sign uplog in

Catalog of Course Structures

By Brendan | 2021-02-08
🌱 This is a living document. We're still learning, and may revisit this piece over time. Suggestions for how we can make it better? Please comment below or send us a note.

Elements of Course Design

What shapes can a course take? When you're full of ideas to explore, it's not always clear how to put things together into a structured, sequenced learning experience. We've compiled this catalog as a non-exhaustive collection of structures you might consider in shaping your course or club.

First, we've identified some common qualities of courses we think work well on Hyperlink:

  • Iterative: continuously improve: experiment, iterate, retrospect; evolve with the community
  • Structured: embrace constraints and scaffolding to help focus a learning experience
  • Active: encourage actively doing / making things
  • Artifacts: generates artifacts of successful learning: specify some output…
  • Intimate: feel like you're connecting with real people, engaging with like-minds…
  • Open: learn in the open; share curriculum, resources, and output publicly…

These are just high-level qualities, things we believe make for good learning experiences, and differentiate the sort of learning that happens on Hyperlink from other learning resources like MOOCs and YouTube videos.

Within these parameters, there's a wide range different structures for courses, different objectives and sequences that determine the overall shape and feel, as well as a number of variables and dynamics to consider in designing your course.

Let's explore a few.

Course Structures

These are some of the big picture shapes of a course.

Keep in mind, not only is this a non-exhaustive list, each of these is non-exclusive — you'll likely want to adopt elements of multiple structural types, and perhaps some not on the list below!

Large Project (Group or Individual)

Learners are working toward a project, creating something big over the duration of the course, progressively. This might be a single project the cohort works on together, or a general structure that each participant adapts to their own specific personal project:

  • Group: everyone collaborates together on a single cohort-wide project (e.g. typography class making a collaborative website, or a comics class making a group zine)
  • Individual: each participant does their own independent variation on the defined project, exchanging feedback and iterating towards their own vision and goals

One open question for this type of course structure: how might we combine individual and group projects? How can we give each participant agency, but finally bring things together as a group in some way?


Series of Small Projects

Similar to above, but instead of building towards one large project incrementally, you might design a series of shorter projects or exercises that work together, illustrating different elements of the course topic.

Perhaps participants have a different challenge to complete each week, that might demonstrate a different lens or theme of the course. Perhaps it's more of a survey where each small project gives a different perspective; perhaps it's accumulative where each small project builds on the previous one and they can be assembled into something larger at the end,


Guided Sequence of Ideas

The course introduces a series of new themes or concepts, whether to map a field (introduction to X) or survey a range of specific sub-fields or case studies (special topics in X).

This might be a course in the classic seminar style, heavy on deep reading and group discussion. Or it might be more of a mix of theory and application, combined with one of the project-based structures above.


Mix of Theoretical and Applied

Combining the above, with a course that blends conceptual discussion and practical application.

This hybrid structure might take the shape of a course that starts with a couple weeks heavy on readings and theoretical groundwork, then focuses on applying those concepts to a project in the back half of the course, Or it might be interleaved, alternating weeks of lecture and workshop, or reading and project work.


Introduction to a Practice

Learners are adopting new habits, creative practices, ways of thinking and acting. This type of course may overlap with the project-based structures described above.

It's often the case that this structure works well for a course that's less about conveying a set of ideas, or creating a specific artifact, and more about acquiring a new set of skills, lenses, or practices — in other words, a course that's about personal transformation of some kind. As with project-based courses, this type may be cumulative, but in a different sense, more about getting comfortable and establishing habits than making specific things.


Structural Dynamics

These are important factors in designing a course structure, related to the high-level shapes above — variables that affect how a course feels, and how it works toward your learning goals. Some of these will be more vital to certain types of courses than to others; again, these may be combined and augmented by other things not yet on this list.


Who do you imagine taking this course? What kind of learners would this be perfect for; who might find it not a great fit? Are there plenty of folks in your current network who you think would find this course interesting, or might you need to seek out and connect with people elsewhere? (We'll write more about marketing in another post!)

It's also important to consider what prerequisites, if any, your course may have. If you're clear about any baseline knowledge or skills that participants will need to get the most out of the course, that will help participants self-select and have a better experience.

Schedule and Workload

Thinking about all that you want to cover in a course, one of the main parameters to define is its length and cadence — how long does the course last, and how often and for how long does it meet?

Related to this, you'll want to think through the commitment level required of participants. Ideally you want to balance the workload such that it comes across as meaningful, but doesn't scare people off. It's usually a good idea to think about how your course might adapt to work for busy participants who don't have time for much beyond the core class meetings, as well as for those who want to dedicate a ton of time to it.

Cohort Size

How might your course feel different with (say) 8 participants vs. 25? What's the ideal size range for a cohort, and how might you use e.g. breakout groups or 1:1 pairings to establish the sorts of dynamics that might be most beneficial for your course?

An important general point here is that some things scale pretty nicely, and some things don't scale well past a certain point at all. With every size comes tradeoffs. We've found that it's natural to prefer a more intimate group where you can get to know everyone on a more personal level, but larger cohorts often have more energy and overall activity, and stronger self-organizing dynamics.

You might consider mixing modes of group interactions to support a larger cohort size while still cultivating community and ways for people to get to know each other.


This cost of your course, along with your cohort size and the time it requires, combine to affect both who will enroll and how sustainable it will be for you as the facilitator.

