Center for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning


Designing a Course


This page provides information on how to develop a course. The information on this page should be useful across modalities (face-to-face, online, hybrid, or distance). For more in-depth information, the Center has self-paced courses on developing online and distance education courses. If you are interested in deepening your skills on designing face-to-face courses, the Center has many events and programs throughout the year that you may wish to attend, including a new series on adding active learning methods to your class.

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1. What is your course about? (essential statement, objectives, assessment) 2. What will learners do? (selecting activities)
3. How will everyone do their work? (finding appropriate technology) 4. How will you incorporate everyone? (accessibility and Universal Design)

What is your course about?

This section provides information for setting the foundation for your course: essential statements, objectives, and assessments.

Essential Statement

Much of instructional design and online learning focuses on objectives which gauge student progress by measuring what students do. This is important because teachers ought to know the degree to which student mastery results from the instruction of the course. Yet, those objectives cannot get at the immeasurable benefits of learning that we hope students take from the course and transfer to their lives outside the classroom. Essential statements are where instructors articulate those big ideas which make the course meaningful for students and allow the course to live on in the minds of students long after they have forgotten many of the specific details they learned.

Essential statements work hand-in-hand with course objectives. The essential questions allow instructors to remain focused on the big important ideas of their disciplines even as the course objectives try to give a measurable shape to those big ideas. Essential statements help instructors answer the question: why am I having students complete these objectives? While the objectives help instructors assess: how will I know that students grasped the essence of this course? 

One way to think about the essential questions of a course is to ask: what do I want students to remember about the course five years from now? Students will probably not remember specific objectives, but hopefully they will remember some enduring question, such as: whose perspective matters here? Or, what is the relationship between truth and fiction? Or, how does what we measure influence how we measure?



Once a course has an essential statement, the instructor can start to give those big ideas a concrete, measurable shape. Objectives inject clarity into a course by putting the focus on what instructors want students to do or perform. Just delivering content is not enough; after all, how will instructors know that students really grasped the content?

Like all fields, instructional design is filled with people who have differing ideas. But, one consistent element to almost all design models today is the centrality of learning objectives to activities, content, and assessment.

Measurability is a necessary attribute of a good objective. Without measurability, teachers cannot know the extent to which students have achieved the course objectives. For example, consider the following course objective: "Students will understand the causes of the American Civil War." On an intuitive level, the intention of the objective seems clear. But, on closer inspection, what does "understand" mean? How will we know that students understand?

To gauge understanding, we will have to go a step further and ask students to do something. This will mean replacing the word "understand" with some actions that will help us measure student understanding. We could swap out understand with words such as: debate, analyze, describe, delineate, or narrate. While we cannot see inside the heads of students to know whether they understand, we can watch them debate, or assess their analysis, or parse their delineation. One way to know whether or not your objectives are measurable is to ask yourself: can I devise an assessment to measure the degree to which students have mastered this objective?

Methods of writing objectives

ABCD method

One common method is the ABCD method for writing objectives.

A = Audience (Who will complete the objective? It is helpful to think about the characteristics of your students and their place in the curriculum, online students in a Freshman Experience course, for example.)

B = Behavior (What do you expect learners to do? For example: evaluate causes for the American Civil War.)

C = Condition (Under what conditions or constraints will learners perform the behavior? At the end of a unit, after practicing first, for example.)

D = Degree (What level equals mastery?)

Example objective: By the end of the semester (C), beginning History students (A) will be able to distinguish between primary and secondary sources (B) with close to 100% accuracy. (D)

Using Bloom's Taxonomy (Taken from Arizona State)

When you begin creating a course, you want to design with the end in mind. The best way to approach this is to start by writing measurable, learning objectives. Effective learning objectives use action verbs to describe what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the course or unit. Aligning assessments with course expectations is much easier when you have written measurable objectives from the beginning.

  1. Identify the noun, or thing you want students to learn.
    • Example: seven steps of the research process
  2. Identify the level of knowledge you want. In Bloom’s Taxonomy, there are six levels of learning. It’s important to choose the appropriate level of learning, because this directly influences the type of assessment you choose to measure your students’ learning.
    • Example: to know the seven steps of the research process (comprehension level)
  3. Select a verb that is observable to describe the behavior at the appropriate level of learning.
    • Example: Describe these steps
  4. Add additional criteria to indicate how or when the outcome will be observable to add context for the student.
    • Describe the seven steps of the research process when writing a paper.


