Course Organization

Follow principles of course design and adopt methods for organizing and delivering course content and designing a course website in onQ or your faculty's learning management system.

There are many models and systems for instructors to follow when (re)designing a course. Most incorporate a few key components:

  • backwards design: starting by imagining what you want students to know and be able to do at the end of the course  
  • situational context: considering the context of your course and the learners who will take it
  • constructive alignment: ensuring that what you want students to learn (learning outcomes) and how they will demonstrate that learning (assessments) are addressing the same things
  • feedback: coming up for a clear plan for giving students feedback on their learning throughout the course

For more information, see the CTL infographic Components in Course Design (PNG, 532KB)

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. Drawing on best practices and the CTL’s own philosophy, we’ve created a quick “Rule of Twos” (PDF, 24KB) resource that can help you with setting priorities.

Courses that are in-person, blended, remote, and online all typically include both synchronous (live, at a specific time) and asynchronous (recorded, available at any time or within a specific window) elements. Decide which elements of your course fall into which category, and what technology you might need to support your decision. If teaching online or remotely, the CTL strongly recommends using asynchronous methods wherever possible, for maximum student accessibility.

To compare the two approaches, take a look at the CTL’s Asynchronous versus Synchronous Infographic (PDF, 308KB). Some additional recommendations for asynchronous approaches include:

Break long lectures into 10-minute chunks. Organize chunks around concepts or key ideas, and give students activities for reflection, rehearsal, or application.

Facilitate asynchronous discussion through technology such as discussion boards, document annotation tools, and collaborative documents.

Record short demonstrations of hands-on tasks or step-by-step processes.

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 on their website.

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.

More detailed information about onQ is available in the CTL’s onQ support and Educational Technology webpages.

"models of course construction icons"

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 the CTL resource Decolonizing and Indigenizing 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?

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 Guide for more on those topics. Finally, the Queen’s Accessibility Hub and Queen’s Student Accessibility Services have many helpful resources for instructors as well as students.


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. See our Campus Supports Infographic (PDF, 555KB) and PowerPoint Slide Deck (PPT, 7.2 MB) for an overview of many campus supports, along with embedded website links. For specific scenarios, visit our website on Integrating Student Supports

Additional Resources

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