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Center for Teaching Excellence

East Tennessee State University

Course Design

Teaching excellence begins with sound course design.

ornamental lightbulb pic

We believe the best courses are developed through an intentional and thoughtful design process that includes the following steps:

1. Determining student learning outcomes: What do you want your students to learn?

2. Developing an assessment process: How will you know that your students have obtained these outcomes?

3. Determining instructional strategies: What steps will you take to give students the opportunity to practice the skills you want them to learn, help them acquire these skills and/or abilities, or help them obtain or construct knowledge? 

Use the resources below to learn more about effective course design and  to request a consultation about your course. 

If you are developing an online or hybrid course, see the trainings, resources, and faculty development programs available through Academic Technology Services.

Approaches to Course Design

Understanding by Design (UbD)

Consider the "backward design" model (Wiggins & McTighe) when structuring course design.

The Backward Design Process

Understanding by Design by Grant P. Wiggins and Jay McTighe

'What is understanding and how does it differ from knowledge? How can we determine the big ideas worth understanding? Why is understanding an important teaching goal, and how do we know when students have attained it? How can we create a rigorous and engaging curriculum that focuses on understanding and leads to improved student performance in today's high-stakes, standards-based environment? Authors Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe answer these and many other questions in this second edition of Understanding by Design.

Fink's Course Design Guide

These materials come from course design expert Dr. Dee Fink. Dr. Fink presented this material at the first CHIIPs conference at ETSU in January 2018. Fink's approach builds off Wiggins & McTighe's Understanding by Design model.

A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning

Workshop Slides

Workshop Pre-Reading

3-Column Table

Writing Good Learning Goals

Assessing Significant Learning

Building a Weekly Schedule 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

UDL snow ramp example cartoon

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for designing courses and learning materials that are open and easily accessible to all learners. One key insight from UDL is that ensuring learners with disabilities can fully participate also enhances learning for all. A simple example is video captioning. Students with hearing disabilities need this to get the content, but it is also very useful for all students to have the transcript. They can study from the text or may be in an environment where they cannot use sound. Removing barriers for learners at the margins makes learning easier for those in the middle.

So UDL is not just about accessibility for learners with disabilities, as important as this is. More broadly, the UDL framework recognizes variability in all learners and suggests ways to accommodate differences while remaining focused on common outcomes. UDL suggests evidence-based best practices for providing multiple means of presenting, using, and engaging with content. The graphic below is from CAST, the leading research organization on UDL. See their website for more information, research, and practical applications.

See UDL On Campus for UDL course design principles

CAST UDL Framework

Other Important Elements of Course Design 

Academic Integrity

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity and authentic learning go together hand in hand. Designing in authentic learning experiences and activities is the best way to design out temptations or incentives to cheat or plagiarize. This is a key theme in James Lang's book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty discussed in CTE workshops and faculty learning communities.

CTE Resource Center on Academic Integrity

Copyright and Fair Use


Proper Citation

ETSU Tips on Academic Integrity

For official policies and procedures regarding academic integrity and violations, see the Academic Integrity at ETSU page.

Diversity and Inclusion

See the Diversity and Inclusion section of our website for ideas and strategies for teaching to all learners.

Large Classes

Large class present unique challenges and opportunities for course design, assessment, and interaction.

See our Resource Center

Heppner, F. (2007). Teaching the Large College Class : A Guidebook for Instructors with Multitudes. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass. CTE Books at Sherrod Library.

Large Classes on the CTE Resource Center

ETSU Tips on Large Classes

Learning Spaces

How classrooms and other learning spaces are physically designed can have a significant impact on learning. From seating to lighting to acoustics, formal and informal classroom design can enhance or detract from the overall learning experience. As learning becomes more active and teaching more interactive, learning spaces need to become more flexible in order to accommodate active learning, group work, and access to supportive technology. 

The CTE collaborates and consults on best-practices in learning space design and provides resources to the campus community here.

