1. Overview of Course Design
    1. Purpose
    2. Alignment
    3. Student Needs
    4. Learning Outcomes
    5. Assessments
    6. Teaching and Learning Activities
    7. Content
  2. Practical Advice
  3. Course Design From Scratch: Setting Themes and Outcomes
  4. Effective Use of Multimedia
    1. PowerPoint Hints and Tips
  5. Preventing Plagiarism through Course Design

If the course that you are teaching is brand new or you’re teaching it for the first time, the following advice is meant for you. 

Overview of Course Design

One of the most effective ways to design your course is to use the constructive alignment method (Biggs, 1996). Using this method, you must consider four primary elements when designing your class: learning outcomes, assessments, teaching and learning activities, and content.

Diagram of the constructive alignment method


The main idea driving constructive alignment is that you should be able to explain the purpose of everything you do or ask students to do. This helps to make the structure and rationale of the course clear to students and aids transparency.


Constructive alignment in course design means your teaching methodologies and assessment strategies should explicitly connect with your learning outcomes. This way, you are not teaching one topic, assessing another, and expecting students to develop skills or knowledge on something else.

Student Needs

As an instructor, your primary role is to support the learning needs of your students (ensure they are prepared for future courses or careers, learn transferable skills, etc.). For this reason, you should consider who they are and what they require from you to succeed in the course. Consider collecting information via a poll, survey or questionnaire at the start of the course. As you design your course and throughout the term, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who are my students?
  • Do they know what skills/knowledge they need to learn and how to demonstrate them?
  • Am I teaching or giving them the opportunity to learn these skills/knowledge?
  • Am I giving them a chance to determine if they have learned these skills/knowledge?
  • Am I testing them on what I expect them to learn?

Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes are statements of what students will be able to do at the end of a course, assessment or class. These statements are student-focused and comprise the most important elements of your class. Traditionally, your course should have 4-6 learning outcomes explicitly stated on the first page of the syllabus. Questions to ask yourself:

  • How will students demonstrate what they have learned?
  • What skills or knowledge should they remember 1-4 years from now?


Your assessments should align with your learning outcomes (this will enable you to determine if students have learned the skills/knowledge you intended). Whether these assessments are formative (occurring during the term) or summative (occurring at the end of the course), you should be able to explain to students how their assessments tie into the outcomes.

Formative assessments include: labs, in-class presentations and reading responses, while summative assessments include midterm or final exams, final projects or final research papers.

Teaching and Learning Activities

In addition to aligning your assessments with your learning outcomes, you should also align your teaching and learning activities. Lecturing is one format of conveying content, but it does not help you determine if students have learned. It is also primarily a passive way of interacting with content.

Consider implementing an activity every 15-20 minutes in order to engage students and assess their learning and understanding. These activities may be five minutes, 15 minutes or 30 minutes depending on what your students need and take a variety of forms (see below) and structures (individual work, pairs, trios, small groups).

Teaching and learning activities include:

  • Peer instruction
  • In-class discussion
  • Peer assessment
  • In-class writing exercises
  • Group work
  • Problem-based learning


It can be very tempting to begin planning your course by focusing on content, but most research suggests that it is best to first consider what you want students to be able to do when they exit the course – which means identifying your learning outcomes before you consider your course content.

Writing clear learning outcomes is a way to identify the most important aspects of your course and hence the most important content. Since there is never enough time to address all of the content you would like, learning outcomes will help you focus on what content must be covered each class.

Partner clear and precise learning outcomes with a variety of teaching and learning activities to ensure your students understand the content and to help prepare them for assessments.

Practical Advice

Use what’s there. Get course outlines and content from other instructors who are willing to share their resources.

Go with what you know. Use courses you have taught or taken in the past as references for developing your new course. If it was excellent, follow its example. If it was poorly done, use it as a reference and improve it.

Talk to your publisher representative. Your departmental administrator can put you in touch with publisher representatives who can discuss textbooks and course support package options. Textbook and courseware decisions are ultimately up to you. Keep in mind that representatives are salespeople who want to convince you to use the text that their company publishes,  but they do offer free textbooks and teaching support materials.

Add your own touches. Make the course your own by adding your own emphasis and examples or explanations.

Be realistic. It is easy for new instructors to overestimate the amount (and quality) of work to expect from undergraduate students. Check with other instructors or your department chair/director if you are uncertain.

