If you are a new SME (Subject Matter Expert) working with an Instructional Designer (ID) for the first time, you may be wondering what role the ID plays in the development of your class. You have a vision for your course and may have many of the details already worked out, but just like building a new home, you may want to consult an architect before you start building.

The content of the course is your area of expertise (just like your vision for a new home), but the structure of the course is the concern of the ID (plumbing, wiring, rafters, etc.). When starting work with an ID, you first need to develop the basic structure of the course. This basic structure can be thought of in terms of four cornerstones.

The instructional designer works with the SME throughout the development of the course, but starts by ensuring the four cornerstones of the course are in place – course learning outcomes, weekly or unit topics, learning objectives for each week/unit, and assignments that assess both the weekly learning objectives and the course learning outcomes.

The Importance of Course Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes describe what the student will know or be able to do as a result of completing the course. Clearly articulating learning outcomes is perhaps the most important step in the process, as they drive the development of the course. Perhaps most importantly, learning outcomes should be measurable. The purpose of a course is to allow students to acquire new knowledge and to learn new skills. These are all articulated in the learning outcomes. The only way to tell if learners know what they need to know and can do what they need to be able to do is to measure their success. Learning outcomes should be phased in a way that allows professors to measure the success of their students. For example, instead of listing a learning outcome as “Understand metric unit conversion,” an instructional designer will suggest “Perform unit conversions in the metric system.” Understanding something is an internal process, while describing something is an observable event. The second is measurable while the first is not.

Course Topics

The second step is to list the topics for the course. Topics show what material will be covered (read, watched, presented, discussed, etc.) to give students the material they need to work with to achieve a given learning outcome. In a course, topics are usually arranged by week or module (though some may spread over several weeks/modules, and sometimes a given week/module will have multiple topics). By listing out all topics for the course – and the order in which they will be covered – the SME and the instructional designer can ensure the resources needed to meet the learning outcomes are provided.

Weekly Learning Objectives

Weekly learning objectives are different from learning outcomes in that they address specific learning goals for an individual week or module. Creating learning objectives for each week/module provides an additional level of detail to the course design, calling out the individual steps a student will need to follow in order to meet the learning outcomes that week seeks to achieve. Weekly learning objectives also provide guidance for professors when they select specific content for the week, as that content should align very closely with the learning objectives. For example, a learning objective in the week/module that addresses the learning outcome “Perform unit conversions in the metric system” could be “Convert milliliters to centiliters and liters.” Weekly learning objectives that have this level of detail also drive the types of learning activities students should experience in class (e.g., they should practice converting milliliters to centiliters and liters).


After the learning outcomes, topics, and weekly learning objectives are formalized, the SME and ID should work together to create assessments for the course. Assessments should assess whether students have met the learning objective for the week/module (or the degree to which they have), which in turn will help determine whether a specific learning outcome for the course has been met. Assessments should be created before the actual content of the course is finalized, as it serves as a guide for what content should be added to the course. Following our example, if you have a learning objective of “Convert milliliters to centiliters and liters,” you should have one or more items on the assessment where students must convert milliliters to centiliters and liters.

Building from the Foundation Up

Establishing these cornerstones before fully developing the course provides both structure and guidelines for further development. Once this foundation is completed, we know what students will need to be able to know/do by the end of the course, what topics will be covered when, what we want students to know/do with each topic, and how and when they will be assessed. Firmly establishing the cornerstones ensures the final build is both instructionally sound and will make perfect sense to your students.