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)

Designing Universally Accessible Courses

On Monday, August 17, 2020, CRTLE, along with the Student Access & Resource Center (formerly OSD), the Center for Distance Education (CDE), and one of our own UTA students, presented a critically important and interactive seminar to build awareness and understanding on promoting successful learning for all students. Learn the UTA procedures to accommodate students as per ADA compliance, as well as techniques to ensure your online, hybrid, and on-campus courses provide universally equitable learning experiences for all. 

Bloom's Taxonomy

In 1956, the Associate Director of the Board of Examinations at the University of Chicago, Benjamin Bloom, developed a framework that categorized skills students are expected to attain as they learn. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a hierarchical structure representing six levels of thinking and learning skills that range from basic learning objectives such as knowledge of content through higher-order learning such as synthesis, evaluation, and creativity. In 2002, Bloom’s Taxonomy was revised to reflect the needs of today’s outcome-oriented language by changing nouns to active verbs. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a useful tool for writing learning outcomes to help students attain higher order thinking skills. Differences between the original taxonomy and the revised version can be found here.

Why Use Bloom's Taxonomy?

  1. Learning goals are important to establish in a pedagogical interchange so that teachers and students alike understand the purpose of that interchange.
  2. Organizing objectives helps to clarify objectives for themselves and for students.
  3. Having an organized set of objectives helps teachers to plan and deliver appropriate instruction, design valid assessment tasks and strategies, and ensure that instruction and assessment are aligned with the objectives.

Student Learning Outcomes

Student learning outcomes (or “SLOs”) are statements that describe how students will act and think differently as the result of having successfully completed a course, providing information about how the course will transform them. From increasing their base of knowledge about a particular topic to acquiring important practical/professional skills to improving critical thinking, SLOs tell students how the course will contribute to their academic, professional, and personal development. Moreover, by assessing the extent to which students achieve SLOs, faculty members and administrators in departments, schools, and colleges can use student-provided data to consider how they might change how a course is taught or how a particular part of their curriculum is delivered.

ABCD Guide

To assist you in developing learning outcomes, follow the ABCD Guide:

  • Audience: Describes the intended learners of a given outcome (“student”).
  • Behavior: An action verb describing understanding, cognitive growth, or a skill that learners will develop (“Explain,” “Construct,” “Formulate,” etc.).
  • Condition: Describes physical and temporal features of the outcome (“within,” “by the end of the semester”).
  • Degree: Describes the level of attainment (“independently,” “fully”).

This worksheet by the University of California at San Diego will help you create student learning outcomes using the ABCD Guide.

Examples of Student Learning Outcomes

Here are some excellent student learning outcomes:

  • Students will be able to design a controlled experiment.  
  • Students will be able to collect and analyze research data.  
  • Students will be able to disseminate research findings in written form.  
  • Students will be able to verbally present research findings. 
  • Students will be able to describe the colonization of the Americas by the British, French and Spanish.
  • Students will be able to describe fundamental biological processes and systems.
  • Students will be able to identify and interpret a wide variety of secondary and primary sources.
  • Students will be able to simulate engineering applications using non-linear modeling and simulation of engineering applications.

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.

Most syllabi contain the following sections:

  • Basic information – course name and number, meeting time and place, instructor name, contact information, office hours, contact information for any graduate teaching assistants
  • Course description – relationship to the discipline, scope and major themes of course content
  • Learning goals / Objectives and learning outcomes – most important skills/concepts for students to learn in a course
  • Readings and required materials 
  • Basis for final grade in course– percentages allocated to exams, assignments, homework, and class participation
  • Assignments and assessments – description of assignments and their evaluation criteria
  • Class schedule – dates for class topics, homework, readings, other assignments, and exams
  • Academic integrity statement – plagiarism and collaboration
  • Attendance policies
  • Support for student well-being – encouragement for student self-care and seeking help when needed
  • Advice to students for self-regulating their learning – suggested ways for studying, reviewing, and succeeding in class
  • Other institutional policies 

Course Design Frameworks

Teaching and learning frameworks are models for course design that help instructors align learning goals with classroom instruction and activities. Such models provide a encouraging and inclusive learning environment. These frameworks often entail activities that integrate lecture with discussion, active learning, and self-reflection.

Backward Design

Backward Design is an educational philosophy that calls for the instructor to determine the desired end goals students should reach before developing the instructional content for the course. Backward Design is beneficial in that it improves the attainment of desired learning outcomes, it is easy to remember and explain, and it is transferable to almost any instructional situation.

Integrated Course Design

Integrated Course Design builds from Backward Design. It arranges the learning goals, feedback and assessment, and teaching and learning activities into a simultaneous planning strategy fit for higher education. Using the 12-step guide of Integrated Course Design, instructors can create and align learning outcomes, classroom activities, rubrics, assessment protocols, and the syllabus in light of the context and potential challenges. The primary benefit of using this approach is that it considers the environmental and contextual factors impacting student learning. 

Online Course Design

The online world provides unprecedented channels for faculty to explore new ways to broadcast their teaching and share it with the world. In order to provide effective and high quality learning experiences, online courses must encompass rich media, interactive features, clearly defined objectives and outcomes, and polished content, along with fostering a robust community of engaged learners. Effective online course design can increase the potential for learners to take charge of their own learning growth.

The University of Texas at Arlington offers these four types of online courses:

  • Online asynchronous: All instruction and testing is online. All classes are asynchronous (recorded) with no requirement for students to come to campus on a specific day or time. Testing occurs online and may be required at a specific day and time.
  • Online synchronous: All instruction and testing is online at a scheduled day and time. There is no requirement for students to come to campus. Testing occurs online and may be required at a specific day and time.
  • Face-to-face: Students must attend class in person and on campus. Classrooms will allow for social distancing and masks are required while in class. After Thanksgiving, however, all classes and testing will be online only and may be required at a specific day and time.
  • Hybrid: These classes combine online and face-to-face instruction. Students may be required to attend face-to-face classes one or more days per week, rotate days on campus or take exams and make presentations face-to-face. The online portions of the course may be live (synchronous) or recorded (asynchronous).


Armstrong, P. (n.d.). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching. Retrieved from

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.

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.

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Grunert O’Brien, Judith, Barbara J. Millis and Margaret W. Cohen. (2008). The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Harnish, R. & Bridges, K. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: students’ perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education 14 (319-330).

Ludy, M., Brackenbury, T., Folkins, J., Peet, S., & Langendorfer, S. (2016). “Student Impressions of Syllabus Design: Engaging Versus Contractual Syllabus.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and
Learning 10.2 (1-23).

Online Course Design. (n.d.). MIT Digital Learning Toolkit. Retrieved from

Riviere, J., Picard, D., and Coble, R. (n.d.). Syllabus Design. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching. Retrieved from

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