How do I start?

Starting a course design from scratch can feel overwhelming. Searching for course design examples quickly reveals a vast and diverse array of opinions, theories, and practical suggestions. In this nuts and bolts guide, we will explore the best ways to get from “I just found out I’m teaching this course…” to “I feel confident I can teach this course!”

We dive deeper into the more complex steps in the following sections, but this checklist should help orient you to the basics of backwards course design.

  • Start with assumptions. (Analyze your context.)
  • Identify goals and objectives.
  • Plan active learning experiences and authentic assessments.
  • Put it all together. (Create a syllabus, set up D2L and/or other course resources).
  • Teach your course.
  • Evaluate and iterate on your design with each offering.

Start with Assumptions

There are many variables that can affect whether a course design will be successful. A careful consideration of assumptions in key areas is the pivotal first step in designing a course. The most impactful things to consider are:

Your Teaching Context

  • Does your department chair, or direct supervisor have any requirements of this course?
  • Does the department have guidelines, a style guide, or required assignments?
  • Are there tools required for grading, for a particular assignment, or for course reviews?
  • Are you required to use a specific textbook?
  • Are you inheriting a course from a previous faculty member who taught it a particular way? Are you required to teach using the same material? Using the same syllabus?

Your Students

  • Are your students mostly first-year students, graduate students, or somewhere in between?
  • Do your students need to commute? Do they have reliable housing, food, etc.?
  • Would your students benefit from using digital teaching tools? If so, what is their level of digital literacy?
  • Do your students have any accessibility needs? How can you make sure every learner is treated equitably? How can you design activities that benefit everyone? If you don’t, what kind of argument are you making?
  • Do your students belong to an academically vulnerable group, such as non-native English speakers? If so, how will this impact your designs?
  • How will your course impact student’s lives? How will it impact students’ current and future communities or careers? What will they do with this new knowledge?
  • Above all, remember that you will be teaching adults.


  • How much time can you reasonably commit to this course? What will that time allow you to do in terms of, for example, giving feedback, preparing materials, or grading?
  • What resources do you have access to? Is there something you can adapt or adopt, rather than create from scratch? Is there a well known resource for this material, e.g. Khan Academy (for mathematical concepts)?
  • Do you know any members of the community that could play a role in student learning? Is it possible to collaborate with any outside group or persons? Can the relationship be mutually beneficial?
  • Do you have any foreseeable needs which may affect this course? Upcoming obligations? Accommodations?
  • What technology will you need to use, such as a projector, course website, or specialized software, and how comfortable are you with that technology?
  • What are your strengths? Are you an exceptionally good presenter? A great writer? An artist? How can you leverage your strengths?
  • What do you struggle with? Are you disorganized? Impatient? A poor exam writer? How can you design to minimize your limitations?

It can be easy to forget that effective teaching is so much more than lecturing and grading. We are crafting learning experiences for our students that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Doing this well involves a careful consideration of all stakeholders.

Design active learning experiences

One of the most common mistakes in course design is assuming that the material is the course. Rather, the material is merely one aspect of one learning phase. Ideally, you will design learning experiences that are aligned to the course objectives defined earlier in the design process. These experiences should target all of the learning phases. The learning phases are a great tool to help us develop active learning experiences for our students that provide lasting value. They are a tool for reasoning about activity design, grounded in learning.

Input, a.k.a. Experience

The first phase of learning is the exposure to new ideas, concepts, or systems of thought. This may be done through lectures and textbooks, but more ideally through experiences, experimentation, and social activity. As you develop ideas, consider:

  • How can you present this information in a way that’s engaging? Can you give students a choice about how they receive this information?
  • How can you make sure students use this information, and do so in multiple contexts ? How does this information fit into the rest of the curriculum? How can you interweave it into other areas of the course?
  • How can you make sure this information is relevant? How does it affect students’ lives? What can they do with this new information? Why should they learn it?

Practice, a.k.a. Play

The next phase involves active practice with the new information. Students see how a new way of thinking can be internally consistent, and related to prior knowledge.

Think about:

  • How can students prove to themselves that information is true, by seeing it work? How can you design activities that show them that this new information is valid?
  • How can students see how others may benefit from this new knowledge, or system of thought? How can it benefit their own lives?
  • How can students test out the boundaries of this information? Where does it start, stop, and connect with other material, ideas, or assumptions?

Conceptualization, a.k.a. Generalization

In the practice phase, students see how new ideas are self-consistent, and how new systems may operate in isolation. In the conceptualization phase, students see how this new information model interacts with, affects, and is affected by the rest of the world, and other models.


  • What new things can students do as a result of knowing your content? How does this affect their lives?
  • How can you demonstrate that thinking this way, or knowing this fact can alter other’s behavior, our economy, other individuals, or the physical world?
  • How does this fit into what students already know? What opinions or views will they have to change or modify in order to accept this new information? How will this new model affect how they see the world?

Reflection, a.k.a. Contemplation

In this learning phase, students have accepted new information, seen how it may relate to other areas of knowledge, and are now ready to apply it to themselves, and internalize it into their own systems of thought.

Reflect on:

  • How may your students’ behavior change as a result of this learning?
  • How have values or opinions been altered? What about ways of seeing the world?
  • Does this information affect students’ sense of identity? Place? Community? Self?


The questions and ideas outlined here are meant to guide you as you perform a needs assessment, and design active learning activities. Thinking about learning as a discrete set of phases in this way is a wonderful tool for guiding your design. Remember, however, that in reality learning is an emergence of all the learning phases. It may not always happen for everyone in the same order, every time. Learning is a cyclical, non-linear process.

Designing learning activities is also a cyclical process. Considering the assumptions you hold about your teaching environment, your students, and about yourself will guide you towards the right course. Once you know where you should be going to best serve your students, design active learning activities that foster learning at all stages. The next step is to design an effective assessment strategy which supports your active learning experiences.

Lastly, remember that tests and lectures only touch a small part of the learning process. Try out your designs in partnership with your learning community; never be afraid to collect feedback from your students, and other learning stakeholders.

Learn More Elsewhere

This article was last updated on Nov 30, 2020 @ 12:42 pm.

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