Getting Started with Course Design

Focus on what's important

When designing a course, it can be difficult to know where to start. We recommend the Backward Design approach: you begin at the end and work backward.

  • Instead of approaching your syllabus design with the question “What does my course have to cover?” ask, “What do I want my students to learn?”
  • List your answers to that question as your learning objectives. You can use the framing sentence: “At the end of this course, students will be able to…” followed by verbs that lend themselves to assessment. For example, instead of, “Students will understand XYZ,” use more specific verbs such as, “Students will be able to identify and describe XYZ.”
  • Then answer the question, “How will they learn it? (activities and content) followed by, “How will I (and they) know that they’ve learned it?” (assessments).
  • Feel free to download this worksheet (docx) to help you articulate the learning objectives and identify how your students will achieve them.
  • This 8-minute CTL video describes more about the practice of writing learning objectives and aligning every course activity to them.

More information about Backward Design can be found on this page in Begin at the End page.

Syllabus Template
The syllabus template is available on the CTL Syllabus page.
For online courses: Design for clarity

It’s hard to overemphasize how important it is for students to be able to enter their courses and easily see where they should go, what they should do, how they should do it, and by when they should do it!

Time that they spend trying to navigate a less-than-clear course lessens their time for learning.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Add a “Getting Started” page to the top of the course menu, (below the home link) to welcome students, introduce yourself, and provide some tips for what they should do next, e.g., Read the syllabus carefully and then click on the link to Course Materials to begin. (In fact, many online instructors rename Course Materials to something that conveys more active engagement such as Weekly Coursework. See Course Menu Management, UVM Knowledge Base)
  • Provide a tour of your Blackboard course using screencasting software. (See Screencast-O-Matic Quick Start, UVM Knowledge Base)
  • Establish a rhythm, for instance,
    • Set consistent weekday due dates for regular activities you’re assigning, such as discussion board posts (and consistent due dates for replies, as well).
    • Post a regular welcoming announcement (or quick screencast) at the beginning of every week. You can give a quick review of the previous week, drawing connections and orienting them to this week’s work. This is is one of the ways you can convey to students that you’re “present” in the course.
  • This 8-minute CTL video focuses on course information design and offers more ideas to make your course clear and easy to use.

More ideas for organizing a course that is clear to students can be found in
Build Your Course Select and Present Accessible Content

References and Resources

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum

Course planning worksheet (docx)

Head. K.J. “Let’s Add Compassion to Our Online Curriculum.
Chronicle of Higher Education, 31 March 2020

8-minute CTL video about aligning courses to objectives

CTL Teaching with Blackboard

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