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What is course design and why it can make the difference between learning and yawning in class?

Matteo Rinaldi
June 4, 2020
We all know that course design is important for a good education.
But what is course design exactly?

A professor deciding to upload a series of videos online for their students to watch, preparing an in-class test for the day after. A teacher dividing exams between online quizzes and in-class pitches. An interactive online video presentation. A discussion blog on your LMS. These are all examples of course design, and the list could go on.

In short, course design concerns the processes and methods around creating quality learning environments and experiences for students. The focus of course design is on putting together the optimal learning experiences for students, in an environment that is supportive and appreciative of learning and intellectual development. Research has not only extensively focused on course design in general, but also specifically in its interaction with new technologies that enhance student learning opening up new possibilities when creating lectures and courses [1] .

Since yes: good course design is not only desirable but a top priority for engaging teaching and implementing active learning [1]. However, no single design fits every situation. Given the possibility of creating a big number
of different courses with a plethora of tools, teachers should pay specific attention to what works best in which situation. This will keep students’ engagement high and mean goodbye to any disappointed yawning in class. 

So, how can a good course design communicate your passion and skillset as a teacher?
What should you be aware of when creating your course so you can reach your students like never before?

Why well-crafted, and innovative, course design is the best for students’ learning

Robust course design, especially when using technology in or outside the classroom, has positive outcomes on learning experiences. Some of the benefits of integrating technologies in a well-designed course are improved group collaboration, innovation, critical thinking, media literacy skills, and ability to construct knowledge in general - the basics of active learning [2] [3] [4] [5]

But how, exactly? Creating a good course design requires the following in order to be beneficial for students:

1 - Multiple steps, stages, or parts

Designing a course where students come to class, listen to the teacher, watch and read slides, read all the same papers, and then take an exam at the end of the course might be easy to deploy, but it takes away the possibility of further engagement. Adding diverse tools and creating different moments of learning instead, allows students to access a pool of new perspectives, check their understanding, and learn at their own pace while supporting diverse learning [1]. For example, using multiple testing throughout the course supports just-in-time learning - when students are reminded or tested exactly at the moment when they need it the most, e.g.when the knowledge is starting to fade - while interactive documents creation and presentations put students’ knowledge obtained until that moment in perspective with the knowledge other students have on that subject.

2 - High-order thinking moments

A good course design should always be able to let students have the time to reason on what they know and what they do not know about the subject at hand. Indeed, a course design with blended effective practices, both online and offline, provides a fertile environment for metacognitive development [1], which is the ability to reason on our own understanding, a critical aspect when it comes to learning. Online tools allowing students to brainstorm, engage in document analysis, peer-reviewing, self-testing exercises, and tutorials, are well able to stimulate these responses when applied in the right sequence.

3 - Places where students can create knowledge

Forums, discussions, blog posts, and comments are all possibilities that technology can provide to teachers when creating a course. By interacting with each other in an independent way, students can engage in a real community of practice where they construct knowledge between themselves [1]. Technology allows students to access material in an asynchronous way, at their best convenience. Linking materials from social media and elsewhere on the Internet can spark interests that students might bring into the classroom when engaging in presentations and discussions with the teacher and their peers. All of this can put together the flexibility sought in a blended approach with engaging course design.

4 - Make it simple, make it free

Data suggest that a good course design that includes technology should always be two things: simple, for the students to be engaged [6] [7] , and free so that students can use what technology they think expresses their needs the most, while also deciding how to use it - autonomy is core to successful course design through technologies, and students do best when encouraged to be independent learners [7] [8]. For example, internet resources such as virtual field trips, and mobile data collection or collaboration, can all bridge a classroom meeting, prepare students for a classroom meeting, or provide practice or exploration after a classroom meeting. 

5 - Be process-driven, product-oriented, and project-oriented

Scientific literature states that the best course designs include all three of these instructional strategies [1]

  • Process-driven: progressive activities culminating in a performance or an assessment (e.h. Peer reviews, brainstorming sessions, document analysis, etc.)
  • Product-oriented: assignments towards a well-defined product (e.g. art projects, podcasting, etc.)
  • Project-oriented: activities that go on step by step, with benchmarks students have to accomplish in a certain order. The end result is not the only thing important here, but the way students create the project also matters (e.g. discussion boards, case studies, online group collaboration, blogs, etc.)

