Guila Muir and Associates

How to Build a Course: Instructional Design Made Easy

by Guila Muir

Have you been charged with devel­op­ing either an on-site or online course for other employ­ees? Do you feel like a deer in the head­lights? What should you do first?

Instruc­tional design means sim­ply “the abil­ity to develop a course that changes people’s behav­ior.” You’ll use the same basic rules to develop a course whether you are teach­ing in-person or online.

These three steps will help you build a strong, effec­tive blue­print for your course.

1.  Develop a pur­pose statement.

State in clear lan­guage who your audi­ence is and what the topic is. The state­ment should be fairly broad. Here are examples:

"The pur­pose of this train­ing ses­sion is to help front-line super­vi­sors write e-mails more clearly and concisely."

"The pur­pose of this train­ing ses­sion is to teach clients how to use to use Calypso effectively."

"The pur­pose of this train­ing ses­sion is to improve the pre­sen­ta­tion skills of account­ing professionals."

2. Ask your­self, “What will the learn­ers be able to DO by the end of this session?”

Keep in mind the length of your ses­sion. As an exam­ple, let’s say that the first exam­ple above is a two-hour course. You might say:

By the end of this ses­sion, front-line super­vi­sors will be able to:

1.    Explain at least five eti­quette rules for writ­ing clear e-mails.

2.    Cor­rect basic punc­tu­a­tion in sev­eral e-mails, and be able to describe the rules used.

3.    Com­pose and send an e-mail that inte­grates these eti­quette and punc­tu­a­tion rules.

These state­ments are called learn­ing objec­tives, or learn­ing out­comes. They act as “buck­ets” for your con­tent. By fig­ur­ing these out early on, it becomes very clear what your con­tent should be.

Brain­storm as many ideas, top­ics, and activ­i­ties as you can to fit into each bucket. Then select ONLY the two to three most impor­tant top­ics and/or activ­i­ties within each bucket.

This is your content—nothing more. (At this point, it’s impor­tant to remem­ber the adage: Less is more!)

Flesh out what you will say and do for each of the top­ics and activ­i­ties you iden­ti­fied. Don’t stray out­side the buck­ets you have chosen!

3. Cre­ate a test for each bucket.

Cre­at­ing sim­ple tests allows you to check how well learn­ers are absorb­ing the infor­ma­tion. It also allows you to develop inter­est­ing and rel­e­vant learn­ing activities.

To cre­ate a test, sim­ply take your “buck­ets” and turn them into ques­tions or activ­i­ties. For the exam­ple we have been using, this might mean:

(For bucket #1 above:) Ask: “What are at least five eti­quette rules for writ­ing clear e-mails?” (Learn­ers can work together to reflect on the answers, indi­vid­u­ally write them down and dis­cuss with a neigh­bor, use the chat box if online…)

(For bucket #2 above:) Pro­vide sev­eral e-mails with incor­rect punc­tu­a­tion and instruct the learn­ers to cor­rect them, then call on var­i­ous learn­ers to describe the rules used (can be done both in class­room and on-line.)

(For bucket #3 above:) Request that the learn­ers com­pose and send you an e-mail that inte­grates these rules, then pro­vide quick reminders and feedback.

Instruc­tional design isn’t dif­fi­cult. How­ever, it does demand that you cre­ate a clear blueprint…and think in terms of buckets!

For more infor­ma­tion on course design, see our blog entries at

For a longer ver­sion of this arti­cle, see

Learn the secrets and skills of course design!

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