Course Planning and Design

Initial Planning and Organization

Well-organized courses encourage student motivation and performance. Instructors can design their courses in many ways to nourish student motivation and improve opportunities for more effective learning. When a course is designed so that the learning goals align with activities and assessments, it can help students develop conceptual awareness, learn to synthesize ideas, and begin constructing their own knowledge. Specifying student expectations and goals empowers you to design learning opportunities and experiences where the targeted skills have real value as practical tools rather than abstractions. Below are some helpful tips and resources when conducting the initial planning of your course:


How to Enrich Learning

  • Open your class or lecture with an intriguing or exciting question, demonstration, or problem relating to the main topic of instruction. This approach captures student interest and student critical thinking.
  • Provide your students a roadmap or overview of the class, the main topic, or the day’s lecture. This approach helps students learn by connecting new knowledge with previous knowledge.
  • Change the physical layout of your classroom (such as a horseshoe or group-pod layout) for each new unit, phase, or topic of your class throughout the semester. This approach naturally stokes discussion and collaboration among learners, refreshes student focus, and encourages different modes of thought.
  • Provide brief low-stakes assessments periodically throughout the semester. This approach allows students to gauge their learning progress without significantly impacting their grade.


How to Organize Your Course

When designing your course, consider these questions:

  • What do I want my students to be able to know or do by the end of the semester? (See Student Learning Outcomes and Bloom’s Taxonomy below)
  • What kinds of activities and assignments will best engage my students and help them meet course goals? (See Learning Activities and Teaching Strategies)
  • How will I determine if students are progressing towards my goals and gaining the most they can from content and activities? (see Assessments)


Syllabus Design

The syllabus serves as a foundation to your course. This document is a critical piece of communication between you and the student. It should help your students understand from the beginning what to expect from your class and instruction. Because the syllabus is often the first form of interaction that instructors have with their students, it plays a significant role in engaging students and motivating learning (Harnish et al. 2011). Research indicates that more engaging, visually stimulating, student-centered syllabi have a positive impact on student perceptions of a course and motivation to engage with the instructor (Ludy et. al, 2016).

In The Course Syllabus: A Learning Centered Approach (2008, 2nd Ed.) Judith Grunert O’Brien, Barbara J. Millis and Margaret W. Cohen identify at least sixteen elements of a learner-centered syllabus:

  • Establishes an early point of contact and connection between student and instructor
  • Helps set the tone for the course
  • Describes your beliefs about educational purposes
  • Acquaints students with the logistics of the course
  • Contains collected handouts
  • Defines student responsibilities for successful coursework
  • Describes active learning
  • Helps students assess their readiness for your course
  • Sets the course in a broader context for learning
  • Provides a conceptual framework
  • Describes available learning resources
  • Communicates the role of technology in the course
  • Can provide difficult-to-obtain reading material
  • Can improve the effectiveness of student note taking
  • Can include material that supports learning outside the classroom
  • Can serve as a learning contract. 


Other Resources


Assessing Student Learning & Faculty Teaching


An Overview of Assessment

Assessment is essential for effective learning because it provides feedback to both students and instructors. Feedback can guide students to most efficiently focus their learning efforts and inform instructors about student progress toward learning goals. Assessments can help instructors identify areas of challenge for students and adjust the teaching approach to facilitate learning.


Checks for Learning

Creating checks before, during, and after instruction can focus on what students already know or believe, what they are coming to understand or what they are learning, and then what they have learned.

  1. What should you consider in planning assessments for your course?
  2. How do you know what students are learning?
  3. How do you know what students have learned?


Definitions and Examples

Before student performance can be assessed, curriculum design, course design, and syllabus design should be aligned. If they have been created with appropriate Student Learning Outcomes (pdf) in mind, then assessment can be formulated that will support them, in combination with course content. Indeed, once it is clear what learning, thinking skills, and other skills students should acquire, as well as the content knowledge they should glean, then rubrics can be used to verify student learning through student performance (tests, projects, papers, portfolio assignments, etc.).



  1. Armstrong, P. (n.d.). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching. Retrieved from
  2. Anderson, L.W., & Krathwohl (Eds.). (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman.
  3. Bloom, B.S. (Ed.), Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., & Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay.
  4. Bloom’s Taxonomy. (n.d.). Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from
  5. Grunert O’Brien, Judith, Barbara J. Millis and Margaret W. Cohen. (2008). The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach, 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  6. Harnish, R. & Bridges, K. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education 14 (319-330).
  7. Ludy, M., Brackenbury, T., Folkins, J., Peet, S., & Langendorfer, S. (2016). “Student Impressions of Syllabus Design: Engaging Versus Contractual Syllabus.”
  8. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 10.2 (1-23).
  9. Online Course Design. (n.d.). MIT Digital Learning Toolkit. Retrieved from
  10. Riviere, J., Picard, D., and Coble, R. (n.d.). Syllabus Design. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching. Retrieved from
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  12. Teaching and Learning Frameworks. (n.d.). Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from