Practice writing objectives


(Adapted from Carnegie Mellon's: Design and Teach a Course)

Assessments should provide instructors and students with evidence of how well students have mastered the course objectives.

There are two major reasons for aligning assessments with learning objectives.

  • Alignment increases the probability that we will provide students with the opportunities to learn and practice knowledge and skills that instructors will require students know in the objectives and in the assessments. (Teaching to the assessment is a good thing.)
  • When instructors align assessments with objectives, students are more likely to translate "good grades" into "good learning." Conversely, when instructors misalign assessments with objectives, students will focus on getting good grades on the assessments, rather than focusing on mastering the material that the instructor finds important.

Instructors may use different types of assessments to measure student proficiency of a learning objective. Moreover, instructors may use the same activity to measure different objectives (as I am doing with the alignment grid in this module). To ensure more accurate assessment of student proficiency, many instructional designers recommend that you use different kinds of activities so that students have multiple ways to practice and demonstrate their knowledge and skills.


The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. More specifically, formative assessments:

  • help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work
  • help faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately

Formative assessments are generally low stakes, which means that they have low or no point value. Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:

  • draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic
  • submit one or two sentences identifying the main point of a lecture
  • turn in a research proposal for early feedback


The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark.

Summative assessments are often high stakes, which means that they have a high point value. Examples of summative assessments include:

  • a midterm exam
  • a final project
  • a paper
  • a senior recital

Information from summative assessments can be used formatively when students or faculty use it to guide their efforts and activities in subsequent courses.

Practice aligning objectives with assessments


What will learners do?

Three types of activities


Absorb activities sound like an oxymoron but they are those activities where learners gain the information they need. Examples include: videos, readings, or podcasts. Typically, absorb activities take less time in online classes than they do in face-to-face classes where lecture is popular form of instruction.
Here are some common examples of absorb activities.
  • Presentations (slide shows, videos, demonstrations)
    • Presentations are usually best used when information can best be conveyed visually and the presentation can help the learner visualize something that is difficult to convey by other means. Learners typically tune out after five or six minutes so it is important to keep presentations pithy.
  • Readings
    • Use reading activities to present complex and difficult information in a stable form for careful study by the learner. Reading activities are important for moving beyond memorizing and recalling information and they can be used to encourage learners to find and understand information. It is often useful to have reading activities available to students where they will need to use it (as a reference in responding to a discussion, for example).
  • Stories by a teacher
    • Stories told by a teacher can be a great way to make a point memorable. They can be a type of presentation, and should also be pithy. When done by a teacher storytelling is an absorb activity, when done by a student, it is often a connect activity.
  • Field trips
    • An instructor may wish to send students to a local museum or exhibit that is relevant to the course. There may be other types of venues that an instructor may wish for students to see. For example, watching a city council meeting might be an activity for a political science class or a speech class. One should take as much care in arranging for transportation, etc. with an online class as one would with a face-to-face one. But, don't be afraid to expand your classroom in an online class.
    • Also, be sure to include "virtual exhibits" available online.


Do activities are where students practice the knowledge. These are similar to formative assessments that we discussed in the previous module. Typically "do" activities have lower stakes and allow for students to have multiple attempts. The focus in on mastering new knowledge or skills. This is equivalent to doing basketball drills to prepare for a game.
Here are some common do activities as well as best practices
  • Practice activities
    • Drill and practice (worksheets, quizzes from textbook publisher)
      • Best used for foundational material that will be used again and again. Also, it is good to gradually increase the difficulty level of these activities.
    • Hands-on activities (performing a calculation with an on-screen calculator; completing a dialogue in a foreign language; or filling in a missing term in a piece of computer code.)
    • Guided-analysis activities (these ask students to apply a schema to a situation. For example, agronomy students may be asked to classify soil based on a chart that shows the proportion of sand, silt, and clay in the soil.)
  • Discovery activities (case studies: these are often scenarios where an instructor presents a situation that requires learners to draw upon course knowledge to reckon with a complex problem.)
    • These are often best used when instructors would like for learners to draw upon multiple sets of knowledge and draw fine distinctions and work with shades of meaning. These are often good once students have mastered foundational concepts.
  • Games and simulations
    • Similar to case studies, games can be a good way for learners to draw upon multiple sets of knowledge and draw fine distinctions. Games can also help stimulate learners curiosity.


