Center for Teaching Excellence Rolls Out Innovative Course-Design Program Online

top of the Rotunda columns backgrounded by white clouds on a blue sky

(Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

An idea that arrived while doing taxes is now helping college instructors create more successful courses – and to become the teachers they dream of being.

Michael Palmer, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Teaching Excellence, who developed “c3Design” with other faculty members in the center, wrote in email, “It’s been a labor of love for over five years” to create an online program for creating courses “grounded in learning-focused, evidenced-based principles.”

The eight-part program aims to “help instructors design courses they love to teach and students love to take.” Regardless of experience, professors and graduate instructors can use c3Design on their own or with a cohort of peers.

With the coronavirus quarantine cancelling the weeklong Course Design Institute, one of the center’s signature face-to-face events, this online program can help. It works independently of the Course Design Institute, but those who have attended the institute can also benefit from the array of tools and resources available in c3Design, Palmer said.

“There is nothing like c3Design out there,” Palmer said. “We’ve won a series of innovation awards and research awards to back it up (four). There are institutions that put course design content online, but no one who’s built ways to provide real-time feedback to instructors about the quality of their designs.”

Palmer provides more information in the Q&A below. For more details, go to the website.

Q. What does c3Design stand for? Why is it named that?

A. The long-term vision for c3Design is to create a tool capable of helping instructors design classes (meaning lesson plans), courses and curricula. Hence the three Cs. Since we believe systematic, evidence-based design is the best way to improve teaching and learning, we’ve raised the Cs to the third power.

In other words, design [the design of the course] is exponentially important compared to other activities instructors might undertake to improve teaching and learning.

Q. Where did the idea come from?

A. TurboTax. Seriously. After years of helping lead face-to-face course design institutes at UVA, I was doing my taxes and I was intrigued by the ability of the program to ask straightforward questions and fill out complex tax forms for the user based on their responses. I wondered, “What if a program could ask instructors simple course-design questions and fill out a syllabus for them behind the scenes?” Five years later, we’re launching c3Design.

We promise it’s a lot more fun than doing your taxes.

Michael Palmer headshot

Michael Palmer, who directs the Center for Teaching Excellence, and colleagues created the course-design program that instructors can learn on their own or with facilitated online groups. (Photo courtesy UVA Center for Teaching Excellence)

Q. Does it replace the weeklong Course Design Institute that the Center for Teaching Excellence has offered for 12 years?

A. No. Our Course Design Institute and c3Design are both highly interactive learning environments designed to guide instructors through the iterative, dynamic and scholarly process of learning-focused course design. These experiences help them reimagine their next course – whether that’s face-to-face, hybrid or online.


There are advantages and disadvantages to each model. With CDI, the learning happens together in a physical space over a fairly intense week. With c3Design, the learning happens at a distance, is spread out over several weeks and is less dependent on individual schedules. The current pandemic makes c3Design a perfect alternative. We’ll offer both in the future.

So, in short, the decision about fall classes doesn’t affect its usefulness. Also, don’t forget that summer classes are online.

Q. Does c3Design address teaching courses online?

A. While our course design process doesn’t change for online courses – as in the current situation with the quarantine – we’ve added in some specific considerations that are unique to online teaching and learning.

Here’s an example of one we added to the section on student motivation: “Motivation is especially important to consider in an online environment. Students often struggle to find a sense of community and don’t always get or seek out the help they need to be successful when working remotely. Distractions, time management issues, life situations, and other challenges can make it easier to disengage and fall behind on activities when they can simply close their computer screen.” Other parts of c3Design give instructors specific ideas about how to increase student motivation.

Q. How does a UVA instructor learn how to use c3Design?

A. Instructors can go to the website and simply start c3Design when they’re ready and finish at their own pace, but we’ve also created structured, facilitated experiences. For these experiences, instructors move through the site over a period of two weeks. At specific times, they have “homework” due, which they share with other instructors and a facilitator either asynchronously or in 90-minute synchronous Zoom sessions.

Throughout the summer, the Center for Teaching Excellence is offering both facilitated synchronous and asynchronous c3Design sessions. Registration is currently open for our June sessions. [Note: Session 1, June 1-12, is full.] Session 2 is June 8-19; session 3, June 15-26; and session 4, June 22-July 3.

If none of the dates works, let us know through this form so that we may better accommodate you. We will announce registration for July sessions on Thursday and August sessions in early July.

Q. Is c3Design available to any college teacher?

A. Because we’re still developing and piloting pieces, we’ve limited access. But we expect huge demand once we make it more widely available. Because c3Design was developed with funding from 4-VA [a partnership to promote higher education collaborations in Virginia], we have shared it with center directors at other Virginia public higher education institutions. We expect some will begin using it this summer.

Q. What is the research behind c3Design?

A. c3Design is grounded in the literature of backward-integrated design and Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning; theoretical frameworks of motivation theory, learning theory and the science of learning; and principles of transparency, Universal Design for Learning and equitable learning practices.

We also used the Center for Teaching Excellence’s own research efforts to understand the impact of its face-to-face Course Design Institute on instructors’ beliefs and practices.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

Office of University Communications