It's important not to undercharge, both to make sure it's worth your while and to make sure participants take it seriously. At the same time, very high prices can make courses less accessible. Consider what makes sense for your course topic and likely audience — and also consider ways to make your pricing flexible, for example offering a scholarship rate for a certain number of participants. For more on this topic, see our guide How to Think About Course Pricing.

Discussion and Feedback

How much of the course is based on group discussions? If it involves personal feedback, how is that structured? Group critiques or 1:1 feedback?

The Meta Course, for example, is based largely around discussing broad themes (such as these!) as a group, and providing individualized feedback on specific courses (in breakout groups, and on the forum). Do people describe the feedback they wish to receive, or is there a structured process the group will use consistently?

Good feedback is challenging — both to give and to receive! It can be difficult to hear feedback, but it's also difficult to offer critique that is constructive and useful. It requires trust in both directions.

Creation of Trust

How do we create space for trust to develop between people, especially given that in most cases, participants will join a course as strangers?

One important consideration is that courses often require both time and intentional effort to set the groundwork for establishing trust. You should be clear about things like expectations for group interactions, and how people can give and receive feedback generously. And be aware that it might take a couple weeks for folks to get to know one another — participants will have a higher baseline of trust in week five than in week two. You may also want to think about creating space for different types of interactions, a kind of intimacy gradient — ways for people to share work to the full cohort, and ways to talk with peers 1:1 or in small groups, which some may find more comfortable.

Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Activity

Consider how you'll balance in-class activity (synchronous e.g. group calls) and ways to participate outside of class, on participants' own schedules (asynchronous e.g. forum discussion).

Synchronous time is great for demanding accountability, as well as for building community and friendships. Within the live parts of a class, it's great to mix up the structure, both to avoid boredom and to give folks multiple ways to engage. You might structure each live meeting to have a brief lecture, a short activity, discussion in breakout groups, and a summary with the full group.

Asynchronous activity is great for giving participants more flexibility. A common format for this it to have people post their response to a prompt or assignment, and have others give written feedback when they're able.

An interesting synchronous mode to explore is "parallel play", where participants are doing something together, not necessarily interacting in a group, but working in the presence of others, for a feeling of community and accountability. Optional live sessions, including learner-scheduled ones, can work nicely for this.

Course Meta-Narrative

It can be useful to encourage participants to engage with both the content of the course, and the shape and experience of the course itself — for example, you might do a project together, but also discuss how you came up with that project, and (afterwards) how it might be improved. After Stewart Brand, we might ask ourselves: How do courses learn?

This is useful on two levels. On the level of the course, from your perspective as a facilitator, this can help you evaluate the design and improve it for next time. And on the level of each participant's experience, it can help them think about their learning goals and how best to work within the parameters of the course to achieve them.

This can empower people to feel greater agency in the learning process, and allow for multiple definitions of success and growth, both in the course and beyond it.

Building Your Course Structure

Here are a few practical steps and exercises we've found helpful in beginning to think through the above. This draws from our experience running the Meta Course and seeing over two dozen courses and clubs launch on Hyperlink.

Define Success

One good starting point is a simple question: what needs to happen in order by the end of the course for you to feel that it was successful? This includes both your personal goals for the course, and the things you want participants to learn, make, or achieve.

You can brainstorm a list of success criteria. Some things to think about:

  • What should a learner be able to do (or know) that they couldn't before?
  • How does the course relate to your personal, career, or creative goals?

Examples of what success criteria might look like for learners:

  • Learners should be able to think critically about new UI aesthetics, and have fun in the process
  • Learners should be able to apply the basics of typography to a live website using HTML/CSS/JS
  • Learners should have created a personal website that expresses themselves and gives them a home on the internet

Concept Mapping

Once you have a course topic in mind, and some goals for what you want to achieve, you can try creating a concept map for the course, either on paper or an online tool like Miro. Think about the possibility space of the course topic, using the lens of your goals and success criteria to scope down the full range of concepts to ones that will be most impactful for this course.

Some things to help guide this:

  • What are the essential topics, themes, concepts, questions, assignments (etc.) for the goals you've set out?
  • What structures might work well for bringing these pieces together to meet those goals?
  • What potential trade-offs might there be in this process?

Creating an Outline

Once you've started to get a sense of what you'd like to cover in the course, you can spend some time thinking through the right sequencing and details of the structure that might work best. You'll combine the course material with the structural elements above to create an outline of what the course looks like.

This is an iterative process. To start, it will probably be a week by week outline with main themes and things you want to cover in each week. As you flesh it out you'll add details like specific readings, assignments, or exercises. And eventually you'll likely want to outline the structure of each individual class session, with approximate timing for lectures, discussions, exercises, breakouts, and other activities.

Assembling the Pieces

Finally, time to put all the pieces together!

With your final course structure, you'll do your best to balance competing factors like ambitious goals and reasonable length; prerequisites and audience; cohort size and cost. You'll assemble a complete course description, or curriculum — a document detailing the course goals, structure, prerequisites, schedule / syllabus, and anything else participants need to know.

If you've enjoyed this piece, we think you'll love the Meta Course — all about taking the above, applying to a specific course idea, and workshopping together to iteratively refine the shape of that course into something you can teach!

If you've read this far and have an idea for a course on Hyperlink, go ahead and propose a course here.

We focus here on courses, but many of the same considerations apply to clubs — often similarly structured but more experimental and emergent. You can propose a club here.

Relevant Readings

These may be helpful / inspirational as you start to put together your own course outline and curriculum. Note that many of the courses below are a bit longer than most on Hyperlink, but still great references!


Syllabus Examples