1. Design for learning
  2.  — Design your course

Design your course

Alignment between learning outcomes, assessment tasks and learning activities is the crux of good course design. There are three main areas that you will need to consider when designing a new course or when you are making changes to an existing course.

  1. Consider the graduate profile capabilities, and students’ prior knowledge and experience to define appropriate learning outcomes.
  2. Design learning experiences that will help students build knowledge in order to achieve those assessment tasks.
  3. Design appropriate assessment tasks that enable students to demonstrate the achievement of learning outcomes.

Two commonly used approaches to guide this process are ‘backwards design’ (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) and ‘constructive alignment’ (Biggs, 1996).

A diagram of backwards design. Arrows link the following: 1. identify desired results, 2. determine acceptable evidence, 3. plan learning experiences and instruction.

Image adapted from: https://slcconline.helpdocs.com/course/what-is-backward-design

Diagram of constructive alignment. Double headed arrows link 3 concepts: 1. course learning outcomes, 2. learning activities, 3. assessment tasks.

Image adapted from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275040297_Change_to_Competence-Based_Education_in_Structural_Engineering


Designing for different teaching modes

The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to design for agility and flexibility in course delivery. When designing your course, allow for some flexibility so that you can pivot between different modes whether this is face to face, blended, or fully online. Each mode presents a different suite of challenges and opportunities and the following will help guide your planning for active learning to occur in each of these modes.

Visit the remote learning website for course design tips if you will be teaching a course with on-campus and remote students.

Face to face teaching

The configuration of learning spaces, group size and learning needs should be taken into account when designing courses for face to face teaching.

Learning spaces

Learning spaces can significantly impact the ways students interact with each other. Active learning can be applied just as easily in a large lecture hall setting as in a small tutorial space though you will need to consider the constraints of learning spaces and how this might influence the activities. Polling and Q&A technologies may be useful in large lecture settings to enable interaction and feedback exchange en masse. The same technologies might also be useful tools in a small setting, to offer anonymity to students who would otherwise feel very visible in small groups.

Group size

Consider the size of groups if you intend to use group activities. It may be easier to form groups in smaller tutorial rooms than large lecture halls. Factor this into your planning to keep learners on task.

Learning needs

Active and engaged learning can be busy and noisy. Ensure this experience is manageable for learners who struggle with noise levels, and that the pacing of learning activities provides for quiet and reflective time for students to process their new learning. If your activities require lots of movement, ensure that these activities do not exclude learners who have limited mobility.

Online teaching

Asynchronous and synchronous teaching

Online learning requires planning to different timeframes, and enabling participants greater flexibility in access. This is particularly important for students who are spread across different time zones, and students with caring responsibilities and other work or life commitments. Give thought to whether students need to do different activities synchronously (all online together at the same time e.g. live Zoom session) or asynchronously (students access and participate in the activity in their own time e.g. discussion forum). Asynchronous activities can promote rich learning as they provide time for deeper reflection than synchronous activities tend to.

Social presence and community

Aim to foster social presence and community when designing activities for online courses as this is needed to build safe, supportive and trusting relationships in online learning environments. As teaching is mediated through technology, more effort is needed to develop a sense of social presence and community, particularly in the early stages of a course to enable deeper learning. Gilly Salmon’s 5 Stage Model proposes a scaffolded approach to designing for online learning. This model clearly demonstrates a progression from activities that support the learner journey from online orientation, establishing learner motivation and developing community, to collaboratively constructing knowledge and engaging in progressively deeper learning.

Ease of navigation

Ensure that your online course is designed in a way that is easy for students to find and understand information and learning activities. Make learning pathways as explicit as possible so students can navigate their online learning environment successfully.

Links to supporting resources and information

Include hyperlinks to supporting academic and pastoral care resources. Consider linking resources at point-of-need so students can access support in a timely manner.

Teaching in blended environments

One of the most important factors to consider when ‘blending’ is the type of blend you wish to introduce and how face to face and online components of teaching relate to each other. Educause summarises six types of blends and key considerations that can inform your design for blended delivery.



Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher education32(3), 347-364.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). What is backward design. Understanding by design1, 7-19.