Handbook: Course Design

Course Design

From DevLab

Course design involves defining goals, setting learning outcomes, shaping an assessment plan, structuring the implementation of teaching and learning strategies, and more. Your success as an effective teacher and the success of your students in their learning process depend on a well-designed class.

This section suggests one possible method for course design. It includes suggestions for designing your course and addresses for relevant electronic resources.

Asking the Right Questions

Pete Rorabaugh (2010-present), Malavika Shety (2010-present), and Regina Martin (2010-present) discuss planning their fall courses. Photo by R.E. Burnett

Answering this first set of questions will identify information you need before working on the actual design of the course:

  • Who are the students?
  • What course requirements should affect my design?
  • What teaching model do I want to use?
  • How do logistics, such as class schedules, affect my design?

A second set of questions deals directly with course design:

  • What are the goals of my course?
  • What are the learning outcomes of my course?
  • How will I assess the achievement of goals and learning outcomes?
  • What strategies will support students’ learning related to goals and outcomes?

Who are the students? Students in English 1101, English 1102, and LCC 3403 are usually cooperative, curious, responsible, and eager to work hard. Many of them are tech-savvy and very resourceful. They expect to be challenged, but even students who were at the top of their classes in high school might not be fully prepared for the rigors of Georgia Tech. They could be quiet, perhaps intimidated by the uncertainties of a new environment, so unless you look closely for signs of struggle, you might not identify problems until the first major assignment.

Georgia Tech students also come from different cultural backgrounds. Some are the first or second generation of an immigrant family and the first to attend college. Others are international students who may have different expectations about classes and assignments. Such students bring insightful and critical perspectives to many topics discussed in class, but you should try to anticipate the particularities of their learning styles. Therefore, classes are usually composed of a heterogeneous group of students.

Classes usually include a heterogeneous group of students, but if you end up teaching discipline-specific sections, also known as “special sections,” the mix might differ significantly from the norm. While standard and special sections share the same core outcomes, special sections tailor themes and assignments to the concerns of a degree program such as Biomedical Engineering or Computer Science. If you teach a special section, your course design should focus on the specific academic needs of a relatively homogenous student population. For more on special sections, see “Special Sections of English1101 and 1102 and of LCC 3403, below.

The Millennial Generation. Most or all of your students are members of what some refer as “The Millennial Generation.” Students who are part of the millennial generation have “…a consumer mentality, ubiquitous computer access, and an intolerance for nonengaging pedagogical techniques,” and they are also “team oriented” (Grunert O’Brien 2). Scott Carlson also describes them in the following terms: “They want to learn, but they want to learn only what they have to learn, and they want to learn it in a style that is best for them. …Often they prefer to learn by doing” (qtd. in Grunert O’Brien 2). If you talk to colleagues who have taught for several semesters at Georgia Tech, they will probably agree with many of these remarks.

What course requirements should affect my design? As the preceding pages on required learning outcomes indicate, English 1101, English 1102, and LCC 3403 have many prescribed learning outcomes. English 1101 and 1102 have a common electronic textbook, WOVENText, and you should discuss textbook choices for LCC 3403 with Andrew.

What teaching model do I want to use? Today, Georgia Tech and most universities in the United States emphasize a learning-centered model. Donald Finkle points out, “[w]hat is transmitted to students through lecturing is simply not retained for any significant length of time” (qtd. in Grunert O’Brien 4). Maryellen Weiner, author of Learner-Centered Teaching recommends an approach guided by the following principles (80-91):

  • Teachers do learning tasks less
  • Teachers do less telling; students do more discovering
  • Teachers do more design work
  • Teachers do more modeling
  • Teachers do more to get students learning from and with each other
  • Teachers work to create climates for learning
  • Teachers do more with feedback

How do logistics, such as class schedules, affect my course design? In your course design, you must consider the logistics involved in planning, structuring, and conducting a class. Some key aspects include:

  • Official semester/summer calendar with holidays and other important dates: For instance, knowing when you have to submit midterm progress report grades will determine how early you want to assign your first major assignment of your semester. Also, consider policies related to the last week of classes, called “Dead Week.” Seehttp://www.registrar.gatech.edu/home/calendar.php for official calendars, and see the sections “Midterm Progress Reports” and “Dead Week” in the “Administrative Policies and Procedures” chapter of this handbook).
  • Days and hours assigned to your class: Knowing if you have a 50- or 80-minute session could help determine the type of activities you may want to include in your classes. Monday/Wednesday/Friday courses usually have 50-minute meetings, and Tuesday/Thursday classes usually have 80-minute meetings.
  • Materials you need to place on reserve: When selecting articles and chapters for reading assignments, you may want to consider if you need to put those readings on reserve. To comply with copyright clearances, library staff will need to check that you are only requesting one chapter per book. Consider that library staff may take from one week to a month to process your request (they’re usually much faster, but they don’t make promises—see http://www.library.gatech.edu/services/reserves/index.phpfor details). Consider posting readings on T-Square, our course management system, instead of using reserves. Most people consider the option expensive and unnecessary, but if you want a printed coursepack you can use Printing & Copying Services, http://www.pcs.gatech.edu/.
  • Guest speakers: They’re often great additions. Consider several key questions:
    • What goal is this activity fulfilling?
    • How does it fit in the calendar?
    • What special equipment is required for this session?
    • What assignment can be designed in relation this activity?
  • Special assignments outside of classroom: Class trips to museums, shows, and other cultural opportunities in Atlanta are excellent ways to enrich your classes. If you’re teaching films, you might want to host screenings in a classroom such as Skiles 368, which you can reserve using the “Red Book” in the main administrative suite, Skiles 336.. Trying to make trips or screenings mandatory is tricky when the events don’t occur during class hours; Georgia Tech students have crammed schedules, and 100% availability at any hour to which they didn’t commit when they registered for your course is a virtual impossibility. Instead, make alternative assignments available for students who can’t attend. When possible, help students to identify alternative ways to access the resources, e,g. other times when the site is open, the show is playing, or the movie is screening. Consider putting DVDs of films available on reserve at the Library. You can leave your own copies at the reserves (they’ll put labels on your DVD case… not good for collectibles); often, if you request a DVD to put on reserve, the Library will buy a copy.
  • Ordering supplementary textbooks: As soon as you know what you need, email book orders to Andrew, including author, title, and ISBN. If one of your supplementary textbooks is edited abroad, you should consider ordering your textbooks a couple of months before the first day of classes.

See also the next section, “Guidelines for Creating Syllabi and Assignments.” What are the goals of my course? In addition to learning outcomes (see the sections on outcomes earlier in this chapter), what do you want to achieve in your course? Consider these questions:

  • What concepts and skills covered in assigned texts do I want to emphasize?
  • Are goals appropriate for specific students’ levels (e.g., first-year college students)?
  • Am I trying to cover too much ground?
  • Do goals related to course content require students to draw on prior knowledge? (And if so, will students necessarily have this knowledge?)

How will I assess the achievement of goals and learning outcomes? Assessments should reflect on whether and how well students have met an assignment’s specific, stated outcomes. Assessments can be formative, or provided during a project’s improvement to foster immediate improvement, and summative, or provided after a project’s completion to reflect on accomplishments.

The following table, taken from Carnegie Mellon’s Enhancing Education website, matches common learning objectives (or cognitive processes related to coursework) to types of assessment and methods for measurement. </p>

Learning Objectives and Assessments


What strategies will support students’ learning related to goals and outcomes? At this stage, instructors design class activities, assignments, and materials that will lead students toward the goals and learning outcomes already defined. Below, you will find some considerations and alternatives based on information provided by the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University:

  • Point your students to exactly what you want them to learn. Provide them with a strong foundational structure on which to build further learning by presenting content in a well-organized fashion
  • Design activities that develop your students’ ability to meet learning goals.
  • Identify the best activities for specific concepts and skills
  • Balance a variety of activities for your classes: discussions, team work, quizzes, oral presentations, or peer review, among many others.
  • Use quizzes, not only to assess learning, but as a learning tool for students to reflect on their assimilation processes

Here is a brief list of possible class activities, assignments, and materials

  • Lectures
  • Discussions
  • Case studies
  • Labs/studios
  • Reviews
  • Collaborations
  • WOVEN artifacts

Resources for Course Design

Recommended Books

  1. Diamond, Robert M. Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula: A Practical Guide. 3rd. ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008.
  2. Posner, George J. and Alan N Rudnitsky. Course Design: A Guide to Curriculum Development for Teachers. 7th edition. Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon, 2005. (ISBN:0205457665)

Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech http://www.cetl.gatech.edu/resources/tips.htm Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt Universityhttp://www.vanderbilt.edu/cft/resources/teaching_resources/preparing/course_design.htm Center for Instructional Development and Research – University of Washingtonhttp://depts.washington.edu/cidrweb/resources/designtools.html Design and Teach a Course – Carnegie Mellon http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/ Welcome to the Cutting Edge Course Design Tutorial http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/coursedesign/tutorial/index.html Works Cited in the Preceding Pages on Course Design Center for Teaching. Vanderbilt University, Web. Grunert O’Brien, Judith, Barbara J. Millis, and Margaret W. Cohen. The Course Syllabus: a Learning-Centered Approach. 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

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