Centre for Teaching and Learning

Centre for Teaching and Learning
Centre for Teaching and Learning

Course Organization Guide

Follow principles of course design and adopt methods for organizing the course syllabus and course website. 


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Stages in Course Design 

Most models for course (re)design incorporate a few key components: 

Backwards Design: Imagine your course has ended and identify the learning outcomes. “What do I want learners to know or be able to do when they finish this course? How will you assess students' learning?  Situational Context: Consider the context of your course and the learners in it. What precedes or follows your course in the degree plan? What are students expected to know before they begin? What other commitments do students have?  Constructive Alignment: Align your course's learning outcomes and assessments. What assessments will allow students to practice learning outcomes and demonstrate their learning? Will students have a choice of assessment types and be guided towards success?  Feedback: Create a plan for feedback before your course begins. When and how often will students receive feedback? Will feedback be diagnostic, formative, or summative? References:  Biggs, J.B. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment, Higher Education, 32, 1-18.  Black, P., & William D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 7-74. Fink, L. D. (2003) Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Joseph-Bass Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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Course Design Express
A 6-hour flexible program hosted online and in onQ Course Design Express Full Information

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Resource: “Effective Feedback.”
A resource from the Faculty of Health Sciences Faculty Development Office.

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Resource: Rapid Course Redesign
from York University



Setting Priorities 

The number of course design decisions can feel overwhelming: what’s “need to know” and what’s “nice to know”; what organization your course and associated website should have; which best practices of online course design you can master in a short time. Combining the CTL’s Change One Thing Challenge with the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University’s Rule of 2 Worksheet, we’ve created a quick resource that can help you with setting priorities. 

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Resource: Rule of 2 Priority-Setting Worksheet (Word, 24KB)


Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning 

Accessibility in your course means that all learners have equal access to learning, with particular attention to students with physical and cognitive disabilities. Universal Design for Learning (sometimes known as Universal Instructional Design) is a framework for designing courses that remove barriers to learning wherever possible, and that moves beyond physical concerns to consider all aspects of the learning environment. The Centre for Teaching and Learning has a comprehensive web resource on this topic. We also acknowledge the ways that accessibility and UDL connect to inclusive pedagogies, and suggest that you visit our Inclusive Community Start Here Guide. Finally, the Queen’s Accessibility Hub and Queen’s Student Accessibility Services have many helpful resources for instructors as well as students. 

Connect to Tech: Technology doesn't automatically make resources accessible, but there are easy steps you can take - see the Queen's Accessibility Hub resources for designing accessible documents. Technologies are also often the driver for achieving these UDL Principles, which can serve as your guide as you choose appropriate technology to enhance student learning.

Course Structure 

Models of Course Construction

The image above shows several possible organizational structures for a course.  

  • pyramid: foundational content or skills are the building blocks for further content or skills, eventually resulting in a pinnacle concept or skill for the course 
  • upside down pyramid: a foundational idea or problem leads to various explorations of its different facets 
  • modules: each topic is self-contained, not reliant on any other, and topics could hypothetically be completed in any order 
  • spiral: learners return to content and skills over and over in the course, deepening and expanding each time 
  • medicine wheel: a holistic approach found in many different Indigenous groups on Turtle Island, with teachings that are specific to each culture and best shared by recognized Elders and Knowledge Keepers. Considering a medicine wheel as inspiration for a course structure might lead to a holistic approach to learning (e.g., emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual learning), but adoption of this approach should be done with sensitivity and respect—see this CTL resource for more information. 

To envision your course structure, it’s often helpful to draw your course on a large piece of paper. Be as creative as you wish. How would you explain your drawing to peers or students? 

Content Organization in onQ 

In many ways, an online teaching environment is similar to an in-person teaching environment. For instance, Janine Lim talks about the virtual “door” (modes for access and expectations for frequency of access), “walls” (barriers that separate, unite, or protect students), and “furniture” (how students will learn—seated at a desk, standing at a lab station, moving across a dance floor, etc.). At the same time, remote delivery courses face unique challenges that require a different approach to course organization than face-to-face courses. 

The top recommendation from many resources for online teaching is to decide on an organizational strategy, and then keep it consistent. For instance, you might post a daily course announcement and send a weekly summary email, or have assignments and activities scheduled for each day of the week. The Association of College and University Educators offers more possibilities in a short video and resource available here

Remember that your students will not have the same insider perspective that you do on how the course website is organized. Go through your course website using “student view” or consider asking a teaching assistant to give you feedback from a fresh perspective. 

