Create a Course Structure

Many instructors find that writing their course is similar to publishing a book with chapters.

In determining the structure of the course, consider these elements:

  • the number of weeks in the semester
  • the topics to cover
  • the sequence of topics
  • which concepts need to be discussed before the mid-term, if there is a mid-term

Consider the most logical path for the students as well as what they need to proceed through the course. After thinking about this, you may decide to organize your course into units, modules, weeks, lectures, or topics. The consistent, logical organization of the components and their content matter more than the titles. By the way, if you are developing a course that may be offered in a 15-week semester as well as shorter summer semesters, then it may be best to title the course components as Units or Modules rather than Weeks. Otherwise, students may become confused to why the weeks do not match up with their course if unchanged, and the instructor would have to update the weeks each course offering.

After reviewing your learning objectives, which structure will help you and your students navigate the course?


Example: Introductory Biology course

  • Unit 1: Intro to Biology
  • Unit 2: Plant Cells
  • Unit 3: Animal Cells
  • Unit 4: Wrap-Up

In this course, there are discrete ideas which build cumulatively off of one another. Some units may take more than one week.


Example 2: Dissertation Proposal Writing course

  • Week 1: Literature Review
  • Week 2: Problem Statement
  • Week 3: Revisions

In this course, students are developing a skill set which must follow a linear progression. The weekly basis is critical for the course calendar in order for all writing steps and peer reviews to be completed during the semester.


Example 3: U.S. History course

  • Module 1: Early America
  • Module 2: Civil War Era
  • . . .
  • Module 7: Modern America

In this course, the material naturally follows a chronological progression based on historical events.

Number of units

What is the right number of components? This will vary by course. In general, 15-week semester-based courses tend to be organized into anywhere from four to ten units. Many instructors choose to organize their course by weeks. If organizing the course structure around weeks, ensure that you are leaving enough time for holidays, which can vary by semester.

Nonlinear structure

Nonlinear course structure is also a possibility, though it is not as common. Instructors may find it difficult to facilitate discussion when students proceeding at varying paces through a course; for example, one student may be completing Topic 1 as another student is completing Topic 3. In these courses, students can take the units or modules in any order, and they may not complete all sections if they successfully completed a pre-assessment indicating they already have this knowledge. This structure can be ideal for students who are starting in different places based on their prior experiences. These Ready to Teach modules are an example of modules which may be completed in any order.


There are numerous ways to structure an online course; above are the most common structures. The importance of course structure is that it supports the learning outcomes and provides a clear, coherent, and easy to navigate structure for students to follow and mark their progress.

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