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Course Design

Students are located on a continuum of diversity. Inclusive course design anticipates a diversity of learning styles and abilities without lowering academic standards. Curricula should be designed to be as accessible as possible, minimising the need for adjustments in response to the needs of individual students. For example, designing web resources in accessible formats as they are developed means that no redevelopment is necessary if a blind student enrols in the class. If all aspects of the teaching - from module and pathway development to assessment - are thought through,  it is possible to plan more effectively, saving time in the longer term. Anticipate from the outset that there will have a diverse student population with a range of different learning requirements and prepare accordingly.1 By applying the seven principles of universal design to good teaching practices, students across the broadest diversity ranges will be able to access, engage, participate and succeed in the course.      

When designing or reviewing a course, it is crucial  that there is a clear understanding of the core (inherent or essential) requirements; these are the components which if removed or substituted would substantially impact on the learning outcomes of the course. By explicitly identifying core requirements, the course, including content and assessment requirements, can be designed with an awareness of what can and cannot be adjusted or amended in future.

Core requirements

In determining the requirements for a course it is important to clearly identify:

  1. The key learning objectives, and
  2. How students will demonstrate achievement of these learning objectives.

It is also useful to clarify whether the course uses any particular methods of instruction such as online tasks or fieldwork and if there are specific forms of assessment or requirements, e.g. attendance requirements.

The following questions may assist in identifying which of these course requirements are core or essential:

  1. Would the learning outcomes be substantially changed if a particular requirement were removed or substituted? 
  2. Is there any particular impact of the requirement on people with disability? e.g. Is participation in field trips may be more difficult for a student who uses a wheelchair?
  3. Have changing circumstances, practices or technology made a previous requirement redundant? e.g. Is the capacity to physically lift a patient no longer required by nurses as lifting aids have become available? 
  4. Could the learning objective be achieved by an alternative requirement that would have a less discriminatory impact? e.g. Could students complete an oral viva rather than a written paper in order to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic? 
  5. What is the pedagogical purpose behind a particular requirement, how does it achieve that purpose and are there other ways of achieving this? e.g. Are formal examinations the best or only method to assess particular learning outcomes? 
  6. If a requirement involves a particular skill, is it the actual skill that is required or is it the application of knowledge to the task? e.g. Is it necessary for a chemist to conduct an experimental procedure rather than have the knowledge to instruct another person to do so?
  7. Are there alternative ways that students could demonstrate that they meet the learning outcomes? e.g. Time limited exams require students to work under pressure in addition to them demonstrating their knowledge.  

The decision about what constitutes the essential elements of a unit/course is a matter of academic judgement and must be justified on other than historical or employment-based grounds. Requirements imposed by external agencies (e.g. professional bodies, registration boards, external fieldwork agencies, etc.) can only be considered as core requirements if they are also considered by the post-secondary education provider as essential to the course itself.

Determining what is a core requirement is often difficult. However, having clearly identified core requirements assists in ensuring that any reasonable adjustments made do not affect academic standards.  

Core requirements must be reasonable and staff should carefully consider whether alternative approaches to achieving learning objectives are possible, and seek expert advice if necessary before coming to a decision.

Course content

Course content is often a dynamic relationship which is influenced and informed by varying elements, including but not limited to the course’s core requirements, the background of teaching staff,  experiences and interests, the social and political environment in which the course is being offered and resource availability, including time allocation.  

Regardless of the specific content it is important to reflect on the inclusivity of content.  Ensure materials, including examples, perspectives and images, are relevant to and reflect diversity, including socio-economic status, age, gender, ability, ethnicity etc.2,3

Additionally, build inclusive teaching methods into the course content (see Course Delivery for further information).  Particularly in first year or introductory courses, integrate instructions on how to learn within the teaching content. Make sure students know what and how they are expected to learn; that is, they are told or can accurately work it out for themselves. This can be done by:

  • previewing new topics and showing how the new material fits in with other parts of the subject
  • making explicit what you expect students to learn from a lecture or tutorial
  • summarising the main points

These cognitive supports, in addition to the provision of scaffolding materials (outlines, note pages etc.), not only reflect inclusive teaching practices but maximise the learning for all students.

