Creating a course outline is a vital and often overlooked part of the course creation process.
Many course creators approach this step by creating a barebones outline with a few headers, subheaders, and bullet points and then calling it a day. However, your course outline should do so much more than that.
An effective outline encompasses your course vision, details the course elements, and acts as the plan for your course creation project, so it’s important to get it right.
This article will show you how to create a course outline step-by-step. Then, we’ll share a free course outline template and some real-life examples.
Are you ready? Let’s get started.
What Is an Online Course Outline?
A course outline describes your students’ knowledge journey throughout your online course, and it should define the steps they’ll take to reach the desired endpoint.
The most critical component of an online course outline is the course structure. So, your outline should list all of the modules and lessons covered in your course.
Apart from the structure, an outline should also include your learning objectives, course requirements, and, most importantly, how you’ll deliver the lessons.
By now, you’ll have understood that an outline acts as the foundation for creating an awesome online course.
A good outline is based on solid course design principles and ensures that your course delivers the promised value to your students. Plus, it helps you maximize student engagement.
It also lets you stay organized in the chaos of course creation and comes in handy when planning your entire course creation project.
For example, you can use the outline to create tasks in your project management system; then, you can assign them to yourself or one of your team members and set a deadline for completion.
Rules for Creating a Kickass Course Outline
Before you start creating your outline, there are some rules that you should keep in mind to create a great outline and make the creation process easier.
Focus on the Outcome When Outlining
When you clearly identify the outcome of your course and incorporate it in every step of the planning process, the structure, materials, and lessons should all work towards completing the students’ learning outcomes.
Start by writing down what they’ll gain by the end of your course. You can write it in this format:
We help X to Y by Z.
For example, let’s say your course teaches how to write a story in English. Your phrase could be:
We help beginners write a story in English by practicing grammar and sentence structure.
That’s just an example. Your learning outcomes depend entirely on the kind of online course you’ll teach.
From here, you can align your course materials to the goal.
Write down what a student needs to do right before completing your course. Then, continue moving backward until you reach a natural starting position.
Follow the Course Design Principles
Your outline should be based on the Sound Course Design Principles (SCDPs), a process for assessing the needs of learners and then following a strategy to meet them. Generally, the SCDPs focus on five points, including:
- Keeping content short: Learners’ attention spans are pretty short, so it’s important to break your content down into digestible bites.
- Incorporating small wins: Students should earn progress throughout the course, which will motivate them to complete the course.
- Testing the students’ knowledge: Once a learning module is complete, it’s important to test what you’ve taught. To do this, you should add a quiz or an assignment at the end of every module.
- Making it interactive: Your course delivery shouldn’t be a one-way street. Instead, it should be interactive. For example, you can include live lessons or group projects in your outline.
- Providing feedback: Give specific and constructive feedback on the student’s progress.
So, it’s important to incorporate the SCDPs in your outline from the first step all the way to the wrap-up. It will make your course more engaging, and you’ll help students achieve the intended learning objectives.
Deliver the Content in Fewer Modules
Your course structure has three levels. First, you’ll need your high-level subtopics, which can be broken down into smaller steps. These will be your modules.
Once your modules are set, you can break them down into steps. We refer to these as lessons, and here be more specific about what you’ll teach.
Finally, each lesson will have a structure of its own.
When it comes to modules, less is more. Remember that a key part of your online course is student engagement. Having fifteen modules for a course that could easily be structured around five or six may be too long for students.
Since keeping the course at a reasonable length is important, we suggest having anywhere from five to ten modules.
Again, aiming for the optimal number of lessons under your modules is important. You don’t want to have too many—since this can overwhelm students—but you should avoid having too few because your lessons won’t be specific enough.
Use a Tool to Stay Organized
Creating a course outline usually begins with bullet points, a series of post-its on the wall, or a messy diagram.
After you work on it for a while, it becomes a full-on document that includes your course’s information from the beginning to the end.
