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Course design

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For many years, university education was dominated by the lecture. Students would attend (or not) a series of lectures on a given topic, and their notes would form part of a revision plan.

The lecturer would organize the lecture according to the syllabus, which was a plan of the knowledge to be imparted and the most important course design document.

Then, content ruled. Over the last couple of decades, however, a number of changes have taken place in tertiary education, so that universities have more stakeholders than their own concept of a liberal education. In the UK there has been a massive increase in student numbers, whilst everywhere universities are expected to pay attention to the demands of employers, and the stipulations of professional bodies.

For some, designing a course may still mean determining the content to be delivered and dividing it into the available number of sessions. However, the changes in tertiary education have also affected teaching. The most important stakeholder is now the student, and there is as much interest in the "how" as in the "what" of learning. The tutor's job is to support learning; the successful and respected tutor is not merely an expert in his or her subject, but also in teaching it.

Deciding your learning goals is therefore the first step in course design, from which the rest will not only follow, but depend. In order to do this, you need to know who your stakeholders are. Below is a diagram of this relationship and we shall explain each of these concepts in turn.

Image: course design figure 1


Your stakeholders are part of your market for the course – factors needing to be taken into account in designing the course product.

Academic factors

Each discipline has its own values, for example, the nature of knowledge in mathematics or statistics is different from that in some of the softer management disciplines; the former will see truth as fixed and objective whereas for the latter, personal experience and interpretation may count more. The values of your discipline will inevitably affect the way you teach and design a course – for example, a mathematically-based course will be more "problem-based", whereas one in strategic management, where there are fewer certainties, might be more case-based and include more teamwork.

Many universities have their own supra-disciplinary policies on teaching and learning, and if you are not already familiar with this you should make sure that you are – guidelines can usually be found in a document on the website or intranet. These will give an idea of the emphasis the university places on particular approaches, for example, are they very keen on the use of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or do they want learning to be as active as possible?

The university will probably also be accountable to an external body (in the UK it's the Quality Assurance Agency).

These days, knowledge is very "interconnected" and no discipline is an island. It is very important to consider the wider picture and make sure that students perceive the interdisciplinary connections in the course.

Employment and professional factors

To what extent are you teaching the student a body of knowledge, or imparting a set of discipline specific values (for example, getting them to think historically, or to appreciate literature critically), as opposed to preparing them for the real world? In the latter case, you will be concerned to give them specific skills that employers will need, for example those of communication, teamwork or numeracy.

Such issues will probably transcend an individual course and depend on an ethos of the programme; some MBAs, for example, aim to provide as much practical, real-world business experience as possible whilst others emphasize academic rigour and hard-core numeracy. Here, therefore, you will be influenced by the values of the curriculum which lies behind your course.

Of more bearing to your individual course will be, where relevant, the requirements of particular professional bodies, especially if your course is linked to one of their professional qualifications.

Student learning

You will need to think strategically about the nature of the student learning you are aiming for, and the type of student you want to produce. There are a several aspects to this:

  • To what extent are you promoting academic learning, and to what extent is there a training or vocational element to your course? In the case of the latter, you will probably want to promote particular skills, as opposed to purely intellectual values.

For example, in a marketing communications course, you might want students to demonstrate the skill of writing marketing literature.

  • You need to be aware of the most relevant theories around student learning and university teaching – behaviourist, cognitive, constructivist, deep, shallow, strategic, etc. It's generally accepted too that students learn in different ways. Read the Teaching Insight on learning styles and the nature of learning. Your understanding of these learning styles will fundamentally affect the way you design your course.

If you believe in constructivism, you will want to build a course which sets learners problems and gets them to develop their understanding of the subject by solving the problems. If you believe that you have a set of strategic learners, who concentrate on the assessed work, then you may want to work on sustaining their interest and ensuring that the assignment helps develop as many skills as possible!

  • What are the demographic features of your body of students? In the UK, the last 20 years has seen a great increase in the number of students, which inevitably affects the range of abilities. Are you catering for a mass audience, or are your students highly selected, as for example in the UK Russell Group or the US Ivy League universities? Are your students young undergraduates or mature learners? How much work experience do they have? Are they all fluent in English?


These will play a prominent part in course design – your role as teacher these days is less to give than to direct to the answers, and we shall look at this subject in more detail in supporting student learning. However, the question here is their availability:

  • Does your university have a VLE? Is there any other technology which you are being encouraged to use?
  • Does the subject already have an excellent and highly suitable textbook, to which you can direct students?
  • Is there suitable material on the Web, either generally or prepared by you or your colleagues?

Finding out what is available could save you a lot of time and be one of the influences in how you design your course.

