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Considering Situational Factors in Course Design 

There’s no “one size fits all” in course design in higher education. Even for a given course, the approach to teaching the course might vary from university to university or from instructor to instructor. When we add in the variation between disciplines and between different levels of courses, the number of factors that affect our course design grows quickly. Some of the reasons for the variation in course design may be obvious (e.g., the size of the course, the background of the students) but others may be less obvious (e.g., external expectations related to the course, the instructor’s identity).  All of these factors which play into how we design a course are known as “situational factors”, a term introduced by L. Dee Fink in Creating Significant Learning Experiences.

What are the important situational factors?

Fink identifies different situational factors that should be considered when designing a course. These are described in Creating Significant Learning Experiences and summarized here:

  • Specific context of the teaching and learning situation: This category includes information about the way that the course will be offered. We should consider the course size, level (e.g., lower division, upper division, graduate), format (e.g., face-to-face, remote, online), and frequency (e.g., meets twice a week for 75 minutes), as well as the physical space for face-to-face courses (e.g., in an active learning classroom with moveable seats).
  • Expectations of external groups: This category includes information about how external groups may have expectations about what the course will include. We should review how the course fits within a degree program or university curriculum, any requirements imposed by professional or accrediting bodies, and any societal expectations related to the subject.
  • Nature of the subject: This category includes information about the subject itself and how that might impact our approach to the course. We can reflect on whether the subject is convergent (tending toward a single right answer) or divergent (tending toward multiple valid interpretations), if the subject is primarily cognitive or if it includes psychomotor or affective learning as well, and if the content of the course is relatively stable, is actively changing, or involves competing paradigms.
  • Characteristics of the learners: This category includes information about the learners which will help us identify what they need from the course design and content. We should consider the life situations of our learners (e.g., do they live on campus or off, are they full or part time, what significant responsibilities do they have outside of school), what their learning goals are related to the course, and what prior experiences, skills, knowledge and attitudes they bring with them.
  • Characteristics of the teacher: This category includes information about who we are as an individual and how that might impact our approach to teaching this particular course. We should examine what prior experiences, skills, knowledge and attitudes we have related to the subject, our past and upcoming experiences with teaching the course, our confidence in the subject matter, and our pedagogical skills. Additionally, we should consider how our identity may shape our approach to teaching and our interactions with our students.

Not all of these situational factors will be important for every course, but it is a good idea to start our course design process by first thinking through each different category.

Why should we consider situational factors?

There are many benefits for both learners and instructors when situational factors are carefully considered as the first step in course design. These include:

  • When we consider the characteristics of the learners, we can be more proactive about designing a course that meets students where they are.
  • We can create a course that works for us, as the instructor. For example, we may make certain decisions about how to assess student learning based on the size and level of the course.
  • We are better able to see how the course fits within the curriculum and can use this information to also help students see connections between this course and others they will take.
  • When we consider our own identity, we’re more able to look for gaps in our course design and plan to bridge those gaps.

Although the name “situational factors” may be new, it is likely that your course design process has already taken at least some of these into account. By beginning the course design process with a detailed analysis of our situational factors, we can establish a solid foundation for a well-designed course; these situational factors should then continue to guide our course design choices.


Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences. John Wiley & Sons.


Dr. Megan Frary

Coordinator for Graduate TA Support, Boise State Center for Teaching and Learning

Associate Professor, Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering