How to design a university course

Summary

  • Determine whether there exists a demand or gap in knowledge for your university course.
  • Establish the course type, level and length from the outset.
  • Define your target audience from the get-go.
  • Consider what eligibility criteria you want for your university course.
  • Building a university course can take years. So, familiarise yourself with the credit system, term schedule and estimate the quantity and complexity of your university course content.
  • Alongside the university course content, you need to prepare exam papers, coursework assignments, model answers and mark schemes.
  • Have a qualified someone review your university course through an objective lens.
  • Advertise your university course well in advance to ensure you maximise student enrolment for the upcoming academic year.
  • Today, there exist a plethora of teaching technology. Which will you use?
  • Having your university course accredited can add value and credibility which can result in more enrolments.
  • Get student and lecturer feedback. This will be your ticket to refining your university course to become the best possible version.
University students being taught a course in a lecture theatre
There really is more to developing a university course than teaching it. There are the designing, planning and implementation. Then there’s the feedback from your students which is an essential tool to help you craft a course that delivers the best possible learning experience.

Introduction

This blog will focus more on the design of university courses, in particular, the design of master’s courses. However, this approach may be adapted to develop various kinds of courses for all types of students inside an academic setting and outside. But let’s begin by defining a course. A course is a subject that is taught via lectures, practical sessions, e-learning, blended learning and the like. And it results in a student attaining a qualification upon successful completion.

Of course, when you make the decision to build a course you have a subject in mind. The term subject can be quite broad and essentially means a branch of knowledge within a specific field. And subjects can be anything really. But we normally recognise subjects like the ones we are taught at school like English, maths, science and so on. But you could take science and further break that down into physics, chemistry and biology. And you can even further breakdown those disciplines into more specialised areas or even combine them to form a new subject altogether.

My first degree is in materials science. I’ve often had to describe this subject as a mixture of physics, chemistry, applied maths and bits of all the engineering disciplines. But, university courses can be quite specialised. There have even been master’s courses offered at Liverpool Hope University on the popular musical band: The Beatles.

Where to begin with making your university course?…

Identify a market or gap in knowledge

You can design a course to teach virtually anything, so long as there’s a demand. It would hardly make financial sense to develop a course that only garnered a few enrolments every year. Perhaps there’s an emerging discipline that you see as being novel and innovative and you want to educate the masses. Market research will certainly help to identify such needs. Engaging with prospective students, relevant academics and accreditation bodies will help to answer these key questions. But, let’s assume you have adequate demand for your course, how do you go about building it?

Things to consider from the outset

To design a course, we are going to assume that you have extensive knowledge and understanding of the subject coupled with teaching skills and experience. Next, it would be necessary to understand the kind of students you are creating the course for. I had previously been involved in designing an MSc course to be run out of a chemical engineering department at a UK university. Now, a master’s degree is essentially a postgraduate qualification that is awarded for completing a course that is typically niche and specialised in nature. So, it is expected that students possess an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject as one of the criteria.

Know your students

The MSc course I was involved in developing was designed to teach fuel cell and hydrogen technology at an advanced level. I understood that even though this course would be run out of a chemical engineering department, students didn’t necessarily need to have an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. Students could have a STEM degree in other subjects and still have the necessary knowledge and skills to complete my MSc course. So, here’s where you need to consider eligibility criteria for your course. Will your students need to possess a qualification in a related subject? Will they need to have the relevant knowledge, skills and competencies to take part? Or can anyone do your course? It really depends on the level of your course.

Know the type of course you want to create

Course length is another thing to really establish early on. This is quite obvious when designing a university course. Bachelor degrees in the UK are 3 years in length and a master’s degree can be between 1-2 years long. In higher education, you need to become familiar with the credit system and its definition.  In UK higher education, the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS) system is used where one credit is equivalent to 10 hours of notional study time. A bachelor’s degree is often worth 360 CATS equating to 3,600 hours of study time usually over three years. So, that averages out to be 1,200 hours of study time per academic year.

