Thinking Like a Course Designer

Close-up of a blueprint with a pencil and wooden ruler.

When you get ready to teach a course, where do you begin? As an educator, you probably begin with teaching. But, what if you thought of yourself as a designer? How would that impact your course and your teaching?

When we talk about course design, we mean the decisions an instructor makes about how a course will be taught and the planning that goes into implementing those decisions. The implementation of those decisions is the course delivery – what happens in the classroom (virtual or otherwise). This can include teaching, as well as the classroom environment. In a sense, course design is like a blueprint for teaching and the classroom environment.

As an educator, you are already designing every day by identifying effective ways to teach content, constructing fair assignments and assessments, etc. However, thinking like a designer involves a more holistic and intentional approach to teaching. Education scholars, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005), explain: “To say that something happens by design is to say that it occurs through thoughtful planning as opposed to by accident or by ‘winging it’” (p. 341). They even go so far as to say “that what happens before the teacher gets in the classroom may be as or more important than the teaching that goes on inside the classroom.”

While designing is not a new role for educators, considering that teaching of a course may not be the single most important role of an educator in the classroom may seem new and radical. Thus, thinking like a course designer means considering design as important (if not more important) to a course as teaching.

This approach often runs contrary to contemporary cultural assumptions around what is considered good teaching. In comparing Japanese approaches to teacher development with American approaches, James W. Stigler and James Hiebert (1997) noted that Americans approached good teaching as something that “comes through artful and spontaneous interactions with students during lessons…made possible by the innate intuition of ‘natural’ teachers” (para. 8). This performance-centered approach to classroom teaching that favors spontaneity and innate teaching skills is in sharp contrast to a design approach that favors careful planning and intentionality.

Another important aspect of thinking like a course designer is thinking like a learner. This is perhaps one of the hardest things for instructors to overcome when designing courses due to the “expert blind spot.” The expert blind spot refers to forgetting “that many of the things we now call knowledge were once counterintuitive ideas that had to be explored, tested, and put back together for a genuine understanding” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 139). As scholars and experts of a field of study, instructors are long past the level of knowledge at which most students enter their classes. This situation presents one of the biggest challenges to teaching – how to effectively teach novices when you are an expert.

Multiple studies indicate that the expert blind spot results in bias towards novice learners. Not only do experts overestimate the ease of solving discipline-specific problems for non-experts, but they also develop a certain egocentrism where they forget their earlier struggles with the knowledge they are now experts in (Kelley & Jacoby, 1996; Nathan & Petrosino, 2003; Wiggins & McTighe, 2006). This leads to frustration on both the instructor’s and the learner’s end.

To curb the expert blind spot, try placing yourself in your students’ shoes. What was it like for you when you were first exposed to the content of your field? What feelings did you experience? Wiggins and McTighe (2006) suggest: “We are not teachers; we are causes of and students of learning” (p. 320). Like your students, you are a learner, too. Your knowledge of your field may be greater than theirs, but you are a learner of teaching and therefore a cause of student learning. How does being a cause of learning as opposed to a teacher alter your role in the classroom?

As you design your course from the perspective of a course designer, consider this advice from the Design Thinking for Educator’s toolkit:

  • Embrace your beginner’s mind:
  • Approach problems as a novice even if you already know a lot about them.
  • Let yourself learn.
  • Be willing to experiment.
  • Be okay with not having the “right” answer. Trust that you’ll find one. (IDEO LLC., 2012, p. 18)

One of the course design methods and models that can help you approach course design from a design perspective is backward course design. To learn more, click here for an introduction to backward course design.


Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

IDEO, LLC. (2012). Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit. Retrieved from

Kelley, C.M. & Jacoby, L.L. (1996). Adult egocentrism: Subjective experience versus analytic bases for judgment. Journal of Memory and Language, 35(2), 157-175.

Nathan, J.N. & Petrosino A. (2003). Expert blind spot among preservice teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 40(4), 905-928.

Stigler, J.W. & Hiebert, J. (1997). Understanding and improving classroom mathematics instruction: An overview of the TIMSS video study. Phi Delta Kappa, 79(1), 14-21.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. Print.