I know what learning outcomes are and how they relate to course design?
  • Am I familiar with the different components of course design? 

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