Course Design

Last Updated: September 2, 2020 - 10:44 am

Northwestern University remains committed to delivering the highest standards of instruction and engagement for our students. The University trusts faculty to adapt to new methods and modalities of teaching to maintain those high standards and to continue achieving teaching and learning goals.

Preparation for Remote Instruction

As you think through the design and delivery of your course, consider the impact that current circumstances may have on students’ ability to meet expectations, including illness, lack of internet connectivity, or needing to care for family members. Be ready to handle requests for extensions or accommodations equitably. Also, keep in mind your own planning and preparation needs in adapting to a new way of teaching.

Identify your priorities

Consider how you will manage providing lectures, structuring new opportunities for discussion or group work, and collecting assignments.

Prepare for your priorities
Plan digital course materials

Northwestern strongly encourages the use of digital course materials, for all course modalities, whenever possible. 

Synchronous v. Asynchronous considerations: what is best for each context?

As you plan your classes, think about what makes the most sense for the activities you plan. Does the activity require students to interact with you? With each other? Or is it something that could be done without coming together? The very same course may include some elements of each type of activity. Give up the idea that one online teaching format is better than another. Instead, embrace the fluidity of moving between modalities.

After a few weeks of synchronous activities, instructors will often stop and take stock. What has worked well? What feels natural? Are they holding the students’ attention? Are there activities that are less well adapted to the current format? What are they hearing from the students? It may be that a 50-minute lecture is too long in an online format. Could those 50 minutes be broken into three or four chunks, each with an associated activity? Or, could the lecture be recorded so that the students could watch it before coming to the web conferencing session? Are there other activities that could move into an asynchronous format so that the face-to-face time can be used for answering questions, vigorous discussions, etc.?

Synchronous activities can include almost anything that currently happens in a face-to-face classroom, such as lectures, discussions, demonstrations, problem-solving, small-group activities, and so forth.

Planning face-to-face sessions: Activities

Plan activities that take advantage of the fact that your students are there, in real-time, with you and each other. This could be small group work, problem-solving, peer feedback, or demonstrations. Focus on the end goal: what should a student be able to do at the end of a session? Build a scaffolding to get to those end goals. For example, if your goal is that students will be able to hold a two-minute conversation in French, you might have a set of activities around choosing conversation topics and associated vocabulary, working in small groups to build a dialog, then having students pair off in front of the class as they have a conversation in French.

Planning face-to-face sessions: Timing 

Plan your face-to-face time with breaks so that students can ask questions, move around, and then re-focus on the computer. You might map out a session using a basic template like this one, for a large class:​

  • 10 minutes: check-in activity
  • 30 minutes: peer group meetings in breakout rooms for project feedback
  • 5 minutes: break
  • 10 minutes: questions prompted by peer group meetings
  • 20 minutes: instructions on phase two of the project
  • 5 minutes: questions, dismissal

Asynchronous Activities

Asynchronous activities are those that don’t require direct interaction among human beings, such as a recorded presentation, readings, a writing exercise, a discussion forum, or homework sets.

Planning for asynchronous activities

Very often, instructors record themselves giving a short section of a lecture. This allows students to watch (and rewatch) material on their own time and moves the less interactive course work into a format well suited to it. Giving a lecture online, though, is different from doing so to a live audience and instructors should be mindful of advice to break their presentations into short segments so as not to lose student interest. Other activities well suited to asynchronous presentations include written homework, such as problem sets, online discussions, and practice quizzes. If you like, you can set up your Canvas course so that students move through the material in sequential order, only moving to the next module once they have completed the previous module.

Review accessibility guidelines

When presenting students with online material, it is important to adhere to accessibility guidelines. These boil down to three important points:

Caption all videos posted.

Here’s how to add captions to a Panopto recording.

Add a verbal description of all images used in the course, as students may not be able to see all of the visuals used in a course.

Keeping Students First

In this time of uncertainty, Northwestern University urges instructors to put students first. Many students are experiencing a range of hardships. The University asks, therefore, that no matter how you are running your class or however you evaluate student performance over the quarter, please balance the continuous engagement of your students with some flexibility. This is for your students' sake, but also for your own, as you manage your own set of challenges at work and home (now the same place). To be very specific, there is a good chance one or more of your students will not be able to attend all classes or do all assignments, and that students may have less ability to provide appropriate documentation than usually expected. Do keep high academic standards and expectations, but also try to understand some of the complications that our students face.

You may find it helpful to let students know about the resources available regarding software and hardware on the Keep Learning page.

Time zones
  • Remember that students may be in a different time zone. Consider those differences when scheduling meeting times and assignment due dates and times.
  • The NU Worldwide feature in Canvas, available under "Settings," allows you to see your students' time zones and also offers a "time simulator" tool that will allow you to decide on assignment times and due dates based on your student's time zone.
  • Here’s a guide to how time zones work in Canvas.
Technology students need for classes
  • There are software and hardware recommendations on the Keep Learning page.
  • It is highly recommended that students download the Zoom and Canvas apps.
  • It is highly recommended that students test their systems by joining a Zoom test meeting.
Student device ownership
  • In a 2019 survey of Northwestern undergraduates with more than 400 responses, 94% reported owning a laptop, 23% reported owning a desktop, and 99% reported owning a smartphone.
  • In the survey, 93% of the students reported owning a laptop and a smartphone.
Other student resources