You can download or print the document and use it during your lives, scribble all over it, and refer to it when in doubt.
Next, you’ll need a tool to help you keep all the sections of your outline organized. There are some robust—and free—tools that have everything you need to do this.
For instance, you must have heard of Google Sheets. We’ve created many outlines with this tool, like the example below.
You can download this online course outline template here.
With its grates and numbers, Google Sheets is the best option for keeping everything structured and organized. Plus, you can add as much critical information as you want. You can also change the color of the boxes for labeling, add headings and subheadings, and much more.
It’s also extremely user-friendly, and you can share the document with multiple people. While you can’t include attachments or insert videos directly inside a sheet, you can always upload your content to Google Drive and add URLs to the sheet.
Another option is to use a project management system like ClickUp.
With ClickUp, you can create your outline and manage the whole process. You also have the option to create a task list where you organize all your modules and lessons under one dashboard.
When you click on a task item, you can fill out the information for each lesson, add attachments and subtasks, and assign them to team members.
We don’t recommend getting a project management tool to create your outline. However, if you already use it, it’s a good choice.
Steps to Develop Your Online Course Outline
Now it’s time to develop your course outline. We’ve broken the outlining process into six simple steps (with examples) to give you a thorough idea of what you need to do.
1. Consider Course Milestones
The first step in developing your outline is to break down your course’s objective into milestones.
Milestones are the major accomplishments your learners will make while enrolled in your course and are developed based on the course’s learning outcomes.
Let’s say that you’re creating a course on Instagram marketing. The milestones for this course could be:
- Setting up your Instagram account
- Understanding the Instagram algorithm
- Creating and posting content
- Running advertisements
- Monetizing Instagram
You can jot down your milestones in Google Docs. It doesn’t need to be complicated; something like this will do:
This is just an example, but you can make your chart even more detailed by leaving out some space to write the steps under each milestone.
2. Break Down the Milestones Into Steps
Your students can’t achieve their milestones without taking specific steps, so you’ll need to identify what they should do to complete them.
These steps are your lessons, so making them actionable is critical to ensure that your students learn and progress.
Coming back to the Instagram marketing course example, the steps under the milestone “Monetizing Instagram” could be:
- Find brands to partner with
- Craft a pitch for brands
- Negotiate a deal
- Run the brand promotion
3. Outline the Course Lessons
Now, it’s time to break your lessons down to the bone to know what you’re teaching. This is your chance to include all the little details you’ll cover in the lessons.
For each lesson, ask yourself:
- What topics will I cover in the lesson?
- What examples will I use?
- What activities will I use?
- What resources do I need?
For example, if you’re teaching how to create a pitch for brands, this lesson could cover pitch structure, introduction, body, language, and sending format.
This is also where you’ll determine the delivery format for each lesson. Will it be a video? An audio interview? A live class? An assessment?
Videos are certainly the preferred method for course delivery since they’re super engaging, and most people learn best through visuals.
Below is an example of an engaging video to begin a section on the history of video games.
Now, you don’t necessarily need to create talking head videos. You can also work with screencast videos, as they’re much easier to create.
However, you can get creative and mix it up with different delivery formats to keep your course engaging.
4. Back It up With Downloadable Resources
There will be areas in your course that could use some extra support. Specifically, look for parts that could use downloadable resources like cheat sheets, workbooks, checklists, templates, etc.
The types of resources you’ll use depend on what you’re teaching and how your learners will get the best results.
It’s important to consider how a resource will help learners progress and what won’t provide value. Your resources should:
- Complement what you’re teaching
- Make learners feel a sense of progress
- Act as a resource that students can consult repeatedly
- Enable learners to write and take notes
The screenshot below is part of a worksheet from Amy Porterfield’s Digital Course Academy. Her students can download the PDF and fill in the details.
You likely won’t need a downloadable resource for every lesson of your course, so remember not to overdo it and only provide one when useful.