By designing the workload so that students have time to reflect on what they have learned, to see how it fits in with their previous learning and experience, and to work out what they will need to learn next, you provide an opportunity for students to successfully integrate their learning.

Delivery methods

(See Course Delivery for further information)

Courses can be delivered in multiple ways, including onsite with face to face contact, online, or a combination known as blended learning. Students may be located on campus or be studying externally from interstate. The learning environment has developed into a multimodal, interactive and technology embracing zone. Teaching has evolved into much more than lectures and paper-based learning as the means of information provision; now multimedia, including recorded lecture presentations, interactive quizzes and web-based simulations, are all becoming standard forms of practice. Learning strategies will vary according to the discipline, the year level, student characteristics and learning outcomes, as well as provider guidelines.   

There is no ‘one size suits all’. As each delivery mode has its benefits and challenges, one of the principles of universal design in education is to provide students with flexible instruction. When identifying the main delivery mode for the course, it is important to also consider:

  • What can students do online?
  • What can students do on-campus, or onsite?

By allowing the student to choose how they access material (e.g. formal lectures are supported by online material, labs and tutorials are available at different times of the day and week), the widest range of users are accommodated.

Additionally, review the level and type of peer engagement which may occur within the course: do students work independently or are there group activities in tutorials, online discussions boards, oral presentations or group assessments? When designing these activities it is important to consider the types of communication styles and methods which may be required and how engagement and inclusion could be facilitated.  Ensure that the communication methods are accessible for all participants.

Having established the ways in which content will be delivered for teaching, reflection is required to identify the learning resources students will need and what learner supports will be required.  

Course materials

By choosing and preparing all materials early,  accessibility options will be organised and available prior to course commencement. This allows teaching staff to ensure that all course materials, notes and other resources are flexible and accessible for all students. Anticipate undisclosed and unseen disabilities.

Choose textbooks and other curriculum materials that address the needs of students with diverse abilities, interests, learning styles, preferences, and other characteristics. Use materials that are well organised, emphasise important points and include allow for more outlines allow for easier engagement with the resource.

The development of and provision of scaffolding tools, such as outlines, class notes and study guides supports inclusive teaching and maximises the learning of all students.

When selecting and/or developing course materials consider whether:

  • textbooks are available in an accessible electronic format
  • videos are captioned and/or transcriptions are available for audio presentations
  • websites utilised or referenced meet accessibility standards
  • web resources are in accessible formats.

If the above are not in place, arrangements should be made for these to be provided and/or developed. Much of the material developed by academic staff can be made accessible by utilising functions which exist within standard software. The National Center on Disability and Access to Education provides one accessibility resource, and ‘cheatsheets’ have been developed to assist those creating accessible content.4 Your local disability support service and IT academic team should also be able to provide support.

Course outlines/specifications

Students need clear information to decide whether they can or want to undertake a course or unit of study, including accurate information about the demands of the course, stated in terms which are realistic, but also encouraging and welcoming. This information is likely to impact on student expectations, retention and success.

In course outlines, be explicit about:

  • Core requirements
  • Expected learning outcomes
  • Assessment requirements, including type, grade distribution and timeframes (see Assessment and Exams for further information)
  • Curriculum content and delivery modes
  • Attendance and/or participation requirements
  • Scheduled practical classes, field trips or work experience
  • Online or software-specific course components
  • Any particular physical or computer use requirements

Invite and encourage students to make contact early to discuss their learning support needs and any adjustments and/or services they require. This will provide the opportunity to make preparations in advance, if necessary.

It is good practice to note within the course outline whether the course content meets universal design principles. A statement on whether videos are captioned and/or transcriptions will be available, and whether websites meet accessibility standards and resources are in accessible formats, allows students to identify any further preparations which may be required.

Further reading and resources


    1 Anglia Ruskin University (2008). Inclusive Practice. Retrieved from

    2 Burgstahler, S. 2013a.  Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Accessed on 1 October 2014. Retrieved from

    3 Burgstahler, S. 2013b. Introduction to universal design in higher education. In S. Burgstahler (Ed.). Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Accessed on 1 October 2014. Retrieved from

    4 National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE). (2007-2014) Cheatsheets. Access on 1 October 2014 from