Learning Spaces & Classroom Design on the CTE Resource Center

Boys, J. (2011). Towards creative learning spaces re-thinking the architecture of post-compulsory education (NetLibrary shared collection 10). Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge. EBook via Sherrod Library

Savin-Baden, M., & Society for Research into Higher Education. (2008). Learning spaces: Creating opportunities for knowledge creation in academic life (EBSCO eBooks). Maidenhead, England ; New York: McGraw Hill/Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press. EBook via Sherrod Library

Online Classes

The CTE works in conjunction with Academic Technology Services (ATS) to support faculty teaching in online environments. If you are seeking assistance in developing or revamping an online course, or need assistance with D2L or other technologies, click the ATS banner below to learn more about their services and trainings.

Faculty Help for Online Courses

If you are seeking assistance with integrating more active learning, discussion, and interaction, see some of the resources below or for consultation.

Online Learning on the CTE Resource Center

ETSU Tips on Online Learning

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Consider using OERs as you design your course and select supporting readings and materials. OER textbooks for many common courses can be adapted for free or very low cost to you and students. 

The CTE co-sponsors workshops with Sherrod Library and the Open Textbook Network (OTN) every semester. Check our Events page for upcoming Workshop dates.

We also co-sponsor the OER Awards Program. Learn about it here.

In our 2019 ETSU OER Awards Program cycle, we will be awarding $30,000

This will save students $200,000/semester

OER support from Sherrod Library

Find Open Access Textbooks

Open Educational Resources on the CTE Resource Center.

ETSU Tips on OER and Open Pedagogy

Outcomes (Learning Goals, Learning Objectives)

Creating specific, measurable learning outcomes is one of the most important parts in course design. We recommend:

Robert Noyd's "Primer on Writing Effective Learning-Centered Course Goals", which is also part of Fink's course design workshop.

For program level learning outcomes, see this module from the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Start and End of the Semester

The first few class sessions set the tone for the rest of the semester. Starting off on the right foot not only makes for a better learning environment, it can improve student motivation, confidence, and learning. Many strategies on capturing attention, challenging students, and encouraging active learning in the first few weeks of class have been studied and shown to have lasting positive effects throughout the rest of the semester.

The First Day

See some of these tips for suggestions on optimizing the first day of class:

The Last Day

The last week of class is a natural point for students to look back and reflect on what they have learned. Various strategies can aid students to consolidate their learning, prepare for exams and final projects, and continue their progress beyond the class. Learn more by visiting the resources and tips below.

For more see our Resource Center.

ETSU Tips on Starting the Semester

ETSU Tips on Ending the Semester

Syllabus Suggestions

Design for All

As part of the TBR Accessibility Initiative, ETSU is seeking to make all course syllabi accessible by the beginning of the Fall 2016 semester. In order to aid the University in the accomplishment of this large task, Academic Technology Services (ATS) has built an accessible syllabus template that instructors may utilize. This template adheres to common principles of accessibility, and provides a good starting point for anyone seeking to make an accessible course syllabus.

Also consider these UDL suggestions using an approach that accounts for learner variability.

Tone up the Syllabus

The syllabus is often the first official document students see about the class. As mindful teachers, we should ask ourselves what this document conveys about us and our classes. A study by Harnish and Bridges (2011) found that the tone of language of the syllabus sends a message. A more friendly, warm tone inclines students to perceive the instructor as more approachable and motivated to teach the course. 

Syllabus suggestions on the CTE Resource Center

ETSU Tips on the syllabus

Articles and books on the syllabus:

Harnish, R. J., & Bridges, K. R. (2011). Effect of syllabus tone: Students' perceptions of instructor and course. Social Psychology of Education : An International Journal, 14(3), 319-330. doi:

O'Brien, J., Millis, B., & Cohen, M. (2008). The Course Syllabus : A Learning-centered Approach. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass. CTE Books at Sherrod Library.

Mocek, E. A. (2016). The effects of syllabus design on course information retention by at-risk first semester college students (Order No. 10106076). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1790813683).

Course Design on the CTE Resource Center 

ETSU Tips on Course Design

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