Being pragmatic

As the above demonstrates, there are an almost infinite number of drivers, both internal and external, which currently influence higher education – and we have only mentioned some of them. Sometimes it may seem impossible to design a course which meets all the demands and which yet makes sense. This may require some creative thinking – for example, modularization, or designing the course so that it has a significant element of student choice, or using personal development plans. There is not space to go into these options here, but if meeting different demands is a genuine difficulty, it would be worth looking into them.

Learning goals

As stated in the Introduction, what the student needs to learn is a key driver of the course. There are a number of jargon terms being used in higher education which relate to course learning outputs. The main ones are:

  • Learning outcomes
  • Learning aims and objectives

Learning outcomes

What the student needs to learn is often stated in terms of what they will be able to do as a result of the course. Perhaps a good way of envisioning this is to consider what effect you want the course to have on the student, as opposed to what content to cover. This is best explained by an example:

If you were designing a course on the 19th century English novel, a syllabus-based approach would consider which authors/novels to include, and what social/historical background, etc. would need to be covered. An outcomes approach would look at how you would expect the students' understanding of the novel to change. For example, you might expect them to have a deeper appreciation of the novel, of narrative structure and conventions, how the "information world" of the time, and the background social conditions affected the novel. The difference is perhaps that you are looking at more holistic and rounded outcomes than you would with the former approach.

Learning outcomes, and the principle of designing a course based on them, are the subject of a separate Teaching Insight (see Learning outcomes and assessment criteria: writing good learning outcomes) where they are defined as follows:

Learning outcomes specify what the student is expected to know, understand or be able to accomplish by the end of any given unit of study, therefore they form the basis for all assessment of that learning and for any quality assurance checks, benchmarking or inspection exercise carried out on the unit. Read the whole article for a description of the features of learning outcomes. In summary, a good learning outcome is one which is clearly and simply expressed, as well as important, and measurable.

You should be able to express the outcome in a single sentence. Use a verb which unambiguously expresses what the student needs to do:

Identify various ways of thinking about decision making.

Distinguish between different types of decision criteria used
and examine why decisions often fail in and around organizations.

Recognize the various tools of organizational learning and how these can be used to improve and advance personal and organizational behaviour. (From a scheme of work for a third year course on Human Resource Management by Dr Peter Murray.)

If you are unsure about what the learning outcomes should be, or want a prompt, you could look at last year's exam papers, and preferably model answers, or other forms of assessment, such as group presentations. Another possibility might be to look at another course at the same level in a not too dissimilar area.

One of the most difficult things with learning outcomes is to ensure that the outcome is at the correct level, or describes the correct type of learning. Generally speaking, cognitive ability is thought of as a pyramid, which progresses from the lowest level to the highest, as in the SOLO taxonomy devised by Biggs (2003):

Course design figure 2
Level Example
Minimal understanding of basic facts List the 4Ps: product, place, price, promotion
Descriptive understanding (knowing about several topics) Describe the main components of the marketing mix
Integrative understanding (being able to relate facts and understand basic theory) Understand the various approaches to designing and managing an operations system in different regions and countries
Extended understanding (being able to go beyond what has been taught and apply to new situations) Research the key issues relating the management of international operations and present their findings both verbally and in writing.

The above objectives all relate to intellectual attainment: many objectives however are about skills, personal development or values.

Constructive alignment

The learning outcomes of the course are the peg on which the rest of the course elements should hang. Thus:

  • The assessment needs to be aligned to the learning outcomes so that it can allow students to demonstrate that they have achieved the outcome.
  • The teaching and learning of the course needs to support the learning outcome so that the assessment can be achieved.

The interrelationship of learning outputs, assessment and teaching is contained in a theory known as constructive alignment:

Constructive alignment is a theory devised by Professor John Biggs (Biggs, 2003) whereby the learner constructs understanding through performing a series of related activities. It is the task of the teacher to create the environment which supports appropriate learning activities.

Learning aims and objectives

A learning aim is a general statement which sits above the more specific learning outcomes, and which describes the purpose of the course as a whole.

A course in value-based management, devised by Harald S. Harung, Jr., PhD, at Oslo University College in Norway, delivered to third-year engineering and technology students, has the following aim:

"The core purpose of the course is that the students should learn how to develop and maintain a value-based organization – an organizational culture that ensures high levels of performance and quality of life, both in the short and the long term, and in both good and difficult times."

Learning objectives are often confused with learning outcomes and at times the two terms are used interchangeably. They are more detailed than learning aims and can be seen as the steps that take us from the overall aims to the eventual learning outcomes.

Supporting student learning

This section could be called "Teaching methods" or "Contact time", but both would be inaccurate. The current emphasis is not just on teaching as transmitting information, but on encouraging the students to undertake learning activities which helps them construct their own understanding of a topic. And this can take place both inside and outside contact time.

