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You’ve searched through your expertise, validated your topic, and at long last you’ve landed on the perfect plan for your next online course.

It’s time to start putting that wisdom onto the course builder, but you know this material like the back of your hand – do you really need a course outline?

The simple answer is yes.

While that information is filed away neatly in your brain, unpacking it for the uninitiated is a different story. What’s crystal clear in your mind might be vague and confusing to others who don’t share the benefit of your insights and personal experience. If you want to help your students achieve those lofty promises you set out in your sales pitch, you need to provide a roadmap to help them along the journey.

In this context, that roadmap is a course outline. Not only is the course outline a roadmap for your genius, but it will help you deliver content to your students in a structured, ordered way, layering skill upon skill until they finish your course feeling like an expert (and eagerly awaiting your next course).

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If you’d like to sit back and learn, check out our video on how to create an effective course outline:


Why Course Outlines Are Your Key To Success

A course outline is important for two reasons:

      1. Know the destination.

If you know where you’re going, it helps you think about what steps your students need to reach that point. What skills do they need to develop along the way? What foundations do you need to establish at the outset? Much like a cross-country road trip, if you start out the journey without a clear sense of where you’re going and how you intend to get there, the likelihood is that you’ll get lost along the way. You wouldn’t teach a child to tell the time before they learn to count; likewise, you can’t teach someone to be a great chef before you teach them about ingredients, heat, and seasonings.

      1. Set expectations.

Laying out a roadmap sets expectations for your students. Where you’re about to serve up puzzle pieces of brand new facts and skills, your course outline is their picture on the box. It helps them know where they’re going, which important pieces to pay close attention to, and how to place them in context with one another. Giving your students a sense of their destination helps them invest in the educational journey with you.

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Building Your Course Outline

A course outline is an invaluable tool to help you deliver on the solutions you promised to your students. Not sure where to start? Let’s break it down.

What Is Your Destination?

The best place to begin is at the end. To build a strong course outline, decide on your end goal and work backwards from there.

What is the objective of your course? What should students be able to do by the end? Are you teaching them how to paint, cook, or dance the jitterbug? Finally, what skills and knowledge must you impart to get your students to their final destination?

Determine Your Steps

When considering these questions, make a list and keep it simple. Yes, even simpler than that. Start with the most basic foundation you expect all students will have, and build up from there. Your students aren’t going to be the next Gordon Ramsay before you make sure they know the difference between cast iron and non-stick pans, and no great swing dancer skipped the lesson on tempo. Think of these skills like building blocks: you’ve got to stack them one on top of the other to build a solid structure.

Consider starting with an orientation chapter where you introduce everyone to the vocabulary and baseline content you’ll use for the rest of the course. This is helpful for expectation-setting and giving your students a view of the roadmap to come, but it’s also an excellent way of making sure everyone starts off on the same foot. You never know when a student joins your course if they’re familiar with the jargon and shorthand you use on a daily basis; this orientation module is an opportunity to make sure everyone knows the same things and starts the course with the same set of ideas.

Keep it simple – no need to reinvent the wheel – but this is important, because it underpins the way students will understand everything else that follows in your course.

Once you’ve figured out what building blocks you need, it’s time to put them in order – they will form your course modules or chapters (or whatever you choose to name them!). Organize your steps sequentially, with each one building on the next.

This means you should place your easiest content in Module 1, build on it in Module 2, and so on. If possible, you should have some overlap between modules to help students contextualize the information by creating connections to what they learned in the previous section.

In education, this is called scaffolding, and it encompasses a variety of instructional techniques to help your students move progressively toward a solid understanding of the subject matter, and an ability to apply that knowledge independently to a variety of situations.

Make It Stick

For each module, back up your learning content with two things:

  1. Learning resources. Provide extra readings, infographics, videos, and other educational content across a variety of formats. These create opportunities for your students to absorb information in multiple formats to help them retain knowledge and build context between topics. This also ensures you cater to students who learn differently – some learn through reading, others by listening, and others through pictures or infographics. Using the Thinkific course builder, you can add a range of learning materials to your course, including audio, video, multimedia lessons, PDFs, and presentations. By providing a range of learning resources to back up your content, you ensure a diverse learning experience for every student who takes your course.
  2. Practice activities. We all know practice makes perfect, right? Give your students the opportunity to put their newly-honed skills to the test before you move on to the next batch of new information. Practice activities promote knowledge retention and help students lock skills into place before you teach them something new. You could create a quiz on the course builder, or assign a group conversation exercise on your community site or another online group.

It’s important to keep in mind that practice activities are not a test. They’re just a safe space for your students to get their hands dirty and master a particular skill before they face a situation where they have to wield these skills independently! You can go old-school with a multiple-choice quiz, or get creative with something out of the box. The sky’s the limit – just give students an opportunity to practice what you taught them!

Put It To The Test

Finally, you should incorporate some kind of assessments into your course. It’s easy to add assessments in your course using the assignment and Brillium Exam tools in the course builder, but you don’t necessarily have to do one assessment per module. You might do one assessment every module, or every two or three modules, or you might even do one big assessment or wrap-up project right at the end. Let your assessment schedule be guided by the content of your course.

This might be an assignment they turn in, or a more in-depth quiz, or a cornerstone project – it’s up to you and your course material! Space out assessments regularly throughout the course, and consider basing them around key skill groups or themes.

A good guideline for assessments is to ask “if they haven’t mastered the info from Modules 1-3, are they likely to succeed in Module 4?” If the answer is a hard no, you should set an assessment activity between Module 3 and 4 so that students have an opportunity to check their own learning and have a chance to course-correct or review before diving in the deep end with new information – otherwise it’s a little like trying to learn multiplication before you’ve mastered addition!

When planning your assessments, make sure to include some information from previous modules. A quiz is a good way to practice skills from one module, but you also need larger assessments where students test themselves on a broader range of knowledge and have the opportunity to combine and contextualize module-specific knowledge before moving forward.

Formatting Your Course Outline

Now that you’ve got all the pieces, it’s time to pull them together. We’ve created a course outline example for you, and a downloadable template so you can build your own.

You’re well on your way to building a great course, with solid principles that help you deliver a great learning experience to your students!  Use our course outline template to create yours today!

Launch your online learning product for free

Use Thinkific to create, market, and sell online courses, communities, and memberships — all from a single platform.

This article was originally written August 2020, and was updated Feb 2023 to be even more useful with a fillable template to create your course outline.