Course Structure & Organization

Student walking on a bridge with mesh metal sides

Creating Effective
Course Structures


How a course is structured is important. Organizational clarity creates ease for students by minimizing frustration, maximizing predictability, and reducing cognitive load. Careful course planning can support instructors to place student learning at the center of their courses. Canvas is an excellent resource for setting up these structures. As such, you will see Canvas tips throughout these resources.

Overall, things that work particularly well are as follows:

  • The course is organized in modules by week, unit, or topic.
  • Modules proceed in a well defined and predictable manner, such that students know what to expect and can plan ahead.
  • Items in the modules are labeled clearly and consistently.

On this page, we suggest you start organizing your course by developing learning outcomes. We also suggest you consider structures for getting to know your students and regularly communicating with your students. We also point you to additional resources and ways to get individual or group help if you need it.

Learning Outcomes: The Backbone of Course Design

It is import to start by identifying what you want students to learn in your course. Developing learning outcomes and aligning course activities with those goals can support instructors to sharpen their focus on student learning when designing courses.

There are many ways to identify learning outcomes. What we have designed is a two-step process.

  1. The first step is to generate skills, knowledge, and other attributes that you’d like students to develop.
  2. The second is to convert that into observable and measurable learning outcomes.

As you identify what you want students to learn, it’s helpful to have a comprehensive view of the types of learning that are possible and valuable. To this end, we’ll use the Significant Learning Model, as it provides a language and conceptual framework for the many ways learning can be significant. The Significant Learning Model comprises six types of learning.

Foundational Knowledge: Understanding and remembering the foundational information and ideas. This is the basic understanding of the subject matter that is necessary for other kinds of learning.

Application: Learning to use critical, creative, or practical thinking to engage in a new action. This allows other kinds of learning to be useful.

Integration: Seeing and understanding connections between different ideas, people, and realms of life. This helps students put their learning in context in their own lives and in broader social spheres.

Human Dimension: Learning about oneself and others. This allows students to see the personal and social implications of their learning. In this time of remote learning, creating opportunities and providing ownership to students about their own learning has never been as important.

Caring: Developing new or different feelings, interests, or values. This creates motivation for, and investment in, future learning.

Learning How to Learn: Becoming a better student, scholar, and practitioner, inquiring about a subject, self-directing one’s learning process. This makes future learning more effective.

Learning isn’t bound by a single course or a single term, and the absence of one or more types of learning in your course does not mean that there is a deficit. Use the Significant Learning Model to identify possibilities, but don’t sweat it if you don’t include every type of learning outcome in your course.

Below are resources for effectively developing learning goals, including identifying key disciplinary skills that students need to learn.

Developing Learning Outcomes

This packet of resources from the TLC includes worksheets on developing course learning outcomes, assessments, and in-class activities that are aligned and support student learning.

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This guide from Indiana University provides an overview of the concept of learning outcomes, from developing goals to using them in the classroom. It includes helpful sample learning outcomes as models.

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From the CIRTL online course, An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, this module consists of videos that explore how to craft learning objectives and includes faculty and student perspectives from several universities, with a focus on STEM courses.

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UCSC IRAPS Course and Program Learning Outcomes

Our campus’ own assessment personnel in the Institutional Research, Assessment, and Policy Studies (IRAPS) unit have developed information on how to develop course learning outcomes, and how to link them to the program learning outcomes that are attached to every program of study at UCSC. It’s a good practice to think about whether some of your course learning outcomes align with your program learning outcomes, as you develop or revise your courses.

Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs)
Program Learning Outcomes (PLOs)

Using Backward Design: Why Learning Outcomes Come First

An introduction to Backward Design, which advocates for starting course design with learning goals before determining how students will be assessed.

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A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning

This guide leads educators through a series of questions about learning goals, feedback and assessment procedures, and teaching and learning activities that can lead to an “integrated” course in which all components are connected and aimed at developing student learning.

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Getting to Know Your Students

Students come to UC Santa Cruz with diverse life experiences, identities, prior knowledge, motivation for learning, and academic and cultural strengths, which creates a unique educational environment in our classrooms. In online course settings, there are also differences in computer/hardware/software, internet access, broadband capability, and shared home learning environments that our students have, which can create challenges for instruction. The better you “know” your students, the more likely you’ll be able to create a structures for an inclusive and equitable classroom experience that provides rich opportunities for learning.

Take a moment to reflect on what you believe are the most important things to learn about your students. Below are some things to keep in mind.

Community Building in the First Week

Consider setting up a short peer-to-peer introduction discussion post in the first week of classes. On this assignment ask students to take a few minutes to update their Canvas Profile, if they haven’t already done so, by adding a profile picture. Include a “fun fact about you” prompt or “favorite movie, game, binge-watching series” to build student connection and rapport.

Understanding the Student Perspective

Either before the quarter begins, or on day one, survey your students to get a better sense of their situations. The best ways to administer surveys are through Google Forms or a Canvas Quiz (ungraded survey). In addition to course-specific questions that you will have, we’ve included what we think are some of the most important questions for you to include.

Using surveys to collect student feedback is an essential part of successful remote instruction. The visual cues that can be picked up in the classroom won’t come as easily in an online environment. Check-in with your students early and often, be flexible with their unique situations and follow up on their feedback by implementing their most useful suggestions.

Sample Survey Questions

  • What do you already know about this subject?
  • What do you want to learn about this subject?
  • What do you plan to do with the skills and knowledge you gain in this course?
  • Is there anything about you that you’d like your instructor to know?
  • What type of device(s) will you be using to access course materials? (computer, phone, tablet, other)
  • For online courses, ask about internet connectivity, time zone where they are taking the course, and access to a camera and microphone on their device.

Sample Google Form Survey

We have provided a sample Google Form template with the above questions for you. If you are interested in using it, follow these instructions:

  1. Navigate to the Forms homepage.
  2. Click on Template Gallery (sort of the top right of the page and not easy to find). Click on the ‘Remote Learning Student Survey’.
  3. A copy of the templated quiz is now in your Google Drive. You can edit the survey description, questions, theme, etc.

Canvas Survey

you would rather create a Canvas survey, here are the instructions for creating an ungraded Survey:

  1. From your course navigation, click on Quizzes > + Quiz. Select Classic Quizzes.
  2. Under Question Type, select either Graded Survey or Ungraded Survey.
  3. Set other options as desired, such as open/close dates, or allow for anonymous responses by checking ‘Keep Submissions Anonymous’.
  4. Click the Questions tab. Click + New Question.
  5. The question type will likely be Essay Question (for free-response from students), but other question types (such as T/F, multiple choice) can be set up. Ignore the points associated with each question or set them to zero. Scores will not be recorded in the Gradebook.
  6. Write the questions, making sure to click the blue ‘Update Question’ button after each question.
  7. Click Save & Publish when finished.

If you are using Modules (as we recommend), add the survey to a Module for easy student access. Alternatively, students can access the survey from Quizzes on the course navigation if enabled. For more information on Canvas surveys, visit the Canvas Guide.

Students sitting on the ground with trees in the background

Careful Design Supports Student Learning

Successful students need to be intentional about their learning, and there are things you can do to help. The SMART acronym is a useful way to remember the most important dimensions of student learning: self-advocacy, metacognition, adaptability, resilience, and time management

Supporting Student Learning

Creating Communication Structures

An important part of organizing your course is creating structures for communication with and among your students. Below are ideas for how you can create communication structures for your course that will help develop a sense of community and help students learn. We focus on three areas: setting expectations; creating spaces; and checking-in with your students. Please also note that a key to setting up these structures is to put your course in Canvas. As such, you will see Canvas tips throughout these resources.

Setting Expectations

Every community has rules, and most of those rules are implicit. Demystifying the “hidden rules” of college is a best practice for creating more equitable outcomes among your students, too. You must be explicit about your expectations and intentions in in-person and online course environments. That includes:

  • How you want students to address you
  • The structure of an email subject line
  • When you will respond to email (Don’t respond immediately to an email you received at 2 am!)
  • Discussion forum etiquette
  • Zoom etiquette if teaching online
  • How long it will take you to grade student work and provide feedback

We also recommend adding the UCSC Introduction Module to your course, which provides students with detailed instructions about how to use Canvas, how to use the library, information about campus resources, and more.

