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For students to learn effectively, it is vital for teachers to plan and design their courses well. Consequently, this issue of CDTL Brief looks at ways to promote successful Curriculum Design.

December 2001, Vol. 4 No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Designing & Planning a Successful Course: Bridging the Gap between Common Practice & Best Practice
Mr Glen O’ Grady
Senior Educational Development Specialist, CDTL

A successful course, one in which students learn what we educators intend them to in a meaningful manner, is the result of many factors. In my ten years’ experience of advising faculty on educational matters, I have found that the ‘successful’ or ‘outstanding teacher’ is frequently the one who carefully conceptualises his/her courses and then organises these ideas into working plans and detailed course documents. These plans provide a foundation and a guide for instructional practice that is likely to lead to greater comprehensiveness, cogency, coherency and consonance.

In this brief article I want to suggest how university teachers can improve the conceptualisation and planning phases of instruction. I will do this by identifying how teachers can bridge the gaps between what I have observed as common practice when planning instruction with what some of the instructional design (ID) literature propose as best practice.

Why are there gaps between common practice and best practice?

Limited time and resources afforded to teachers in preparing courses are obvious reasons. However, more subtle reasons include problems with what is prescribed as best practice in the literature and how faculty perceive the task of teaching. The ID literature is becoming increasingly specialised; most course design material (e.g. Briggs, 1977; Smith & Ragan, 1993) is directed to the professional instructional designer, rather than the teacher/lecturer who, often with limited educational training, does the bulk of curriculum design on any university campus. Clearly, instructional designers (myself included) need to work harder at helping faculty bridge the gap between instructional design theories and everyday academic practice by grounding these ideas in relation to the specific challenges teachers from different disciplines face. One instructional design text that seeks to do this is Ertmer and Quinn’s The ID CaseBook, which presents ID ideas in the context of real world problems. CDTL’s Professional Development Programme (PDP) also attempts to help faculty use pedagogical principles as a means for reflecting upon their practice.

David Kember notes another problem with the ID literature as a source for best practice:

I have become concerned that books classified as about instructional design generally show little cognizance of the research into student learning and contain little help which would help a teacher who wanted to design instruction which facilitated deep rather than surface learning. (Kember, 1991: 290)

This ignorance of research conducted on student learning is a legacy of older (and possibly outdated) instructional design models that unfortunately still shape much of what is done in higher education (Forsyth, et al., 1999). In this article I draw upon research that has its roots in how students learn (Ramsden, 1992). Such research is based upon constructivist views of the world and suggests that students learn most effectively when encouraged to construct their own understanding rather than be expected to simply absorb information. This research emphasises the importance of actively engaging students, and expecting them to be responsible for their instruction. Thankfully these ideas are beginning to have an effect upon ID (Wilson, et al., 1995) and are redefining what is good practice when planning instruction (Gibbs, 1992; Evans & Honour, 1997; Wilson & Myers, 2000).

In the remainder of the paper I specify key questions teachers in higher education need to address when planning instruction.

What is the purpose?

In workshops and private consultations, I have asked faculty where they start when planning a new course. Typically the response is that they begin with organising their content (i.e. what topics they plan to teach and the sequence in which they will be taught). On the surface, this seems like a reasonable place to start. However, implicit in this organisation of content are assumptions about the purposes of the course; and unless these assumptions about the purposes are made explicit, the course runs the risk of failing to fit into the wider curriculum, as well as institutional and social context.

Asking questions like those following can help the lecturer to clarify the purpose of the course and better prepare the teacher to deal with various expectations:

  • Who are the various stakeholders of this course?
  • How does this course fit into the larger picture? Why would students be interested in this course? What function does it play in respect to society, the degree programme, etc.?
  • Where does this course fit in a degree programme sequence: What came before? What comes after? What is the rationale for its position? Is this course foundational (i.e. an essential prerequisite for subsequent work), compulsory or optional?
  • Who else is involved in planning and teaching? Who has overall responsibility?
  • What weight does this course actually carry in the overall degree? How important is it perceived by staff/students?
  • How is this course viewed in the institution?
  • What is the prior history of this course?

Who is the learner?

The educational environment or context of learning is created through our students’ experience of our curricula, teaching and assessment procedures. (Ramsden, 1992: 62)

Most teachers have notional views about their students. However, I have found that when these views are questioned, lecturers find it difficult to substantiate their claims with any reference to research they or others have done on their students. Planning for any course must include a credible understanding of the learner and how they are likely to perceive and respond to different instruction.

Increasingly, university teachers are accepting the need to articulate learning objectives (i.e. statements of expected learning outcomes). But identifying the desired change in students implies an understanding of where the students ‘are at’. Hence, part of planning a course must be about finding out information about the students (i.e. before the first class, look at entry scores, characteristics of previous cohorts, etc., or during the first contact, get to know the students, prior learning/understanding, motivation, preconceptions/assumptions about the course).

The conceptions of deep and surface learning are terms that describe how students respond to their learning activities (Ramsden, 1992: 78–85). If the aim of the course is to foster a deep approach to learning (one that is meaningful and rich), then teachers need to understand how students are likely to approach various tasks, and what can be done to make these tasks more attractive to students.

While planning is in part anticipating and articulating what the students may be like (and what we wish them to become), it is also about developing strategies (e.g. pre-course questionnaires, early assessment, class discussions and interviews) to check whether these assumptions and expectations are valid and accurate. The information gathered allows a teacher to be better prepared and flexible in making informed adjustments to instruction such that it meets the students’ specific needs and desired course outcomes can indeed be achieved.

Which methods of instructions are suitable?

When I question university teachers about the methods they plan to employ in their teaching to facilitate the desired learning, the most common response is that they will ‘give a lecture’, ‘run a tutorial’ or ‘administer a laboratory session’. When I probe further, I find that many lecturers believe and accept that these instructional settings embody standard and proven methods. Unfortunately, critiques of traditional lectures (i.e. teachers speak, students listen) suggest that while they still are useful in achieving certain outcomes (e.g. delivering information), they are by themselves largely ineffective in helping students develop the many complex skills associated with a higher education. Lectures that incorporate methods that get students to discuss, perform specific types of thinking, actively take notes, reflect, etc. are generally more successful (Ramsden, 1992: Ch. 9).

Studies on innovative teaching practice show that lectures, tutorials and laboratory sessions are merely instructional settings that the teacher defines by incorporating various micro-instructional methods. While the choice of any method of instruction will be influenced by administrative and political factors, the primary determinate should be: given the students, what method will best facilitate the desired learning outcomes? Although each instructional setting has certain characteristics (e.g. number of students, size and configuration of a room), clever faculty have shown that these barriers can be surmounted. For instance, interactive discussions with large lecture groups are possible with careful planning in respect to physical and other constraints.

Various instructional methods 1 include traditional lecture, tutor-led discussion, computer discussion forum, buzz groups, role play, problem-solving groups, structured exercises, case study, project work, journal writing, experiments and demonstrations. Each method has certain accepted tenants and attributable outcomes. But part of the planning process is defining these activities in relation to the specific context for which they are to be used (e.g. thinking about how to incorporate the desired content and how students will participate in the learning activity). It is how a method is employed that will largely determine the types of outcomes that will occur.

Choosing whether and how to lecture and/or give tutorials entails more than just looking at the time allocated in a timetable. Besides doing some research and finding out about various instructional methods and then choosing those that will best facilitate the desired learning outcomes, it also requires embedding the concepts/skills that the instructor wants students to learn within these activities and incorporating these activities within a given instructional setting.

What assessment procedures are appropriate?

Most university teachers realise how critical assessment is in a university course; most acknowledge issues of validity and reliability are important (Warren Piper, et al., 1996). But what is often lacking in their planning is an appreciation of what measures need to be put in place to ensure validity and reliability beyond basic issues like nominating assessment methods, defining a task or question for students to complete, and allocating a weighting or marks for each task.

Other important considerations when planning assessment include:

  • ability to articulate a rationale for using a method of assessment over another;
  • understanding of how different assessments measure (and help teach) the various course objectives;
  • awareness of how the different methods of assessment are likely to impact on students (the sum of the parts);
  • establishment of criteria for assessing students’ performance and how this criteria will be communicated to students;
  • establishment of marking and grading procedures to minimise the effects of individual marker bias.

What is the best way to organise content?

University faculty are very skilled at defining and conceptualising subject content, as well as selecting relevant parts of the discipline and ‘chunking’ it into smaller segments necessary for instruction. More challenging, at least for some teachers, is to think and organise their content in broader terms (i.e. what is the relevance of this material and how does it relate to students’ future professional career, or figuring out ways of helping students appreciate the course as a whole rather than discrete parts). Another challenging aspect when organising content is integrating with the method of instruction (e.g. developing case studies, creating examples, analogies). Sometimes, this requires looking at content in ways that are different from the disciplinary orthodoxy.

Organising content also requires some anticipation as to how students will interpret this information. When planning, teachers should assume that just because they present some information does not mean students will understand it as intended. Hence, sometimes content will need to be organised into multiple representations to ensure students that have different styles of learning can have a better appreciation of what it is they are meant to learn.

What should be evaluated?

Many university teachers unfortunately see evaluation as an imposition (something the university requires of them) rather than as a means for improving teaching practice. Hence, instead of being considered in the planning phase of a course, evaluation is commonly thought about and acted upon towards the end of a course. However, those that see evaluation as an integral part of the teaching and learning process will identify, in their planning, any ideas they wish to try out and evaluate. They will point out instances where data can be collected and analysed and where results can be fed back into the teaching cycle. In this way, an action research and action learning approach to the improvement of instruction can be facilitated (Zuber-Skerritt, 1993).

Why develop course documentation?

Good planning for a successful course requires continuous reflection, not just thinking momentarily about relevant issues. To facilitate this type of reflective practice, some institutions have encouraged faculty to develop elaborate course outlines 2 that require teachers to address the range of issues touched upon in this paper. An example of a detailed course outline can be viewed at:

Such documents offer the university and students a rich and more detailed overview of a course, and also afford teachers concrete platforms for building upon the hard work they have done previously in planning the course. These documents, if developed because of teachers’ interest in improving their teaching, will remain a living and working document. It can provide direction as teachers wade through the details and challenges of teaching and administering a course. It also can be the means for recording a teacher’s development and maturation and stands as evidence of teaching quality.


A successful course is unlikely to be the outcome of a teacher simply spending an hour or two writing a course outline or carefully reading the course textbook (though both are worthwhile planning activities). A great course is more likely the result of a long continuous effort of thinking, researching and reflecting upon the issues of what is the purpose of the course, who are the learners and what constitutes learning, what methods of instruction are suitable and how do you implement them in a given context, what assessment procedures are appropriate, what content should be included and how should the course be evaluated. By recording these ideas in a document, they can be shared with colleagues, students and other stakeholders so that they too can contribute to further planning and development of the course. Consequently, the gap between best practice in planning and individual practice is not an unbreachable chasm, but merely a journey one can take to improve the quality of teaching and learning in any university.


Briggs, L.J. (1977). Instructional Design: Principles and Application. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Ertmer, Peggy A. & Quinn, James. (1999). The ID CaseBook: Case Studies in Instructional Design. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Evans, Barbara & Honour, Leslie. (1997). ‘Getting Inside Knowledge: The Application of Entwistle’s Model of Surface/Deep Processing in Producing Open Learning Materials’. Educational Psychology. Vol. 17, No. 1–2, Mar–Jun, pp.127–39.

Forsyth, I., Jolliffe, A. & Stevens, D. (1999). Planning a Course (2nd ed.). London: Kogan Page.

Gibbs, G. (1992). ‘Improving the Quality of Student Learning through Course Design’. In Learning to Effect. R. Barnett (Ed.). Buckingham: SRHE/Open Press. pp. 149–168.

Gibbs, G. & Habershaw, T. (1992). 253 Ideas for Your Teaching (3rd ed). Bristol: Technical and Educational Services Ltd.

Kember, D. (1991). ‘Instructional Design for Meaningful Learning’. Instructional Science. Vol. 20, pp. 289–310.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Smith, P.L. & Ragan, T. (1993). Instructional Design. New York: Macmillian.

Squires, G. (1994). A New Model of Teaching and Training. Hull, University of Hull.

Warren Piper, D., Nulty, D.D., & O’Grady G. (1996). Examination Practices and Procedures in Australian University. Canberra: Higher Education Division, Department of Employment Education and Training, Evaluations and Investigations Program, AGPS.

Wilson, B., Teslow, J., & Osman-Jouchoux, R. (1995). ‘The Impact of Constructivism (and Postmodernism) on ID Fundamentals’. In Instructional Design Fundamentals: A Review and Reconsideration. B.B. Seels (Ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications. pp. 137–157.

Wilson, Brent G. (1997). ‘Constructivism and Instructional Design’. In Instructional Development Paradigms. C. R. Dills & A. A. Romiszowski (Eds.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications. pp. 63–80.

Wilson, Brent G. & Myers, Karen Madsen. (2000). ‘Situated Cognition in Theoretical and Practical Context’. In Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments. D.H. Jonassen, & S.M. Land (Eds.). N.J: Mahwah. L. Erlbaum Associates. pp. 57–88.

Zuber-Skerritt, Otrun. (1993). ‘Improving Learning and Teaching Through Action Learning and Action Research’. Higher Education Research and Development. Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 45–58.


1 For a more extensive review of different methods, see: Squires, 1994; Gibbs & Habershaw, 1992.

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2 Course Information Documents: see Forsyth, et al., 1999.

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Designing & Planning a Successful Course: Bridging the Gap between Common Practice & Best Practice
Curriculum Design & Implementation: The Basics
Practical Steps in Designing a Curriculum to Promote Critical & Creative Thinking