Course Design: Best Practices


Adapted from—and extending—the recommendations found in Chickering and Gamson's, Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991), here are some of the most commonly agreed upon best practices for course design and development. They can be applied to both traditional and online courses, however some are particularly crucial to online course development.

Communicate high expectations

Instructors holding high expectations encourages high expectations from their students.

1) Clearly state your expectations regarding

  • quality and quantity of work
  • depth of understanding of course content and concepts
  • importance of critical thinking and analysis
  • frequency of interaction during course discussions
  • meeting deadlines
  • etiquette/netiquette
  • response time for course-related communication

2) Provide in class, post on a course Web site, or send via email

  • statement of course goals
  • statement of performance objectives
  • grading and evaluation criteria (e.g., grading rubrics)
  • examples of student work

3) Model high standards and quality through example

Establish Course Procedures

Help students understand what you will expect from them and what they can expect from you.

Clearly State Your Expectations

  • Make a course calendar available and clearly identify assignment due dates.
  • For an online course, post a course calendar and/or assignments to identify assignment due dates
  • Clearly specify times when you will be available for questions
  • Establish expectations for response time to emails and voicemails
  • Discuss the respective roles of students and instructor in the course (e.g., you might expect students to take an independent, active, student-centered approach to learning, while you might serve as a coach, mentor, facilitator)

Encourage Student/Faculty Contact

Consistent and frequent student-faculty interaction is one of the most important factors motivating students.

1) Support multiple modes of contact

  • Email
  • Phone
  • Chat/instant messaging (IM)
  • Whiteboard/workplace collaboration tools (e.g., Groove, WebEX)
  • Office hours (email, chat/IM, phone, or face-to-face)

2) Provide guidelines for each form of contact: email, voicemail, discussion forums, chat/IM, interactive video

3) Provide general messages to the whole class through email, the course Web site, and announcements

4) Get to know your students on an individual basis

  • Address and refer to students by name

5) Participate in class discussions

  • Clearly convey the importance of participation in class discussions
  • Model appropriate participation in discussions
  • Encourage student questions
  • Encourage and support the expression of multiple points of view
  • Foster respect for the expression of differences in perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences

6) Provide frequent and thorough feedback

  • Offer short and recurrent activities (e.g., assignments, quizzes) which allow for frequent feedback

7) Identify and follow up with students who are not participating

8) It is more difficult to maintain good communication with students if you don't see them regularly; make an extra effort to communicate with online students by using announcements, holding office hours online, and posting regular discussion prompts.

Encourage Student Cooperation

Cooperative learning can engage students more deeply in the process of learning and provide scaffolding that allows them to deepen their understanding of course content.

1) Design activities that promote cooperation

  • Discussion
  • Brainstorming
  • Peer review
  • Team Projects and Activities

2) Create structures within the course that support and encourage cooperation

  • Study groups
  • Group discussion forums, blogs, and wikis

3) Encourage student networking

  • List email addresses
  • Establish course email lists, discussion forums, blogs, chat rooms, and/or wikis
  • Share the URLs of course-related student Web sites and blogs
  • Encourage the formation of study groups

Encourage Active Learning

Students should engage with course content. They should discuss it and write about it, relating it to their experiences inside and, when possible, outside the academy.

1) Develop assignments that allow students to apply and practice course concepts

2) Develop activities that employ simulations, case studies, scenarios

3) Conduct discussions that encourage critical thinking and problem solving

  • Pose questions that encourage students to consider the implications of issues raised in the course
  • Use open-ended questions to allow the expression of multiple points of view
  • Encourage students to express their opinions and share their experiences in relation to the topic

4) Encourage students to share their experiences with and offer constructive feedback to their classmates

5) Develop activities that encourage student reflection on their learning

  • Ask them to consider what they have learned
  • Ask them to consider the importance and relevance of what they have learned

Provide Prompt Feedback

Assist students with assessing their understanding and competence.

1) Acknowledge all student questions

  • Respond privately to individual questions
  • Use announcements (via email lists, discussion forums, or course blogs) to answer frequently asked questions
  • Respond as quickly as possible (ideally, within 48 hours to distance students)

2) Return assignments and assessments (quizzes, tests) within a week

3) Regularly post grades

4) Provide a wrap-up announcement to the class discussing common findings and results of week/unit/module content

5) Hold office hours (either face to face or via email, chat, or phone) for students to discuss their graded work

6) Use activities that provide immediate feedback (e.g., self-checked or automatically graded quizzes/tests)

Emphasize Time-on-Task

Student learning takes place through active engagement with course content and concepts.

1) Help students understand the importance of time on task and time management

2) Convey to students the learning objectives for each lesson/unit/module

3) Suggest an appropriate amount of time students should budget for each activity

Respect Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

Understand the range of learning styles and approaches students typically bring to your course and help students understand how to apply their styles/approaches to improve their learning.

1) Design more than one method of learning for students.

2) Recognize, respect, and reward creativity.

3) Be sensitive to cultural differences.

4) Allow students to choose from different modes of project presentation.

5) Understand and allow for different pacing.

6) Design course materials, activities, and assessments to encourage analysis, synthesis, apppcation and evaluation.

Use Technology Effectively

Use technology that helps you accomplish course goals and meet student needs.

1) Use technology for a pedagogical purpose.

2) Use technology that is appropriate for and reflects the role of technology within the discipline.

3) Use technology that is appropriate for the task.

4) Indicate availability of technological and learning resources.

  • CTSS helpdesk
  • college and department technology support staff
  • college and department computer labs
  • relevant Web sites and blogs, and so on