But remember that your course is a community, and communities are stronger with transparency and equal participation. So make sure you provide your students with a rationale for rules; and, if possible, give them opportunities to contribute to the structure of the community (e.g., by asking them to set their own rules within groups, or by holding a discussion on rules in a discussion forum or during a Zoom session).

Your communication plan should also include activity and assessment instructions/prompts. To that end:

  • Include a rationale for assessments and activities
  • Relate assessments and activities to the weekly module, unit, course, and so on
  • Relate assessments and activities to learning outcomes (i.e., the knowledge and skills they’re developing)
  • Explain how assessments and activities will contribute to students’ success at UCSC and in their lives in the real world
  • Provide grading rubrics or guides, worked examples, and examples of previous student work (if available)

Creating Spaces

Make it easy for students to communicate with you and with one another, both synchronously and asynchronously, through discussion forums, office hours, and group work. Set up your course in Canvas for a central location to find information about the course and communicate with you and other students.

  • Include an open forum in your course where students can ask questions or engage in discussion about course content.
  • Hold office hours by Zoom. (Pro tip: Ask students to make appointments for office hours rather than holding open office hours.)
  • Use discussion forums to gauge what your students need to make progress.
  • Use Google Docs or Hypothesis to allow students to collaboratively read and annotate written course materials, synchronously or asynchronously.
  • Make use of polls (both in person and if teaching online).
  • If teaching on Zoom, use the chat to provide alternative ways for students to contribute to discussion during synchronous class meetings. Keep in mind that some students may not have a private place to study where they can speak out in class discussion.
  • If you hold synchronous sessions in Zoom, use breakout rooms to allow students to solve problems together in small groups
  • Provide a structure for students to form their own study groups.
  • Set up Peer Review Groups in Canvas and schedule several Peer Review Discussion assignments.
  • For each module (unit) of your curriculum, consider creating a checklist that students can use to effectively manage their time and keep at pace. Checklists can be included as a standalone Page in Canvas, or can be communicated by you through an Announcement (text or video).
  • Model learning by participating in discussion forums. Don’t just respond to logistical questions or correct students. If a student makes an insightful comment, add a comment to recognize that insight and raise an additional issue for other students to respond to. Your students will learn to be better learners by following your lead.

Checking-in & Regular Communications

Community and communication must be fostered in any environment. It’s up to you to model good communication and participation, to lead and guide discussions, to ask probing questions, to gently remind your students that a due date is looming.

Your students want to hear from you, and regular communications will support their engagement and learning. There are a few simple tips using tools built into Canvas that you can use strategically to reach students and encourage (or require) their participation in the course community. Be as consistent as possible with the day and time of your communication. Set up a regular pattern of once- or twice-a-week announcements that clarify expected tasks for each week.

For example, at the beginning of each week, write to your students (or send them a video Announcement), communicating the purpose behind the week’s activities and assessments. Focus on the following:

  • Connect the week’s activities and assessments to your learning outcomes (e.g., “By engaging in this analysis, you will hone your research skills, which will be further applied in the next module”).
  • Reinforce the core objectives for your assignments again and again; students will perform better when they know what the goals are.
  • Bookend your week with activities that help students see the end at the beginning, and conversely see the beginning at the end.

These methods will help you to communicate regularly (with routine) with all students. You’re bound to have some students who are falling behind, and you’re most likely to know who they are if you are using frequent low-stakes assessments (quizzes, writing prompts). Take a look at student performance on assessments frequently and establish a baseline for when to do additional outreach. The research is clear, the earlier you do outreach to students who are falling behind, the more likely you are to make an impact on their performance.

Finally, this may seem like extra work, but it will be worth it. The investment of time that you put into writing announcements will be better oriented, and you’ll be able to use them in future iterations of the course, regardless of whether the modality is online or in-person. Take a long view.

Additional Resources

DIY Course Readiness Checklist

UCSC Introduction Module

Course Design Template

Syllabus Template

Course Workload Calculator

Need more help?

The TLC offers a number of opportunities for instructors to get support with course design, redesign, and development beyond the resources in these pages.