Active learning is the current buzzword in higher education. The idea is that learners learn by undertaking activities, receiving feedback, and making sense of the feedback by undertaking other activities or planning what they will do differently. This is what is known as formative assessment, as opposed to the summative assessment that gives the student an overall grade. Thus make sure that you plan so as to have plenty of activities for your students, and always give them feedback, which may well be the "correct" way of working out the problem, or, if there is no one correct answer, a class discussion of the possibilities.

There is a large range of possible teaching methods, on which we shall provide brief notes below. However, here are some general points to bear in mind:

  • Plan activities so that they proceed from the simple to the more complex.
  • Provide students with summaries of the main points, if you are giving them a lot of content, so that they can remember the essentials.
  • Provide plenty of links with the bigger picture – for example, pointing out links to other disciplines.
  • Remember that students are not a homogenous bunch – they learn in different ways, and have different learning styles. Having a variety of methods available means that an individual student is more likely to be able to learn in a way that suits him or her. (See Learning styles and the nature of learning.)
  • A variety of teaching methods is also more stimulating for the student.

Stanford Graduate Business School believes that "a range of teaching methods sharpens your ability to anticipate and manage the range of challenges that you’ll encounter throughout your career" (see the SGBS website) and provides case studies, theoretical overviews, discussions, simulations, problem-solving sessions, role plays, and team projects, varied according to the course subject matter.

  • Make sure that students understand what is expected of them over the whole course, not just contact time but also in the study time in between, including the number of hours for both.


The humble lecture is still in use, but gone for the most part are the days when students emerged from the theatre with aching wrists!

Stella Cottrell, writing recently in the UK publication Times Higher Education Supplement, pointed out that lecturers, used to a soundbite generation, regularly intersperse their lectures with discussions or mini problems, whilst also providing their students with plenty of accompanying handouts, and using visual back up in a variety of forms from bullet point lists to simulations (Cottrell, 2007).


The seminar is a tried and trusted method of teaching, based on the Socratic dialogue concept according to which learning is a verbal duel between teacher and taught. Discussion is undeniably a valuable method of teaching, in which students can learn from one another as well as from the tutor.

At Columbia Business School, one professor is a former chief people officer at PepsiCo, and he has led seminars on leadership, examining the type of dilemmas that students have faced.

Problem-based learning

This replaces lecture-based teaching with a series of problems for students to solve, the idea being that they learn through finding the solution. It is much used in medicine and nursing.

Case studies and simulations

These are very popular in business and management education – in fact, Harvard Business School bases its teaching method on case studies, and learning is expected to happen through discussion of different aspects of the case study. Students learn to practise leadership skills on real problems, and to analyse conflicting data, define and prioritize goals, persuade and make tough decisions.

Group and team-based learning

Group work is another popular teaching method with well established benefits: it facilitates teamworking, it gives rise to a wider divergence of views and skills – the whole is greater than the parts. Groups can be used for a variety of purposes from discussion to producing some joint output.

In many MBA courses, because of the importance of teamworking in business, people are organized according to teams, with which they will stay for the whole of the course. Often, team members are deliberately picked for their diversity. People don't always like all their team members but they learn to work with them, and many find this the most rewarding part of their MBA experience.

Because in "real life", it is common to work in multidisciplinary teams, Stanford Graduate Business School has developed courses that put business students together with students from engineering, medicine and education, to create the sort of mixed teams that managers will encounter in everyday life.
At China-Europe International Business School, great value is placed on group work as it is believed that this helps students understand that there are no right or wrong views, and teams are changed every semester.

Resource-based learning

In resource-based learning (RBL) students are provided with a list of resources from which to gather information, which may be print, CD, web, multimedia, etc. Obviously the quality, relevance and availability of the resources needs to be checked carefully. The advantage is that students have a choice which can accommodate disparate learning styles, but the disadvantage is that students can think they are supposed to read a whole mass of material. It's important that the principles of RBL are explained, and that students have a "learning map" which indicates what they have to learn.

Using technology

A huge range of technologies are currently used in education, from VLEs to blogs, from multimedia to mobiles. They are the subject of a separate Teaching Insight: e-Learning. Sometimes they provide useful techniques in a convenient form – for example computer-assisted assessment enables rapid testing of understanding, thus allowing the teacher to find areas of weakness. At other times, they provide the convenience of doing something at your own place and time – for example online conferencing. Sometimes new technologies open students to completely new worlds – such as the more multinational perspectives brought by the social web. It also provides them with opportunities for showcasing their own work – in a dedicated website for example.

Managing contact time

The first session should be devoted to course aims and learning outcomes, along with an explanation of the assessment system and, perhaps, a discussion of why this course. Having done this, introduce some content – perhaps an overview of the subject – otherwise you will feel anxious about what you have to cover and they will feel cheated!

Intermediate sessions should use a variety of methods as described above, dependent on the course learning outcomes. We mentioned earlier the importance of including activities, and also of variety. Contact time should also be used to manage students' private study.

The Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development gives the following advice (Baume, 2006a):

"Don't see private study as what happens between classes. Instead look at the classes as the only chance you have to energize and support the really important activity, which is what the students do between classes. This suggests that, at each intermediate class during the course, you should: first, review the work the students have done since last week next, teach some new materials which build on what they have learned finally, help them to plan the work they will do between this class and the next".

How you organize course content will vary according to the subject – it may be chronological, or proceeding from simple to complex, or from the whole to the detailed. The last session should incorporate a review of what has been covered in the course. If the course is examined, plan a revision session.

The course on value-based management comprised 24 two-hour sessions, each of which contained a lecture. Brief summaries of the lecture were given at various points, so that students could remember essentials. To give them the bigger picture, these points were also linked into a particular interdisciplinary principle. Discussion was an important part of the session, and there was also a workshop on individual values. Read more about this.


Summative assessment is the process whereby the teacher can check that the student has met the learning outcomes. It is dealt with in another Teaching Insight: Outcomes-based courses and assessment criteria.

We referred earlier to the importance of aligning assessment to learning outcomes. This is important not only to confirm mastery of the latter, but also because many learners think strategically about their study, and concentrate their efforts into the assessed piece of work, so you need to ensure that it really does test their learning in the widest possible sense.

Assessments will have a grading structure, the object of which is to define what is an acceptable standard and reward those who perform exceptionally well. The scheme of assessment will probably be circumscribed by university policy, but again it is desirable that it is linked into the assessment outcomes rather than purely awarded for correct content. Students should also understand the criteria against which they are being assessed: see Learning outcomes and assessment criteria: assessment criteria.

There are many different types of assessment, see Learning outcomes and assessment criteria: assessment methods for an extensive list of methods used in business and management. These describe a wide variety of options, from the conventional essay to the possibilities of assessing a group project which tests team skills, to making a presentation which tests oral communication skills, or a portfolio whereby you provide evidence that you can meet the criteria.

For his value-based management course, Harald J. Harang provided one individual assignment (3) and four group assignments which were done in groups of 2-4:

  1. Write down and discuss the effectiveness of at least five methods to make your associates more self-managing.
  2. Write down what you consider the six most important points in this course, and explain why you have made this particular choice.
  3. Complete the list of your personal values, ranked in order of importance, and the evaluation of how much you actually live each value in your life.
  4. Describe organizations you know based on the ideas of this course.You may describe companies, non-profit or humanistic organizations, public organizations (e.g., the armed forces), sports clubs, circle of friends, school classes, and nations.
  5. Write down and explain the most important core values you would use if you were to start your own business. It is important that personal values of all the group members are in accordance with the values of the proposed company.

Students had both to write and present each report and were encouraged to present their views clearly. These assignments have obvious relevance to the learning outcomes that required students to "learn how to develop and maintain a value-based organization".

In one (UK based) degree course in publishing, second year students were required to do a group presentation of a publishing proposal, and present a report. For these, they were given a joint mark, but in addition they had to provide a diary of their own individual contribution, for which they received an individual mark. (Such diaries, revealing as they did tensions in the group, made interesting reading!)

It is important that students be given specific feedback rather than just a mark. Very often you will have a particular form to fill in with particular criteria which need to be addressed, such as length, organizational coherence, balance and coverage of different parts of the question, breadth of reading, originality of evidence, effective use of examples, clarity of language, references and bibliography.

Last word

Particularly to a new lecturer, the thought of planning a lecture, let alone a whole course, can seem a huge hurdle to overcome – how will I use all that time/fit in everything I need to say?

However, focusing on learning as opposed to content can be liberating. It’s not all down to you – the students are partners in the learning process and will learn better if, instead of feeding them everything you create a supportive environment in which they do a lot of the work themselves. It's what's called a win-win situation.


  • Baume, D. (2006a), "Structuring and sequencing a module or short course", First Words, Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford Brookes University. See, accessed 19 June, 2007.
  • Baume, D. (2006b), "Relating learning outcomes to level", First Words, Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford Brookes University. See, accessed 19 June, 2007.
  • Biggs, J.B. (2003), Teaching for Quality Learning at University, The Open University Press, Buckingham.
  • Cottrell, S. (2007), "Take talk to a new level", Times Higher Education Supplement, 1 June 2007.