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Structure your course

Having a clear course structure is essential. A variety of activities and (self-)assessment, combined with clear instructions, are necessary to keep students motivated, lessen confusion and ultimately, help them learn. 

To maintain an overview of your course set-up, it’s smart to plan on three different levels: higher level (course), medium level (week), and lower level (step). We will deal with each level in turn. 

We offer a Nestor template to help you redesign your course to make the transition to online or hybrid education as smooth as possible (course example in Nestor).

If you are interested in using this template, you can ask us to replace your current course with the empty Nestor Online Course Template (option 1). 

If you want to keep your current course, you can also import a package into your own course. This package either contains the whole (empty) Nestor Online Course Template (option 2) or only a minor part of it: the week structure and some minor instructions (option 3). This second and third option will be more work for you to adapt your course. You can request all three options via this link.

Design at course level

How to (re)design your course at course level

Here are some key elements to start with when redesigning your course:

  • Create a roadmap for learning; this helps students to understand what is expected from them and when

  • Provide clear instructions for the learning activities

  • Self-assessment and motivating students becomes more relevant in an online course

  • Support active learning and interaction between students

Course design

Creating a learning roadmap

To give students more ownership in their learning, they require a guidance system, provided by the lecturer. This is the case for face-to-face learning, but even more important for online learning ast it requires more independence from students. Independent learning needs a roadmap for learning, so that it is clear to students how they can move through the course and its learning activities (watching videos, reading articles, taking part in discussions, doing quizzes, exploring links, experimenting with tools, doing assignments, etc) in the right order and in the right way. By clearly describing your expectations, students will have a clearer idea of what is required (or what is extra) and also prevents unnecessary emails or online questions, reducing your workload during the teaching period as well.

Especially in times of uncertainty, students want to know about deadlines, reading lists and other expectations before the course starts, so ideally, share your roadmap a week or two weeks before the first class starts. You will notice that students appreciate the gesture to accommodate them

Courses are much more than lists of resources students are asked to wrestle through; they are carefully-constructed sequences of learning opportunities, built up around course material, activities, and conversation. A good course roadmap, or outline, contains relevant content, but allows for some self-pacing, (self-)assessment, interaction and some diversity in the research questions or approaches they can explore. It is wise to create a clear main line in the course, but enrich it with additional steps for extra reading or remedial materials. Structured like this, students can take more ownership of their learning: they know where they are going and whether they are on track to reach the learning outcomes. Besides that, it is essential to use a variety of activities and self-assessment to structure student learning and motivate them to learn on their own outside of class or at distance.

Techniques to enable you to create a natural roadmap:

  1. Raise big questions in your course. Big questions do not have a right or wrong answer, but stimulate ideas, opinions and discussion. It gives students a goal to find answers to “Why do we age?”, “Why is everyone still raving about William Shakespeare?” or “How do we adapt to climate change?”. Obviously, as you break your course down into weeks and steps, these questions raised at these levels are more focused on smaller questions.

  2. Allowing, but also provoking, enough student-student and student-lecturer interaction. These activities are built into the course roadmap and can consist of Blackboard Collaborate sessions, working together on projects via Google tools, using online polls and stimulating the use of the course’s online discussion board.

  3. Have regular moments for students to (self-)assess how they are doing. This can be done by adding a simple multiple choice quiz, invite students to share a one-paragraph take-away from your online lecture with a peer, or provide them with a rubric to self-assess a product that they have created. Make sure there are enough formative (ungraded) assessment opportunities before moving on to graded summative tests.

How to create a great online learning week?

Each week takes students through a number of course steps, which are the building blocks of your course (see below). Weeks usually revolve around certain subtopics within the course or help to build an essential skill. Their relevance to the course learning outcomes should be completely clear, and you might even consider formulating learning outcomes per week. By completing a week, or a cycle of learning, students will have made steady progress in reaching the course goals. Our recommended course structure follows and could be used as a sort of “checklist” for your own planning:

  • Learning outcomes per week (derived from course Learning Outcomes)

  • Clarify when and how you are available for questions (and other practicalities that differ per week)

  • Create manageable building blocks of learning

  • Use a variety of different (online) learning and teaching activities (for ideas, please have a look at our overview of tools and manuals)

  • Conclude each week with a self-assessment activity

Always think carefully about the material you’re assigning in a step and use only core material: that which is necessary for students to learn. Lengthy texts, such as whole book chapters, can be overwhelming, and are often better divided up in smaller steps. Most of the time it is better to focus on a specific part of a chapter or article first, before moving on to the next. For example, you can organise guiding questions in such a way as to invite students to first assess a research methodology before moving on to an analysis of the results section. If material is not essential to completing the step, mark these as additional resources and still invite students to have a look at them.