My student experience

From my days as an undergraduate student, study time, workload or difficulty level didn’t seem equal between each academic year. The first academic year was designed to weed out the students that were either partially committed to the course or just weren’t deemed suitable. Harsh, I know. By the second year, the student population shrunk by one-third. The difficulty, workload and therefore study time was ramped up in the second year and in my opinion, was the most challenging of all four years of my MEng degree. By the third and fourth year, I had acclimated. MSc courses tend to be 180 CATS meaning 1,800 hours of study time over just one academic year. Already, it is evident that the intensity is ramped up in a master’s degree compared to a bachelor’s degree.

The course module

A module is a distinct unit of study that forms part of a course. I like to think that modules are to a course what chapters are to a book. Each module on a typical UK MSc course is worth 10 CATS (100 hours of study time). So, to successfully complete such an MSc course, one must accrue 120 CATS by passing the assessments for 12 modules and completing a master’s dissertation for a given research project obtaining the remaining 60 CATS. When it comes to the modules, students usually have to undertake a combination of compulsory and optional modules. For example, a student may need to do 6 compulsory modules which cover the fundamentals of the subject matter and 6 optional that enable students to tailor the course to suit their intended career path.

What is study time?

But study time seems awfully ambiguous. What does this time actually mean in the context of a course? Well, when I was designing an MSc course worth 180 CATS, 60 CATS were allocated to the research project and the other 120 CATS to the taught modules. A module worth 10 CATS is squeezed into one week of teaching that includes around 25 hours of lectures which means 75 hours remain for self-study. Self-study can include time spent reading over lecture notes and preparing for the module assessment which may be a written coursework assignment, written exam or both.

Know how much content to make

It’s imperative to be cognisant of the enormity of effort and time necessary to design an MSc course. You want to grasp just how much content needs to be prepared for such a course. As previously mentioned, a 10 CATS module amounts to approximately 25 hours of lectures.

Lectures are almost ubiquitously delivered using PowerPoint slides or the like. Suppose a lecturer spends around 2 minutes per slide which means 30 slides are presented for every hour of lectures. That’s a total of 750 slides per 10 CATS module. Imagine that you use on average 40 words per slide, that means a total word count of 30,000 words, maybe more, depending on the lecturer’s preferences. It gets better. Because now you ideally want to give the students a choice from an array of modules, say 20 or more. That’s 600,000+ words! To put this into context, your average novel is around 90,000 words.

Don’t be dismayed though, degree courses are developed and delivered by a team of academics and experts, not just one individual. You may very well have quite a few lecturers teaching on your course, in which case, they can contribute existing course content or help you to develop new material. Now, higher education qualifications need to comply with the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) when designing degree courses. The FHEQ defines the criteria and level of various types of degrees offered by UK degree-awarding bodies.

The academic calendar

Assuming you have chosen to design a university course in the UK, you need to remember that lectures tend to be run during the autumn and spring terms regardless of degree type. These two terms usually span from the beginning of October to the end of March the following year. In the UK, universities are closed for one month over the Christmas and New Year period. That leaves five months to deliver lectures in as the summer term is typically reserved for exams. Moreover, undergraduate students are on summer holiday between June and September and postgraduate students will continue on with their research projects, writing their dissertations and so on.

Identify the module topics

Now you have an idea of the type of students you want to target, the course type and level, the amount of course content needed and how many can teach on your course, you can begin by coming up with module topics. To do this, I sat down with a team of academics to brainstorm a list of module topics. We came up with 30! Then we decided which modules would be mandatory modules and which would be optional. Then we decided who would be responsible for preparing each one.

To identify which modules you should make mandatory you may want to ask yourself which topics are core and fundamental to the course without which students would not be able to obtain the necessary knowledge and understanding. For example, one of the mandatory module topics in the MSc course I was involved in was ‘Introduction to fuel cells’ which covered the basics of fuel cells, their various types, their different applications, their history and so forth.

