Course module design and structure for beginners

Building an online course from scratch can seem overwhelming. Here, Jamie Gilbert Mikell shares basic guidelines for beginners to create streamlined and user-friendly online modules

Jamie Gilbert Mikell 's avatar
3 Oct 2022
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Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Athens State University

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How to design and incorporate a digital module
3 minute read
Tips for creating digital university modules

Online learning remains popular with students as a convenient and flexible way to continue their education while working or meeting other personal obligations. It enables faculty to connect with students and convey expertise in a concise and organised manner, while offering universal access to content and instruction.

While well-designed online courses can catalyse student success, faculty with little experience of online course design may struggle to organise and implement the digital content to convey expertise and facilitate student learning and retention. Instructors must think carefully about the efficacy of online course design and delivery to ensure that students meet and exceed course and programme outcomes. Here I offer tips to start designing and structuring modules in your online course.

Know your learning management system and resources

Learning management systems (LMS) are web-based technology systems that are used to design and deliver online courses. Each LMS boasts unique features to maximise learning, convenience and connectivity such as instant messaging, submission time stamps and receipts, real-time alerts and notifications, external link and download capabilities, flexible analytics and assessment tools, grade tracking and weighting.

Getting to know your LMS’ operation and features is the first step to a well-designed online course. In addition, taking advantage of institutional technical assistance is a wise place to begin seeking course design support. For example, does your institution offer a technology helpdesk or instructional design assistance for troubleshooting or video editing? Knowing the availability of and access to institutional technology resources can impact course design decisions and timelines.

Course planning

After establishing what LMS features and technology resources are available, set out a working timeline for course planning. Consider whether the course is synchronous or asynchronous and plan for the appropriate format. Next, determine which course competencies and outcomes must be present in your online course. It is important to note the difference between course competencies and course outcomes.

Course competencies describe applicable professional knowledge and transferable skills attained as a result of the course – these could be technical or “softer” skills.

Course outcomes refer to measurable and specific targets that a student should achieve as a result of completing each course module.

Taking a course in motor development and physical activity as an example:

Course competencies that a student must demonstrate upon completion include:

  • Understand the notion of individual, environmental and task constraints
  • Explain key processes, sequences, factors and milestones related to the various stages of motor development across the lifespan
  • Apply theoretical knowledge in a real-world setting through service learning
  • Understand basic biomechanical processes as they apply to developmental change
  • Apply written and lecture material with real-world experiences (service learning)

Course outcomes that a student must demonstrate upon completion include:

  • Identify and define various terms, principles and theories associated with motor development
  • Determine appropriate activities associated with fundamental motor development across various stages of an individual’s lifespan
  • Create motor development activities at various grade levels using a blend of motor development theories and teaching theories
  • Adapt various coaching drills and techniques for various K-12 student athletes based on motor development theories.

Once competencies are established and organised, divide them into categories based on a logical sequence. Taking the example above, this might start with looking at motor development from conception through to old age. Logically, this sequence makes sense, as concepts from each step build on one another to teach motor development through the lifespan.

Categories need to be organised in a logical sequence to maximise student learning. One way to do this is to apply the principle of backward design. Consider what students should know and be able to do as a result of the course and plan with this end in mind. You should begin to see the formation of specific groupings or units to achieve course outcomes.

Learning modules

The number and length of learning modules will vary from course to course. Each learning module should encompass course content, concepts, assignments, relevant resources and applicable assessments focused on a particular theme. They should contain module objectives relevant to expected student outcomes for that part of the course. These module objectives should be clear, concise and contain measurable criteria.

For example, upon successful completion of module 2: heredity and neurological changes, the student will:

  • List the three primary functions of the nervous system
  • Define and describe characteristics of a motor unit
  • Compare changes in the central nervous system and the brain through various stages of early, primary and advanced ageing development in individuals
  • Discuss and give examples of the effect of brain lateralisation on motor behaviour.

Module activities

It is a great idea to begin each module with a checklist of items for completion, such as lectures and tutorials with associated dates, assignments and deadlines, assessments and so on. These activities, due dates and requirements for completion should correspond directly to those listed in the broader course syllabus.

The contents of each module should directly align to its measurable learning objectives with resources and activities, organised sequentially with easy-to-follow, concise directions for completion. In addition to supplementary material, each module should contain applicable assessments of student learning aligned to the module objectives. Consider a variety of formative and summative, formal and informal assessments to monitor student learning and progress throughout the course, as per the table below.

Formative assessment: a low-stakes, informal assessment that is designed to determine students’ level of knowledge and may not contribute towards the final course grade.

Summative assessment: used to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional period and yields a specific and measurable score or result.

In-class discussions

Midterm or final exams

Pre- and post-activity question-and-answer sessions

Research paper or project

Lecture summaries

Cumulative portfolio

Group work in class


No one-size-fits-all model exists for effective course module design. By adhering to the tips outlined above, a course design beginner may find a simple way to structure course modules and criteria in order to build out the course.

Jamie Gilbert Mikell is an assistant professor of kinesiology, health and physical education at Athens State University.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.

Do you work in US higher education? Join us in Los Angeles at THE Campus Live US on 9-10 November where we will unite academics and senior administrators from institutions across the country to discuss how to take on the sector’s shared challenges. Register to join here.

Creating Online Learning Modules, by Rob Power of Cape Breton University

Vanderbilt University Online Course Development Resources, by Stacey M. Johnson of Vanderbilt University Centre for Teaching


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