How to create progressive course steps?

The smallest unit of learning within a course is a course step. These are the course’s building blocks. Each step should combine materials with conversation and, as such, form a coherent and complete learning experience.

This means that a step is much more than a resource, such as an online article, that has been uploaded to Nestor. Students should know why a step is relevant to them in achieving the learning outcomes of the course, and feel a sense of accomplishment when they have completed each step or group of steps. The latter will help them to get motivated to keep learning.

It is important to clearly communicate to students what the sequence is, e.g. when to read, watch, or do something. Make sure these resources and activities are posted directly underneath each other in your Nestor course. All of them together form a step. Try to make steps as small as possible. So not: “Read these three articles”, but rather 

  1. Read article 1

  2. Do a small quiz on article 1 to check understanding

  3. Read article 2

  4. Compare the methodologies chosen and share 2 reasons why you prefer one over the other. Share and discuss this in the discussion forum

  5. etc.

Diversity in the type of learning activities keeps students engaged and motivated to keep learning. 

Most lecturers will tend to start to add content (with links to articles, book chapters, audio, video, lectures, etc) first, but to make sure you stimulate active learning it is wise to accompany texts with reading questions, to guide students in getting the important elements out of the content. Content can then be followed by other prompts that stimulate conversation, or tasks where students apply the obtained knowledge, and additional resources or assessment.

In addition to relevant content, steps can contain the following:

  • Interaction: Steps combine content with explanation and discussion. You can host meetings, post questions about a reading, ask students to post questions or write a response, or in another way accompany texts with a structure for interaction.

  • Tasks: Each step in the course should ask students to do something. These tasks should allow them to practice skills, deepen knowledge, or apply material so that they get one step closer to achieving course goals. Such tasks should enable student progress, helping them move along. Think of answering questions, developing arguments, creating small projects, doing observations.

  • Related links and resources: Allow students to refresh their knowledge or delve deeper into a subject by adding a list of optional resources. Make sure these are clearly marked as optional, so as not to punish students who do not wish to engage with them. Communicate clearly what these extra resources do by labelling them “background information,” “extension,” etc.

  • Formative feedback and completion: Each step ends with a moment of reflection and feedback. Before moving on to the next step, you want your students to know they’ve successfully completed the current one. You can design a quick quiz or other form of formative assessment. Ideally, you can give feedback to students on their performance. Keep these moments low-key, and low-stakes, but give students a sense of achievement each time they’ve completed a step (some courses use “badges” for this).

On this page you can find more information about tools which might help you to create steps.

Do you want to reuse copyrighted material in your courses, for example in lectures or on Nestor? Then please bear in mind the copyright rules and potential costs for the UG/UMCG. Since the UG/UMCG pays an annual fee for reuse of copyright-protected material, we ask that you use the free/openly licensed options whenever possible and preferably provide links to materials instead of uploading them to Nestor. By following this link, you will find an overview of the copyright rules per source type as well as information about all available options (free of charge). Another option is to use open educational resources. You can find more information about what open educational resources are and how to find and use them here


The examples below show how you can design a course step, and what types of material and activities you can use (e.g. readings, video, questions, discussion board, quizzes, online lectures). By numbering your weeks and steps, you make it easy for students to move through the content and tasks. Please note that the examples below are mere examples and do not show all the possible options. The first one is a sample introduction week, and the second one is a sample core week.

Course Steps

On this page you can find an example of how you can design a week with course steps.

Week 1

The first steps you take in your course should contain information about the course, its requirements, practicalities, creating a learning community, etc. In short you explain and show the roadmap to your students.

Proposed title

Type / Format


Introduction to this course

Item (text)

Contains syllabus, with information on course content, learning objectives, activities, assessment, organisation, etc.

Introduction to the lecturer

Item (text) or a self-made BlackBoard Collaborate video by the lecturer

Short text or video - make sure you connect and explain how you want students to communicate with you and to reassure them about the different way we teach this block.

Introduction of the students

Discussion or game

For ideas have a look at our webinar on Building Community by humanizing online courses

It is important to create a learning community amongst your students, including yourself.

Questions about the course

Discussion board

Make sure you invite students to post any questions in the discussion board, so that you can address them quickly and other students see them too (avoid repeating emails). By prompting this early on, they will get used to this way of working.

Whom to contact?

Contact EDU Support or your faculty's Embedded Expert from ESI for tailored didactic advice in using these suggestions in your teaching. For technical assistance please contact Nestorsupport.

Last modified: 17 May 10:12 am
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