6 - Do not forget to support students

Not every student might be ready to learn online that much. Practice activities, video tutorials, and learning teams can help those students who do not have high digital literacy skills. Providing clear and accessible support increases participation and reduces frustration, benefitting learning [1], [5].

Course design mistakes to avoid at all costs 

While research has pointed out many misuses of technologies in course design [for examples, see, [1], we would like to provide a few that in our opinion are the most important. So, last but not least, a good course design including digital technologies should not be any of the following:

1 - A copy-paste of the old course

Blending online and offline by posting slides on the university website is not going to benefit your students’ learning. If anything, it will only decrease class attendance - and, in some extreme cases, even the image students have of their teachers. Using the online format only as a repository for offline activities is never a good idea and might actually disengage students instead. Expect a lot of yawing in your class if you do this: after all, nothing changed!

2 - Missing offline-online interaction

Blended learning should blend online and offline strategies. Online learning does not have to replace traditional learning but support it with new and exciting possibilities. Class meetings, face-to-face groups discussions, and human interaction still are and always will be an important part of learning [1].

3 - Not giving measurable course outcomes

A well-designed course needs to explain clearly what the expected outcomes are. Students should be able to check their learning at every step of the course, knowing which skills they should possess and master throughout and at the end of the course itself. After all, you never arrive anywhere if you do not know where you are going!

4 - Missing opportunities to “do”

Do not fall into the trap of focusing on viewing as opposed to doing. Digital technologies like videos, presentations, images, slideshows, and sharing content from social media are powerful ways to increase engagement, but students should always put their knowledge into practice. Always give them the opportunity to be active, not just a passive audience.

All in all, course design is a fascinating and useful but sometimes complex concept. As a teacher, you are all about organizing the best course possible for your students. While some sort of rules exists on how to create a good course design (see, for example, the ADDIE method) a definitive set of rules for “the perfect course design” does not exist. 

More than that: it should not exist! Given the power of flexibility that characterizes a course design when incorporating technologies and tools, it would be odd to fixate on only one way to arrange them.

The typology of the course, the characteristics of the students, the time allocated, the culture of the institution, and the tool at disposal should always be taken into account when designing your courses. 

And you? What are the challenges you come across when organizing your courses? Join our Feedbackfruits community to get in touch with other professionals as passionate as you about teaching and learning.

Read more on course design: FeedbackFruits’ ultimate guide to course design


[1] McGee, P., & Reis, A. (2012). Blended course design: A synthesis of best practices. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(4), 7-22.

[2] Gerard, J. G., Knott, M. J., & Lederman, R. E. (2012). Three Examples Using Tablet Technology in an Active Learning Classroom: Strategies for Active Learning Course Design Using Tablet Technology. Global Education Journal, 2012(4).

[3] Davies, R. S., Dean, D. L., & Ball, N. (2013). Flipping the classroom and instructional technology integration in a college-level information systems spreadsheet course. Educational Technology Research and Development, 61(4), 563-580.

[4] Strayer, J. F. (2012). How learning in an inverted classroom influences cooperation, innovation and task orientation. Learning environments research, 15(2), 171-193.

[5] Watson, J. A., & Pecchioni, L. L. (2011). Digital natives and digital media in the college classroom: assignment design and impacts on student learning. Educational Media International, 48(4), 307-320.

[6] McGee, P., & Reis, A. (2012). Blended course design: A synthesis of best practices. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(4), 7-22. Source

[7] Alberts, P.P., Murray, L.A., and Stephenson, J.E. (2010) “Eight Educational Considerations for Hybrid Learning.” In: Wang, F.L., Fong, J., and Kwan, R.C. (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Hybrid Learning Models: Advanced Tools, Technologies, and Applications, Information Sciences Reference: Hershey, PA, 185-202.

[8] Kim, K-J., Bonk, C.J., and Oh, E.J. (2008) “The Present and Future State of Blended Learning in Workplace Learning Settings in the United States.” Performance Improvement 47(8): 5-16.

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