Connect activities help learners close the gap between learning and the rest of their lives. They prepare learners to apply learning in situations they encounter at work, in later learning efforts, and in their personal lives. The purpose of these activities is not necessarily to learn something new - that is typically for absorb and do activities - but rather to link something that is already known  or prompt an application of learning.‚Äč
Here are some common connect activities as well as best practices
  • Ponder activities
    • Requires learners to think deeply and broadly about a subject. Learners may answer rhetorical questions, meditate about a subject, identify examples, evaluate examples, summarize learning, or brainstorm ideas.
  • Questioning activities
    • Let learners fill gaps and resolve confusion by asking questions of teachers, other experts, or fellow learners.
  • Stories by learners
    • Learners relate subject matter to events in their own lives.
  • Job aids
    • Apply learning to real-life examples of tasks. Examples include: glossaries, calculators, or e-consultants. These are items that students can make for their own self-reference in their professional practice.
  • Research activities
    • Requires learners to discover and use their own sources of information. These include scavenger hunts and guided research.
  • Original work
    • Requires learners to perform genuine work and submit it for critique. These are often long-term projects.


The absorb, do, connect schema comes from William Horton, E-Learning by Design, second edition, New York: Wiley Publishing, 2011. (Requires UWGB login.)

How will everyone do their work?

Selecting Technologies

The presentation below provides a useful metaphor for selecting appropriate technologies to use in your course.

Interaction media available to instructors

Generally, instructional designers discuss three types of interactions: learner-content, learner-learner, learner-instructor. The table below organizes various technologies by the types of interactions that they foster well.

Learner-Content Media

Learner-Learner Media

Learner-Instructor Media

Diigo: Allows students to annotate webpages and .pdfs. Blackboard Collaborate Ultra: Webconference: use this by adding a link in the navigation menu. Canvas Calendar: schedule office hours or one-on-one meetings using appointment groups
H5P: Allows instructors to create interactive lessons. Can be plugged into Canvas. Canvas Pages: can be used for "wiki" like assignments. Canvas Pages: can be used for "wiki" like assignments.
Collaborations: Similar to Google Docs, but uses Office 365.

Canvas Groups: creates a "course within a course" which is valuable for group work.

VoiceThread: Asynchronous discussion tool that simulates classroom discussion.
My Media: YouTube-like tool. Accessible through "Account" menu or by adding to course navigation. Can also be used for video quizzing.

VoiceThread: Asynchronous discussion tool that simulates classroom discussion.

Slack: Group chat and collaboration tool.
Course files: upload items to share with students to read. Microsoft Teams: Group work ecosystem. Microsoft Teams: Group work ecosystem.
  Skype for business: video call and video conferencing tool. Skype for business: video call and video conferencing tool.
  Chat in Canvas

Chat in Canvas

  Slack: Group chat and collaboration tool.


Note: Items in bold are available either in Canvas or through Office 365 for free. OneNote: Group note taking a collaboration tool  


How will you incorporate everyone?


Accessibility is the legalistic twin of Universal Design. Both are concerned with expanding the reach of courses to include all learners. Where Universal Design is about opening your course up to a holistic mindset, accessibility is about compliance with section 508 of 1973 Rehabilitation Act. Where Universal Design gives instructors autonomy to work within a framework, accessibility is a list of prescriptions that courses should abide themselves by. As such, where Universal Design provides multiple pathways and is difficult to assess, it is relatively easy to determine whether or not a course is accessible.

Accessibility checklist

You may use our quick, one-page checklist to see if your course materials are accessible. For a more comprehensive list, please see Penn State's accessibility website.

Universal Design

The presentation below provides information on how to add Universal Design elements to your Canvas course. For more information on Universal Design, please consult the National Center for Universal Design's website, which provides many helpful tips and ideas.

Congratulations for making it through this information. Now that you have designed your course, let's make a plan to get information on how it is working.