Building your university course

The size of a course can be up to you. As discussed earlier, if you are building a degree course it must span the length of the degree type. If the course is rolled out in the UK it has to meet the FHEQ criteria. Building a degree course can take years so ready yourself to spend plenty of time preparing and finalising content. For each module, it’s pretty standard to define learning outcomes for the students so they will know what they will gain following successful completion. A learning outcome follows a format like this: ‘following the successful completion of this course, students will be able to solve complex chemical engineering problems.’ It can be useful to decide upon and define all the learning outcomes for each of your modules before developing course content.

Learning outcomes

It may seem obvious, but the course content needs to align with and support the learning outcomes. There has to be an obvious connection between the two otherwise course evaluators and students will just be left utterly confused. Your learning outcomes would likely need to align and support the mission of your organisation, university or accreditation institute. More on accreditation institutes later.

When deciding upon your learning outcomes and designing the course content you may very well benefit from using Bloom’s taxonomy. You can read up more about Bloom’s taxonomy here, but it’s essentially a set of hierarchical models that categorise learning outcomes into varying levels of complexity.

Use a variety of media in your course

Of course, your course content won’t be solely text. I have one memory during the first year of my undergraduate degree where I had to attend maths lectures. The lecturer spent the entire lecture scribbling away at the chalkboard whilst I was spending my time noting everything down before it was erased. I had literally no time to even think about what I was writing; I was a copying machine. No learning went on during these lectures.

I highly recommend interspersing images, charts, graphs, animations, videos and even interactive class-based activities to break up the monotony of a lecturer talking the whole time. If you do decide to use various media off the internet or from publications do ensure you have permission from the owner to do so, otherwise, you may find yourself in legal trouble. It’s always good practice to seek permission, but sometimes it may be that you are unable to obtain the green light either because you cannot reach the owner or they simply refuse. I’ve had this predicament before, so I created my own media which can be time-consuming. Pixabay is a great resource for copyleft media such as images and videos, but they can be generic in nature.

Be creative

If you need something more bespoke then best do it yourself or pay a professional. Really do avoid using solid blocks of text on presentation slides as students will struggle to read and listen to you simultaneously. A good rule of thumb is to use the 1-6-6 approach where you have one idea per slide featuring 6 bullet points containing 6 words. You don’t have to abide by this rule strictly, but be aware that too much text can work against you as it will almost certainly disengage students. Also, remember that pictures tell a thousand words, so why not use them.

It’s more than just slides

There is also more to a course than just lecture slides. You have exam questions, coursework assignments, model answers and mark schemes that need to be prepared alongside the course content. It’s imperative that your course lecturers mark assignments with the aid of an approved and agreed upon mark scheme as opposed to using a subjective approach for each type of assessment.

Review your university course

Like with anything you release into the public domain, it’s always necessary to have your course reviewed by trusted, qualified and objective individuals. View this as quality control and assessment of overall course efficacy. You may find that you have to make multiple revisions before you arrive at the final article, but that’s okay as you are aiming to provide a polished and well-designed course, fit for purpose and ready for delivery. Remember, in certain countries, like the UK and US, students must fork out huge sums for the tuition fee. Therefore, there will be huge expectations on the part of students as they will want to use the qualification obtained from completing your course to enhance their career prospects and employability. Which brings us onto the next point…

Your course is your product and now you need to get it out there for everyone to see by advertising through as many suitable channels as possible. If this is a university degree course you can begin advertising on the university official website, social media, publications, TV adverts, billboards and so forth. Just ensure that you have sufficient funds to embark on an effective advertising campaign. When it comes to university degree courses, students tend to have a subject in mind that they want to enrol on and then have a university in mind for that course.

Universities that rank higher in the league tables and specialise in certain subjects will attract the most students assuming students meet the entry requirements. You’ll have to define the prerequisites for your course. For example, in the UK students will be expected to achieve a certain grade in a certain number of subjects at a certain level. Top-ranking universities will more than likely expect top grades in order to be eligible for enrolment. However, all this will be a lot less relevant if you are designing a free online course teaching anyone who wants to know about bookkeeping, for example.