If your resources are thoughtfully designed, you can shorten your training videos, allow students to learn in their preferred format, and make your lessons more actionable.
5. Get Feedback on Your Outline
Once you wrap up your outline, it’s important to get feedback on it.
For instance, you can reach out to your friends and colleagues and ask them to review it.
If you have an existing audience, you could also reach out to the most engaged members. You can even get them on a Zoom call and hear what they have to say about your outline.
By the way, your course outline can also be a good marketing tool.
You can create a less detailed version that doesn’t leak too many spoilers and includes it in your email campaigns to tease potential students.
Extras That You Can Add to Your Course Outline
Your completed course outline is a great standalone product as it is. However, it may need some extra components to become more valuable.
Here are some extras that can accompany your course outline to help push potential students toward buying your course.
Add Learning Objectives
Every course should include learning objectives. This allows students to see what they’ll learn by the end of the course and is usually a big enrollment motivator.
You can include this section at the top of your sales page and outline it since it’s the most important thing. This is exactly what Udemy does for the courses on its platform.
Here’s where you can show your students the value of your course, so make the learning objectives detailed.
Don’t forget to create the learning objectives for each module and course overall.
You can even go as far as including the objectives for each step. It’s not always necessary, but it can be helpful, depending on your content.
Write a Detailed Course Description
A well-written course description can be a decisive factor in whether a student registers for your course or the competition. In many cases, it’s one of the most important aspects of earning new students.
This will be one of the most important parts of your outline, so you should spend considerable time crafting it. Too often, course descriptions are bland, causing readers to bounce even before getting through it.
Here are some tips to make your course descriptions more interesting:
- Focus on clarity.
- Use aspirational language.
- Speak in your audience’s language.
- Keep it succinct.
For more information on this, read our guide on how to write a killer course description.
Explain the Course Requirements
The course requirements are there so that your students can prepare themselves and see if they’re eligible to take the course.
Listing them clearly will save you a lot of time interacting with them to solve any problems arising from this.
The requirements should be simple and manageable. Just think about what students must already know to complete your course successfully and go from there.
These are the course requirements for a course on mastering Airbnb:
You can see that it’s relatively easy for students to meet the requirements if they don’t already.
Here’s another set of requirements for a cybersecurity certification prep course:
This one’s a little more demanding, but your students need to know whether they can benefit from the course.
Online Course Outline Examples
Now, let’s look at some real-life examples of online course outlines that can act as an inspiration for your course.
Supply Chain Management A-Z
Supply Chain Management A-Z is an introductory course taught by Laurence Gartside on Udemy.
The course has 16 modules, and each module has around five lessons on average. Almost all the lessons are video-based, and the course has a couple of quizzes.
Social Marketing Certification Course
The Social Marketing Certification Course by Hootsuite is an industry-recognized certification for those interested in becoming social media experts.
The course curriculum is divided into six chapters with eight to ten lessons and their respective quizzes. In some cases, the lessons are further divided into mini-lessons.
At the end of the curriculum, students must take the Social Marketing Certification Exam. If they pass, they’re sent a digital certificate via email.
Part-Time YouTuber Academy
Ali Abdaal’s Part-Time YouTuber Academy is a live, cohort-based online course.
The course is delivered over four weeks. Each week starts with a live class, followed by daily workshops and Q&A sessions. While lessons are used to deliver the core content, workshops cover specific topics and focus on implementation.
Camera Basics for Filming Videos
This article covered everything you need to know to create a course outline.
If your course outline clearly defines the modules, lessons, and mini-lessons, you’ll be extremely organized and have something solid to base your teachings on.
It’s important to realize that the success of your course isn’t only in the outline, but it has a lot to do with the type of content you’ll include; that’s why you must plan the content delivery formats while outlining it.
Make sure to grab a copy of our course outline template.
We hope that you found this guide helpful! If you have any questions, let us know in the comments.