Connect to Tech: onQ support for instructors 

Connect to Tech: Creating a Course and Create/Curate Content

Integrating Campus Supports for Remote Learners

There are many resources for students on campus that can expand your learners’ abilities to succeed in your course. Instructor referrals are one of the best ways of getting students to connect with these important supports.

    Campus Supports Infographic (PDF, 555KB) provides an overview of many campus supports, along with embedded website links.


      This PowerPoint Slide Deck (PPT, 7.2 MB) was prepared with information directly from various campus student supports, and can be used in whole or in part within your courses.


      Click each of the situations below to see specific recommendations of how to integrate campus supports into your teaching.

      Introductions and Community-Building Activities
      Before or after an introductions activity with your students, let them know about the various offices serving students of particular identities. You might also consider creating a short video or slide deck describing each organization.


      If you have a personal connection to any of the offices, consider sharing elements of your personal story with your students to the degree to which you are comfortable.

      Encourage all students to self-identify and connect with offices such as Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre and the Queen’s University International Centre, rather than assuming some students have particular identities based on their physical characteristics or behaviour.

      Knowing that social support is key for student mental health, include opportunities for students to connect with each other in your classes (e.g. group projects, breakout rooms, interactive chats/questions, journal clubs, ongoing check-in activities) and encourage virtual study groups. Encourage students to find other social connections at Queen’s or through family and friends.

      The Queen’s Student Experience Office has peer-to-peer mentorship programs for first-year undergraduates (QSuccess) and upper-year undergraduates.

      Student Wellness
      November and March are critical months to remind students of wellness supports. Take five minutes at the start of a class period or instructor video, post a course announcement, or include a mention at the start of an assignment handout.


      A sample general announcement might read: “Feeling stressed? Remember that Student Wellness Services, the ARC, the Office of Faith and Spiritual Life, Four Directions Indigenous Student Centre, and the Queen’s University International Center all have wellness programming to keep you grounded at a busy time of year.”

      Other specific offices to mention might include the Queen’s Foodbank, the Sexual Health Resource Centre, and the Human Rights and Equity Office.

      Student Academic Success Services have good resources on managing test anxiety.

      Empower and educate yourself by taking the Identifying and Responding to Students in Distress training from Student Wellness Services. The Green Folder produced by Student Affairs lists more mental health resources.

      Writing Assignments
      Early in your assignment scaffolding, arrange a tailored workshop through Student Academic Success Services[RA1]  on a topic such as how to structure an argument, summarize a reading, or create an annotated bibliography. SASS can also design tailored resources for your course website.


      When students receive initial feedback on a draft or early assignment, remind all students that the academic skills and writing supports offered through Student Academic Success Services[RA1]  are for everyone—they can help even the best students improve.

      When students receive initial feedback on a draft or early assignment, remind all students of the English as an Additional Language supports offered through Student Academic Success Services and the Queen’s University International Center. Be careful not to assume a student has or doesn’t have English as an additional language based on the way they write.

      Include a link to the Student Academic Success Services Assignment Planner as part of assignment instructions. You could also use it yourself when designing the scaffolding of a longer assignment.

      Research Assignments
      Connect with your subject librarian at Queen’s Library to design tailored research tutorials and resource pages for your course or assignment.


      When you distribute an assignment, talk about academic integrity and why it matters with your students, and direct them to educational resources with Student Academic Success Services.

      Include a link to the Student Academic Success Services Assignment Planner as part of assignment instructions. You could also use it yourself when designing the scaffolding of a longer assignment.

      Experiential Learning and Career-Connected Assignments
      Direct first- and second-year students in particular to the Major Maps. Maps are also available for graduate students.


      For assignments connected to real-world situations, consider enhancing your course with a workshop from Career Services.

      When designing courses with an experiential learning component, connect early with the Experiential Learning Hub, and take a look through their faculty toolkit.


      Resources and References

      York University – rapid course redesign resource

      Biggs, John. 1996. “Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment.” Higher Education 32: 347–364. 

      Black, Paul and Wiliam, Dylan. 1998. “Assessment and classroom learning.” Assessment in Education 5(1): 7–74.

      Fink, L. Dee. 2003. Creating Significant Learning Experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

      Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. 1998. Understanding by Design. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall. 

      Creative Commons License
      The Transforming Teaching Toolkit by the Centre for Teaching & Learning, Queen’s University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.