Enrol students

Advertise well in advance so that you can have students enrolled and ready to start at the beginning of the academic year. Don’t forget that students may have to relocate or travel far to attend your course in which case your course has to be advertised from the start of the previous academic year. Of course, the more popular courses like medicine, law, chemistry and so on will have hundreds of students enrolled on their undergraduate courses so don’t be dismayed if you only have a few dozen. There were literally 30 students enrolled on my undergraduate course likely because materials science was a lesser-known and emerging subject at the time.

Perhaps your course will grow to be an epic success and become a mainstream subject that is seen to be of huge significance to society offering fantastic career prospects. Time will tell. If it’s a course based on the life and times of the Beatles then you’re less likely to achieve a full house year-on-year.

Teach

Will you be delivering the entire course face-to-face in a classroom or lecture theatre? Or will it be a blended learning course? Will students learn synchronously or asynchronously? Perhaps it will be an e-learning course? Will the lectures be recorded and uploaded onto an online learning management system? Will students have to submit their assignments online? What about the assessment method? Will this be 100% exam-based, coursework-based, practical-based, serious games-based or perhaps assessed using online quizzes? Or will it be a combination? A lot of questions, I know, but we’ve made such strides with learning technologies that we are no longer limited to classroom and chalkboard teaching.

Flexibility is becoming fashionable

Students can learn remotely at their convenience and access a wealth of resources online without ever having to step foot on campus. Whether this is what’s best for the overall learning experience is up for debate, but it is certainly the direction that all universities are moving in. If you expect that most of your students will be full-time working professionals you may want to consider developing an e-learning course that fits around their busy schedule rather than a set timetable where they are expected to attend face-to-face lectures.

The TEF

With the teaching excellence framework (TEF) gaining traction in the UK, universities aim to achieve gold standards as this will attract more students. As a result, lecturers are expected to hold a teaching qualification such as a postgraduate certificate in higher education (PGCHE). I did my PGCHE over the course of one year at my host university and it involved attending a bunch of lessons and completing a written assignment to pass the course. It’s looking more and more likely that it will be mandatory for all teaching staff at UK universities to hold such a qualification. Just go with it.

Get your university course accredited

Now, if you’re designing a free online course for everyone at any level then this will be of little relevance. However, in higher education, it is common that degree courses are accredited by a relevant accrediting body. Ideally, the MSc course I was designing was earmarked for accreditation with the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE). To give you an idea the entire process will have to take place around 3 years after the course has been running. This is to give you time to accumulate the required documents for assessment such as coursework, exams, assignments, course content and so on. Don’t worry, the accrediting body will tell you what documents they need. Then a panel of assessors comprising of academics and professionals conduct a two-day visit to assess your course.

Subsequently, they draft a report informing you of their decision and where necessary explain how to meet their criteria for accreditation. Accreditation is basically a seal of approval by a world recognised institute and demonstrates that your course meets their high standards. This adds much-needed credibility to your course and will no doubt attract more students.

Gather feedback

This is a rather new phenomenon in my experience. As a university student, departments often didn’t seek the feedback of their market. This stuff is priceless and is right under your nose so why not get it. You could leave feedback surveys in lecture theatres for students to voluntarily complete or even post them online. You need to ask the right questions in such surveys like ‘how relevant was the content discussed by the lecturer?’ or ‘how was the overall organisation of the module?’.

See if you can get your hands on a sample survey from a colleague or try to find one available online. Really pay attention to your students’ criticism and objectively decide if it is constructive in nature or unreasonable. Complaints that the course is too difficult or boring isn’t necessarily reasonable if you have followed the department’s and accrediting body’s guidelines. However, if students find that it is necessary to have a 10-minute break between a two-hour lecture to recover then this is something to certainly consider. Compromise is king. After all, if you’re in the gym you need a break in between sets. Your mind needs a break too in the mind-gym that is the lecture room. Don’t forget that feedback from course lecturers is equally valuable so why not ask them.

What do you think?

Do you think I’ve missed something? Do you need proofreading, editing, course designing, grant proposal writing or consultancy services? I’d love to hear from you. Get your free quote today!

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Naser Al-Mufachi
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