Introduction to course design principles

Courses underpin the achievement of program outcomes

Course design is a central area of professional skill and practice, because courses are the building blocks of programs; it is through the coordinated design of courses, their methods and learning outcomes, that the objectives and goals of whole programs of study are realised. It is important to remember this point.

So, the first design work is about alignment of the course learning outcomes with those of the program, and of the other related courses in the program. Not all courses in a program are related to each other in a close enough way that attending to their articulation with each other is necessary; but many are. In those cases, what is needed is a clear map of the program and all the courses that contribute to it. This is why curriculum "mapping" is often talked about in this regard. What matters are two things:

  • articulation between courses and the program learning objectives or goals;
  • boundaries and interlinks between related courses ('related' means they deal with similar parts of practice or disciplinary knowledge)
  • sequencing across related courses so that levels of sophistication of students' practice or knowledge, in related courses, grow appropriately and in a coordinated way, as the student progresses from one course to the next.

To achieve an integrated and coordinated approach to achieving program level goals and objectives, courses should be designed in a manner that articulates with other courses and with the program as a whole. This is a focus on the external coordination, or integration, of multiple courses with each other and with the program.

Courses should be designed

Beyond the "external" coordination or integration of courses with each other and with the program, there is an "internal" design focus that must be attended to with courses (Smith, 2008). This addresses the issue of the way that all aspects of the course (the teacher practices, the resources, the experiences students are exposed to, etc.) are deliberately designed to facilitate students' learning. "Learning what?" you may ask; well the learning outcomes of the course, of course. What matters is one key design practice: Constructive alignment within the course (Biggs, 1996).


Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education, 32(3), 347–364.

Smith, C. (2008). Design-focused evaluation. ASSESSMENT & EVALUATION IN HIGHER EDUCATION, 33(6), 631–645.