Learn how brainstorming your next course topic like a big adventure can shift your mindset and set you, and your learners, up for meaningful success.

As a person who loves traveling, I often compare course development to planning my next big trip.  

I plan a travel schedule to make sure I get from point A to point B. I think about my travel partners. I pack my bag to ensure I am prepped for anything. This process is very similar to how I brainstorm a new course for my university-level students. In this case, the travel schedule is my curriculum map, my travel partners are my students, and my travel bag holds the learning experiences and assessment strategies I will use to engage learners. Along the way, I build in plenty of flexibility and choice so students dive into course materials in ways that are meaningful and authentic to them. 

Step 1: The WHAT 

Where do I want to go with my course? 

The WHAT in course brainstorming is the subject/topic of interest. As a specific example of course development, I will dive into my experience brainstorming a course topic for the Honors College at Ball State University. The course topic, the philosophical approach, everything was open for grabs. I was given complete creative freedom. For me, this was really exciting and the best scenario for me to work, but I know that others may prefer to have more course design guardrails. In those instances, don’t be afraid to ask for more guidance. Leadership in your area may point you to specific gaps in existing curriculum. They may be able to provide examples of previous syllabi and course content that can spark compelling extensions of previous topics, or a new twist on a content area. 

I began brainstorming the Honors College course by leaning into my professional expertise in the fine arts. As a prior art and photography teacher, I wanted to present an opportunity for students to look at historical and contemporary photography while also tapping into their own creativity with some studio assignments. With a 1-credit course design though, I really needed to focus on a sub-topic quickly. I settled on female self-portraiture as an initial working topic, but knew I would need an additional hook that would be engaging for today’s students. What do today’s students do all the time? They take selfies. This would be the hook that would help humanize the self-portrait work I had in mind for this class. 

Illustration of a hand holding a phone with a selfie of the author.

I put together a working title and course description and presented it to leadership as a temperature check. They loved the idea and said run with it. They also suggested that I present the course topic and description to leaders in the Women’s and Gender Studies program for possible cross promotion given the focus on female photographers, in particular. 

Screenshot of the course description

Read a text transcript for all course materials in this post.

Step 2: The WHO 

Who am I bringing with me on the journey? 

The WHO in course brainstorming are your students. In my case, the students I was planning for were decided pretty quickly – students in the Honors College. The identification of audience doesn’t always happen in warp speed though. To be candid with you, I hadn’t really thought about teaching in the Honors College until I was personally approached by their leadership. Use my experience as a reminder to keep your mind open to potential student audiences outside of your current subject area.  

At Ball State University, there are multiple pathways to providing a dynamic course offering to students. Most often, it will probably happen in your home department, but there may be some cross-departmental opportunities with another academic unit. Is there an adult education program that may be interested in your course topic? Or perhaps a dual credit approach that could invite high school students in to achieve university experience and credit? 

If you aren’t quite sure who your core student audience will be at the start of your course planning process, that’s okay. At the very least, tap into resources that can begin to paint a picture of who your students might be as you continue to develop your class. The following Teaching Innovation Blog articles are a great start, not only for Ball State University faculty members, but for those outside of our institution committed to understanding more about today’s learners. 

I imagine the diverse group of students that might enroll in my course. I started thinking about this a little bit during step one of my course brainstorming process, when I thought about the hook for my class, but this is the phase where I really dive deep. I keep resources, like the blog articles linked above, nearby throughout this stage of my process, because they help keep me in check as the course author. As the content expert, I will, no doubt, bring my enthusiasm and passion to the topics, but that doesn’t ensure that the course content will automatically feel authentic and meaningful to my students.  

For “The Originals: A Look at Female Photographers in a Pre-Selfie Era,” I thought deeply about the world university students are living in today, which is hyper connected through social media and networked systems. I would attempt to draw my Ball State learners in via selfie culture, invite them to look at a variety of professionals, and also ask them to share some selfies of their own.  

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Step 3: The HOW 

How will I get from point A to point B with my learners? 

The HOW in course brainstorming is your alignment plan, which will help guide you and your students through the learning experience. After thinking through my course topic, presenting it to leadership for initial feedback, and reflecting on my potential students, my next step was to start thinking about the nitty-gritty of the course. I prefer to take a backwards design approach to development in which I think with the end in mind. What are the key skills and experiences I want my students to walk away with at the end of this course experience?  

Following are the learning objectives I laid out for “The Originals: A Look at Female Photographers in a Pre-Selfie Era.” I like to highlight these front and center for my students in the course syllabus, course landing page, and more. Aligning learner tasks with learning objectives clearly communicates to students that I am thinking through meaningful, articulated course activities, each of which have a clear purpose in their learning journey with me. 

Screenshot of the course objectives and the learning tasks they align with.

Read a text transcript for all course materials in this post.

