How to Outline Your Online Course in 6 Steps

Last Updated on

January 28, 2023

Want to create an online course? Outlining your course first is key. In this guide, we'll share how to outline your course in 6 steps.

So you want to create an online course. 

Not just any course– an AWESOME course.

It all starts with a simple outline...

Do I really need an outline?

Do you need an outline for your course? The answer is a resounding yes. If you don’t have one, your course will be disjointed and lack logical flow.

You have a lot of wisdom in your head. Your participants do not. Your job is to craft a course that flows logically from one unit of instruction/study to the next. And you cannot do this without a roadmap.

Think about the courses you had in school that you enjoyed and that taught you something of value that you remember or still use today. If, for example, you are a pretty good writer, you mastered that skill one step at a time. No teacher would have taught you about writing a paragraph without teaching you about writing different types of sentences first.

This is why academic teachers have a course plan, divided into units of study, divided into specific lessons and activities.

When you teach a “non-academic” course, things are no different. You cannot teach how to Mudd and finish wallboard before you teach how to hang that wallboard. You need a step-by-step plan.

1. Begin with the End in Mind

Every course must have an end goal. To get to that goal, you must ask yourself this question: “By the end of this course what do I want the learners to know and/or be able to do?”

Suppose, for example, you plan to teach a series of courses on gourmet cooking. This course is on gourmet beef dishes. What do you want your learners to be able to do by the end of this course?

Perhaps you want them to know all about different cuts of beef and what gourmet meals are best prepared with specific cuts of beef? How will you get them there?

When you answer this question, you are ready for a brainstorming/mind-mapping session.

2. Create a Mind-Map (Brain Dump)

Take a look at this template. It is known as a mind-mapping tool. In the very center is the course goal you have crafted. From this end goal, you go backwards and list the elements that must be included in your course to get participants to that goal.

This template has seven sub-goals. You may have more. But you need to list each element that you will want to include in your course.

Continuing with the analogy of gourmet cooking with beef, what must be included?

Obviously, an introductory unit on beef cuts must be included. Then you will want to match those beef cuts with specific recipes that participants can prepare for themselves.

Each of these will take a place on your mind map. And coming out from those units will be your ideas about actual instruction and activities that you will want your participants to complete.

Here's an example how your mind map might look after you've filled it all in:

Now you have your units of instruction and more detailed activities. The next step is to organize them in a logical, chronological order.

3. Order the Sequence of Instruction

Scaffolding is a common term in educational circles. It means that there is a sequence of instruction, so that each unit builds upon what was taught in the previous one. And this is what every course outline must ultimately do.

Going back to the gourmet cooking course with a specific course on beef. You will want to sequence your units in an order that will give your participants activities that range from introduction, to most simple, and graduating to most complex. The goal is to provide success at each level so that there is motivation to move on.

So, you will want to begin with your introduction to cuts of beef and best uses of them. You will then move on to the simplest and easiest gourmet beef recipe for your students to try. From there, you will move on to the next recipe activities as they increase in complexity. The culminating activity should be the most complex.

Basically, you're just taking your mind map and putting it into chronological order, so you'll end up with a list something like this:

4. Add Assignments & Evaluations (Optional)

While you may not plan on giving actual “grades” or scores, you may still want to include a way for students to see their progress with quizzes, assignments, etc.

These activities should be added to each lesson or module in your outline so that you know exactly what you need to create.

You may also want to include a way for students to submit their feedback on a particular lesson or module. This way, you can continually improve your course by giving students more of what they want.

5. Organize into Modules & Lessons

Way back in middle school, you may have been taught the formal process for developing an outline complete with Roman Numerals, capital letters and so on. This is a pretty good outline template, because it can divide each unit into sub-categories and then details (i.e. modules and lessons):

You don’t need to use this specific format above, but you do need to organize your course into modules (units) and lessons.

Once you've organized your course content like this, it's easy to understand how many modules that you need to create and how many lessons will go into each module.

6. Create Your Syllabus (Add Titles)

Your outline is essentially done, but now you need to turn it into an official syllabus that you can use on your website and in all marketing materials. To do that, you need to couch your outline in language that will engage potential learners and motivate them to want to sign-up.

(This is the creative part!)

Begin with your course title. There is a reason that the media outlet Upworthy spends almost as much time coming up with titles for their pieces as they do on the pieces themselves. They understand the “psychology” of headline importance.

You need to think like a journalist here. If you have done the right research, you know your audience demographic, and the tone and style of your course title should match the “language” of that demographic. A course title for a senior citizen audience, for example, will be quite different from that for a millennial or Gen Z audience.

Next, come up with a creative title for each module. Remember, your syllabus is going to be published as a part of your marketing materials. So, each module has to have a “catchy” and engaging title too. You want potential sign-ups to believe that this will not be just a dry cooking course, but a fun one, taught by an instructor who has a “spark.”

Returning to the gourmet cooking course on beef dishes, the introductory unit will consist of learning all parts of the cow and the cuts of meat from that animal. Now, it could be titled, “parts of the cow and related cuts of meat,” but that is boring. A more engaging title might be, “Getting intimate with a cow.” Now you look like you have a sense of humor.

Here are some great resources to help you if you're feeling stuck:

  • Get with that one or two friends and have them help

  • Co-Schedule has a headline analyzer tool. Here, you can type in your “boring” headline, and the tool will analyze its content, emotional appeal, and much more. Suggestions will be made for improvement

  • Optimizely is a tool that will actually analyze the effects your headline will have. It also lets users request types of “headlines” for the various effects they want.

  • Inbound Now: You can type in a few keywords and the tool will create headline options that research shows are both engaging and SEO-friendly (SEO is important when people are searching for courses they want).

  • Taboola: This site is actually focused on marketing but it has an amazing little-known tool for headline and title generation, based on its unique algorithm. It will generate titles that research has shown will draw people to.

  • Qualaroo: This is a headline generating tool that operates solely based upon its research and analysis what catches interest. You can submit a headline or title and have it analyzed. You’ll be told why it “works” or not.

  • Advanced Marketing Institute Headline Analyzer: This title generator focuses heavily on the emotional appeal of a specific headline or title. You can submit a title, and this handy little tool will tell you if it appeals to the intellect, but more important, to empathy and spiritual aspects of consumers.

  • Boost Media: this site will offer a more “human” approach to headline and title generation. While it has developed algorithms to analyze the titles you submit, it also has a huge team of creatives who can craft those based upon your specific niche. If you want to work with a real person, then this would be your choice.

Wrapping It Up

Here are some key takeaways from this guide:

You cannot begin to develop a course without an end goal in mind. The question to ask is what you want your learners to know and be able to do at the end of our course?

Begin the process of outline development with a mind-mapping activity. Once you see the units you want to include in your teaching, you can then organize them in a logical sequence.

Spend time crafting good course and module titles. Potential students need to be intrigued when they look at your syllabus and want to learn more.

Follow these simple steps and you'll have the roadmap to an awesome online course!

Jessica Fender is a copywriter and blogger at Essay Supply with a background in marketing and sales. She enjoys sharing her experience with like-minded professionals who aim to provide customers with high-quality services.