Approaches to Course Design

In this workshop we will discuss how to effectively approach course design and planning, and we will workshop your ideas and discuss syllabi for courses attendees are going to teach over the summer or next year. Whether you’re designing a course for the first time, or looking to improve a course you’ve taught before, this is a great way to share and test ideas or start thinking about how to re-design your course incorporating the feedback and course evaluations you’ve received.

Approaches to Course Design was offered in the Spring 2016 as an in-person workshop at the Graduate Center, CUNY. The workshop and materials were developed by Anke Geertsma and Avra Spector.


All materials on this page and in the linked google folder are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC-BY-SA) 4.0 International Public License.

This folder contains outreach materials, workshop plans and slides.

Materials Folder: Approaches to Course Design

Workshop Plan

1:00-1:10    Introductions

1:10-1:30    Mini lecture / discussion

1:30-1:33     Freewriting: 3 concrete goals for this workshop

1:33-2.30    Group work

2:30-2:50    Recap with whole group

2:50-3:00    Evaluation


Mini lecture / discussion on Course Design and Planning

3 questions:

  1. Who are my students?
  2. What are my learning outcomes for them?
  3. How do I measure these?

Planning Phase

  • Find out what your department’s guidelines are (is there a reading list? what does course description in handbook say? are there set learning objectives?) You can ask for sample syllabi from your program assistant (they usually keep them on file) and from colleagues.
  • Find out who your students are going to be. (introductory course? Students “passing through” or start of extended study in field? What is their background knowledge? Any prerequisites? Typical problem areas for students in your field and for students at this level?)
  • Define learning outcomes. What do you want your students to know and be able to do at the end of the semester? (both knowledge and skills). This is the backbone of your course, so very important. Called Backward Design (Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design). Also make sure you know if there are any requirements here from the department/college (think Pathways)
  • Think of larger narrative and progression of the course. Logic / story line / subsections? How do the parts tie together? Are there built-in moments of revision? Also, what are the “enduring understandings,” the things your students are going to remember after they’ve forgotten the facts and details from the course? Try to structure the course with these larger objectives and overarching narrative in mind.
  • Link outcomes to course readings and assignments. Making a reading list and designing assignments becomes much easier if you know what you want to get out of them. Evaluating them also becomes clearer for you and your students. This is a process though: think of texts that are suitable for your students (keeping in mind length and complexity), think of various forms of assignments (short and long forms, essays and/or presentations, use of technology and multimedia forms?).
  • Selecting readings is like packing for a trip: first ask, what do I want to bring? Then what do I need to bring? Link to trip specifics
  • Coherency: order chronologically, topically, theory to application (or vice versa), easy to difficult, broad ideas to narrow (or vice versa)?

Syllabus Design

  • Is the most tangible link between you and students. Some call it a contract, but you can certainly see it as a map – you have to have a destination in mind.
  • Sets the tone for the course and for your teaching style (decide what tone you want to use, formal/ informal? Do you want to include your approach to subject in course description?)
  • Formalizes responsibilities for you and your students (Point out that course schedule can change. It’s not fair, however, to change due dates and assignments)
  • Different components, some optional, some mandatory (basic information, course description, learning outcomes/goals, texts/materials, course policies including  attendance/lateness, participation, dishonesty/plagiarism, missing/late assignments, assessment and grade breakdown, links to writing center/ tutoring/ library/ center teaching&learning, disability centers, other services, calendar incl due dates) Possibly statements on inclusiveness, integrity, and expectations for success
  • For the learning outcomes: use active verbs and be specific. Different levels of cognition & importance of word choice (check Bloom’s taxonomy)

Course Prep Practicalities 

  • Make readings available (do you have to place order at bookstore, are they available online, are you posting them somewhere, or asking your students to buy–then keep in mind price)
  • Check classroom / IT facilities
  • Scheduling/posting office hours