How Do I Plan a New Course? A Guide

You get your schedule for the new teaching year. You have a new course to teach. Oh no! How much work?! Yes, it is a lot. Hopefully I can help streamline out the panic. Learn from my mistakes instead of your own.

Getting Started

What kind of course is it? Is it discrete skills, a mish-mash of skills, content, or merely an idea crafted by nymphs from a gossamer of buzzwords? This is going to dictate a lot about how you approach it.

If it’s all four skills, what can’t the learners do yet that you want them to do? If you aren’t sure, ask or have a good think. What kinds of people are your learners? Pope-Ruark (2018) advocates creating stakeholder profiles for your course. Put yourself in these different people’s shoes. Make them as realistic as possible. ‘Talk’ to them in your head. Ask questions to them and let them answer your questions and it makes this process easier. Yes, I know this sounds like the ravings of a man possessed but trust me here, or give it a try and if you don’t like it, try it your way.

Hopefully now you have a set of ideas about stakeholder desires and needs. This is your provisional needs analysis. You can now start to add the tasks or content in there unless…

I Have No Idea How To Teach This!

Really, most of the time you will only get assigned classes that your administrator thinks you can teach, based on what you have told them. If you lack enough knowledge for confidence you have to gather some. You might ask questions, but if nobody is around then you need to look in some books or blogs or magazines.

I was given an Extensive READING (ER) class to teach. Now, I could have sat with learners for 90 minutes just reading books with them but this would have likely raised a lot of eyebrows. What I did instead was got myself a copy of Thom Hudson’s (2007) Teaching Second Language Reading. I did some searching on the internet about extensive reading and decided that I would teach reading strategies for about half the class, do ER for half and every four weeks have a simplified Academic Reading Circle (Seburn, 2015) (in this case, a Non-fiction Reading Circle) which would be graded along with the number of items in the reading record for learners. I was lucky to get a really small class of just five learners which meant I could handle it like a seminar. I could also pay attention more closely to strategies used and how meaning was constructed on an ongoing basis (or not). The strategies I chose were strategies that I expected were relatively underused. I asked the students, sequenced the strategies to be taught by thinking of how difficult or complicated they were and rejigged them as I went through the course. It went OK, and I have a lot of notes about what I can do differently if I get the same course again.


This is the way I would do this and you are free to disagree but I find it to be the best way for me. If you have a task-based syllabus (that is, you organise your syllabus wholly by tasks) put your tasks on sticky notes or in a spreadsheet. This will help you resequence them later.

Do any tasks have natural prerequisites? Are they in your syllabus? How much can you break your tasks down? How many sub-tasks do you have? This last question helps you gauge the complexity. Do any sub tasks repeat? How will I assess this?

As a rule of thumb, order the tasks from least to most complex. Check the schedule for holidays, busy times for exams, festivals and such and think about whether learners will put in adequate work in an elective class task that is very complex when they have a difficult core class exam to do straight afterwards. Are there any tasks that are time sensitive or directly related to other subjects’ needs? You should check with coworkers and your learners as early as possible and this will pay you back later.


Next, look at your syllabus, what materials do you have available that will provide affordances to your learners for task completion? What do they need? If you need materials are there Open Educational Resources available? Are there materials available in the institution or organization? What good-quality materials are available for free or cheap? If you need expensive things, are learners going to be enthusiastic about paying for them (and are you or your department)? Match materials to tasks, by using more sticky notes or another column in your spreadsheet.

After that, you need to tidy it up into a format readable by a human, with an overall course objective/goal or whatever and how you plan to both do it and assess it.

I can do this in about an hour and a bit for a new, general class where I know the type of learners enrolling. For something newer, I need a few hours reading time (while taking notes) and about two hours to make sure I have sequenced the tasks or content as well as I can with the information I have available.

Any comments? Any glaring omissions and/or errors? Let me know.


Hudson, T. (2007) Teaching Second Language Reading. Oxford: OUP.

Pope-Ruark, R. (2018) Agile Faculty. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Seburn, T. (2015) Academic Reading Circles. The Round.

4 Replies to “How Do I Plan a New Course? A Guide”

  1. Hi Marc, this is such a great post. I work in a similar way, it just takes me longer. I also tend to either plan a shorter sequence of lessons, or put in holes in the syllabus to allow for flexibility. Sometimes guilty of artificially fitting in successful activities from the past. Do you reveal the syllabus to your classes? If so, what is the layout? Thanks. Kamila

    1. Hi Kamila,

      When I worked teaching BE/ESP I used to make a half syllabus and then make the next half after about 4 meetings, doing needs analysis for the first lesson each time, along with some task as a formative assessment. I always have to share my university syllabi with students and it pays off to share it. There’s a great post by Mike Griffin here:
      I guess I always shared my syllabus with BE/ESP classes, too, seeing as they were based on needs analysis and negotiated with the learners. The syllabus layout is usually two columns: date and task. I often have a prediction of likely Focus on Form in my private notes because my classes are largely monolingual. Underneath that, there’s a bit about grading, which I would rather give as can/can’t instead of A-F, but you can’t always get what you want.

  2. Hi Marc, thank you for this post! My favorite idea is ‘creating stakeholder profiles’ (due to the nature of courses I put together, this may change a lot, and sometimes it is the whole art of ‘eliciting’ the right kind of info from the contact people. Saving it for re-reading, especially when a new project begins. Happy New Year to you!

    1. Thanks a lot Zhenya. The idea really isn’t mine, though; it’s based on Design Thinking, and something that Rebecca Pope-Ruark uses in Agile Faculty. I do hope it’s useful. And Happy New Year to you, too (and Kamila, too – I am still dazed from being back at work!).

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