Use the textbook as an example of a logical way to organize your content. But remember, it’s only one author’s idea of flow. If you feel something else works better, give it a try. Students don’t mind skipping around in the textbook if they are told ahead of time (in the course outline).

Course Design From Scratch: Setting Themes and Outcomes

If you decide to start from scratch or if you’re teaching a course that has never been taught before, here’s some structure to get you going.

Outline situational factors, including class size, level of study, timing (which term/how often you meet), physical and virtual classroom environment, teaching support, resource limitations, how course fits into curriculum, expectations (students, colleagues, university, hiring bodies, accreditation bodies, community and society). Also think about who your students are: age, priorities, reason for being there, past experience, life situations, feelings about the topic, methods of communication and socialization.

Set strong learning outcomes. Consider the 4-6 most important skills, values and attitudes that you want students to develop and demonstrate. These are your learning outcomes – the building blocks of your course.

Determine methods for assessment. An assessment scheme of midterm and final exams is appropriate for content-centred course planning. For truly learner-centred course design, tests and exams are down-played and several other forms of assessment are incorporated to emphasize the non-content skills reflected in your learning outcomes.

There are a number of different skills that you can assess including critical thinking/judgment, problem solving skills, self-development, information management, demonstration of knowledge, and creative and performance abilities.

You don’t need to grade every assignment but grade allocation sends the strongest message to students about your priorities.

Decide on teaching/learning activities that will help students achieve outcomes. Be creative but always keep in mind what students will get out of an activity. Avoid busy-work or using an activity just because it’s flashy. Here are some ideas to engage your students in course-focused experiential learning activities:

  • Debates
  • Simulations
  • Games
  • Group problem solving
  • Case studies
  • Service learning, volunteering (check with your department chair/director)
  • Authentic projects (e.g. design something to submit in a real contest)
  • Reflective dialogue (portfolios, journals)
  • One-minute papers
  • Find evidence of learning in new settings
  • Become advocates (e.g. write letters to an MP on a political issue)
  • Write advertisements or pamphlets to inform the general public
  • Web quests
  • Designing websites
  • Blogging (can be done within Brightspace)
  • Library quests (discuss these with librarians well in advance)
  • Arts-based learning and visual thinking workshops at the Carleton University Art Gallery

Now that you have course elements in place, it’s time to put it together.

  • Arrange topics, concepts, foci, etc. into a logical sequence.
  • Divide time up to reflect your focus on the key elements of your course.
  • Decide on the number of weeks/class sessions to devote to certain elements – keep in mind that students can typically only devote approximately two hours outside class time to every hour spent in class. If you have this expectation, make it transparent from the start.
  • See where assessment activities fit in your timeline. Ideally they should build from simple to more complex as the term/year progresses.
  • Look for variety, continuing development, good integration and flow of topics throughout the term. Try to maintain a steady pace that is sensitive to other demands on students (e.g. jobs).

Effective Use of Multimedia

The real secret to effectively using multimedia aids is to be sure that you remain the focus. Don’t use technology because you feel like you have to – it should be a learning aid, not a teaching crutch.

Most people assume multimedia in the classroom means using PowerPoint, but there are a variety of options to choose from, including audio clips, DVDs, films, YouTube videos, online animations and simulations. Choose the aid that makes sense for what you’re teaching or to support your classroom activity. For example, a white board or flip chart might make more sense than PowerPoint for a discussion-oriented class.

Visual aids are most effective when used to highlight key points, draw attention to unusual or new terminology, help students keep track of where you are (outline or concept map), or provide a visual to help clarify text. Extra visuals can actually confuse students, so use them only as much as necessary.

PowerPoint Hints and Tips

  • Use consistent and parallel construction on slides.
  • Avoid too much colour or complex backgrounds.
  • Use animations and graphics only to reinforce your points.
  • Check the size of your font ahead of time – project your slides onto the screen in your classroom and stand at the back to be sure students farthest away can see.
  • Contrasting colours are best – white on a black background is most easily seen.
  • 24-28 pt for text, 32-40 pt for headings generally works best.
  • Ensure diagrams are clear and ALL labels (including graph labels) are visible from a distance.
  • General rule of thumb: six words per line, six lines per slide.
  • Be sure that YOU remain the focus. The audience will read text or graphics rather than listen to you. Use blank screens when you want the attention fully on you.

Learn more about creating accessible documents.

Preventing Plagiarism through Course Design

See our Academic Integrity Resources page for a short list of preventative strategies suggested by the literature that will help reduce plagiarism in your courses.

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