I laid out my learning objectives while simultaneously thinking about assessment strategies. Ahead of designing this course, I was diving deeply into equitable practices with colleagues. Publications like Grades can hinder learning. What should professors use instead? and Why I don’t grade, among others, inspired me to reflect upon previous assessment approaches and adopt an ungraded strategy for this course. I knew that my students would still need guidance, encouragement, and reflective opportunities, and would plan my resources and in-class activities accordingly. But, given the topic of self-representation, I didn’t want to hinder my students’ creativity or reflection with a hyper-focused approach on letter grades. 

Following is how I summarized my grading approach in the course syllabus, pulling inspiration from some of my wonderful colleagues at Ball State and within the Honors College. Through a combination of reflective exercises, writing tasks, and a selfie art exhibit at the end of the term, learners and I would keep tabs on the learning, much of which was inspired by this blog post about un-grading.  

Screenshot of the assessment policy for the course.

Read a text transcript for all course materials in this post.

For me, this initial resource gathering step concludes my initial brainstorming for a course, preparing me for any final defense of the course topic to higher leadership. It also gives me a bit of content to begin advertising the offering if appropriate.  

The next step for me was mapping out initial topics for each course meeting/module and gathering possible resources/materials to reference along the way. This phase of thinking through the HOW in course design reminds me a lot of putting together an annotated bibliography. I spend time perusing library and open access resources, looking for exciting, inspiring, and thought-provoking publications, photographic examples, artist interviews and more to support my overarching selfie focus. Along the way, I keep my original course title and description in front of me to constantly remind myself of the original intentions and direction of the class. In a way, that title and description serve as a personal and motivational mantra for me as I continue the brainstorming and development process. 

Screenshot of course resources.

Read a text transcript for all course materials in this post.

Road Map Complete – Time to Start the Journey 

Once my course is officially approved, that’s when the real magic can begin to happen. I begin to take my annotated bibliography to the next level by framing out instructional materials, designing learning activities, and building modular content in our learning management system. I think about my use of technology, and how Canvas can support my learners, no matter the modality I am teaching in. I’m mindful of accessibility and usability concerns, and when in-doubt, convene with my colleagues in University Libraries and Accessibility Services for mentorship. Along the way, I keep helpful tools like the Ball State QM (Quality Matters)+ Rubric in front of me.  

And while I’ve planned out my initial travel schedule to make sure I get from point A to point B on my course development journey, I remind myself that it’s important to stay flexible. I need to be adaptable when unexpected challenges or teachable moments pop up. These instances may force me to alter course content or my approach to student engagement. This is what is so exciting about the course development journey – the interesting twists and turns that are possible 

What will your next course brainstorming adventure be? 

Do any of these course brainstorming steps resonate for you? How do you think about new course topics of ideas? 


Carter, John. “First-Gen Pedagogy: Who are First-Generation Students?” Teaching Innovation Blog. March 29, 2023. https://blogs.bsu.edu/teaching-innovation/2023/03/29/first-gen-pedagogy-who-are-first-generation-students/

Grouling Snider, Eva. “Challenges Ball State Learners Face” Teaching Innovation Blog. November 22, 2022. https://blogs.bsu.edu/teaching-innovation/2023/03/29/first-gen-pedagogy-who-are-first-generation-students/ 

Lanning, Shane. “Leveraging User Personas for Course Design.” Teaching Innovation Blog. November 9, 2022. https://blogs.bsu.edu/teaching-innovation/2022/11/09/leveraging-user-personas-for-course-design/

Lanning, Shane. “Less Worry, More Learning: How Ungrading Has Changes My Student Experience.” Teaching Innovation Blog. January 25, 2023. https://blogs.bsu.edu/teaching-innovation/2023/01/25/less-worry-more-learning-how-ungrading-has-changed-my-student-experience/

Madewell, Cheri. “Six Tangible Ways to Support First-Generation Students.” Teaching Innovation Blog. March 22, 2023. https://blogs.bsu.edu/teaching-innovation/2022/11/22/challenges-ball-state-learners-face/

Stommel, Jesse. “Why I Don’t Grade.” Jesse Stommel (blog). October 26, 2017. https://www.jessestommel.com/why-i-dont-grade/ 

Supiano, Beckie. “Grades Can Hinder Learning. What should Professors Use Instead?” The Chronical. July 19, 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/article/grades-can-hinder-learning-what-should-professors-use-instead/

  • Sarah Ackermann

    Dr. Sarah Ackermann’s background is in educational technology, instructional design, teacher leadership, and art education. She has experience teaching and leading in online, face-to-face, and hybrid formats. Her most recent research is in the area of teacher response and professional development during the COVID pandemic. Additionally, she has written and illustrated a children’s book which encourages young learners to identify their personal strengths.

    snackermann@bsu.edu Ackermann Sarah