Course Design – Part One – Unit Structuring



Have you ever been tasked with developing a nationally recognised course to deliver a qualification? If you have never done this before and have not particularly had any formal training, it can be a very daunting task. I regularly encounter people working on a course development and this primarily has them customising commercially acquired learning / assessment resources without much thought to the actual course design. This is common. In my view, the skill of “course design” has been lost to our sector and I think it is something we need to find and develop as a capability within every RTO.

I regularly come across client courses which have not been designed from the bottom up. How can I tell this? Here are some of the giveaways. The unit sequence of delivery is straight out of the training package core and elective list, the course commences with units that are too complex before the student has a chance to learn the basics, work placement is commenced too early before the student had a chance to learn the skills that will keep them and others safe in the workplace, pre-requisites are not complied with, inadequate time allocated to some complex units and too much time allocated to simple units, the enrolment model being used does not match the delivery strategy (synchronous / asynchronous), students being expected to undertake assessment when they haven’t received adequate training. I could go on. The point is, in almost all these cases, the RTO didn’t understand or was not aware of these requirements or options. It’s like, nobody is teaching this stuff and when I look across the various authoritive websites including the National VET Regulator, there is no guidance. In this article, I want to try and address that and provide an easy to follow guide for designing a basic unit-by-unit VET course in support of achieving a qualification.

What to expect in this article series?

This series of articles on unit-by-unit course design is not intended as some authoritive source on all things on the theory and practice of training design. There are plenty of books and courses on this subject if you have the time. Most of us simply do not have time to digest that level of detail in our busy lives. This series is intended as a “down in the weeds”, step by step approach for someone with a working knowledge of training and assessment to design a course in support of a qualification. I have focused this series on course design for a qualification as opposed to a short course. I am also making some assumptions about the readers current knowledge and skills in training and assessment. If you have completed your Certificate IV in Training and Assessment you should be fine. I am not dealing with learning resource or assessment tool development in this article. That is probably another article and I have assumed that you will acquire your learning and assessment resources from a commercial provider. I have also aimed at a course for those entering an industry and not for targeted enterprise training. If you are about to start on a course design, fantastic! Just take one step at a time and come back to this article as you progress.

The following is an outline of the articles planned for this series:

  • In this first article (Part One), I talk about the past to understand how we got to this point in our national training framwork. I will also explain the three basic structure options for designing a competency based course.
  • In the second article (Part Two), I will spend a little time, explaining the training development process of Analyse, Design, Develop, Deliver and Evaluate.
  • In the third article (Part Three), I will dive into the Analysis of the course requirements which includes analysing the target learner.
  • In future articles (coming soon), I will take a deep dive into the design phase of the training development process including course structure, duration, unit weighting, sequencing, scaffolding, alignment with the training package requirements and course logic. As this series is still in progress, it is difficult to know how many articles it will be in the end, so I will know when it is finished. The design phase is such a big and important phase so, it is likely to be a number of articles.

The Past

For those who read my articles regularly, you will know that I am fond of looking back and remembering how we got to this point. Our current National Skills Framework is based on the competency based training and assessment (CBTA) model. It has largely been this way since about 1990 when the National Training Board was established to supervise the development of industry competency standards. Prior to this, the predominate approach in support of vocational training delivery was a module based curriculum design. Modules focused on taking “chunks” of course content usually organised around course learning objectives and logically sequenced for delivery into module learning outcomes. If you are 50 or older, you will recall the reference to CLOs and MLOs immediately. Course design back in those days was more of an art form that a science. Module based curriculum design was limited to organisations that were very well resourced, it was subjective and usually unique to the course designer’s personal approach to training design. This meant that it typically was not flexible to adapt to different industry context and certainly was not nationally recognised or portable. It could be shared maybe between different delivery sites within the same institute or enterprise but was not feasible for sharing on an industry wide scale. Whilst it had these inefficiencies, this doesn’t mean the training was inferior. The training quality was arguably better than we have today because it was concentrated in very well resourced organisations (like Defence, TAFE, Ford, et cetera) and was designed for a very focused capability outcome. But, it was not available to the masses and if we were ever going to achieve equity across industry in the lifting of national productivity through skilled workers, we had to make a change and so, the National Framework for the Recognition of Training was born.

With the introduction of the National Framework for the Recognition of Training in 1991, we witnessed a dramatic growth in the establishment of “Training Packages” as they became known. This began firstly with the work by State level Industry Training Advisory Bodies (ITABs) in the early 1990s and then by the national ITABs coordinated by the Australian National Training Authority from 1996. Of course, these days we take for granted the availability of our nationally endorsed training packages which cover almost every aspect of Australian industry. I think it is worthy to take pause and recognised the amazing contribution of all those dedicated VET professional who gave their working life to establish our current national training system. From the beginning it has and continues to evolve and be adapted to the times. Today, we can now go to the national training register and select a training product for just about every common trade or occupation you can think of and, bam, you have a unit of competency framework ready for design and shaping into a course. It is a wonderful thing and we all should not take for granted the many 1000’s of hours that have gone into its development. Thank you to all those who contributed.

Course Design Options

I began my career in military instruction in 1995 and from 2002 have worked in one form or another in training design. As a consultant in vocational education and training from 2005, I have literally either designed myself or supervised the design of many hundreds of VET courses. Over that time, I have predominately designed courses using one (or a combination) of the following course design options:


  • Unit-by-unit. The unit-by-unit course design means that each individual unit of competency is trained and assessed as a “discreet component” of a course. I choose those words very deliberately. I wanted to use language such as “separately” or “in isolation”, but this is not the case. The unit may be a discreet component, but it is not delivered in isolation or separate to other units. In fact, there will often be a close and deliberate relationship to units that are being delivered before, parallel to and after any one unit. Some people may assume that unit-by-unit means a “lock-step delivery” (one after the other). It certainly can if this is desired, but there are many other options when you view the unit as a component that can be delivered alongside and compliment other components (units). When we say the course structure is “unit-by-unit” it usually means that each unit has its own discreet learning and assessment and it is not reliant on the learning and assessment of other units. As you will see as we progress, there are contradictions to this because, learning design is flexible. But, the central concept about unit-by-unit remains, each unit has its own discreet learning and assessment.


  • Clustering. Clustering for course design can take many forms and this short paragraph will not do it justice, but I will do my best. Clustering is the process of developing learning and assessment to meet the requirements for groups of units of competency which have a related work function and/or industry / enterprise need. We may group (cluster) units together for learning and assessment because they are performed together in the workplace (work activity cluster). We may group units together because they have a common or are linked through application in a project activity (project cluster). Lastly, we may group units together because they share many of the same knowledge or skills (common knowledge and skills cluster). Clustering units of competency for delivery usually means that we analyse the knowledge from all units in the cluster and make a comprehensive list of knowledge. We then remove the duplication of knowledge and then order the knowledge for logic (maybe simple to complex). We also analyse the skills or tasks that are required by the units in the cluster and make a list of these, remove the duplication, and order these skills according to the workplace requirements. We may combine some of these skills into tasks that reflect the way this work is performed. We then overlay this list of knowledge and skills (tasks) and massage them into a logical learning sequence and insert assessment at logical points in the sequence. We insert the assessment tasks usually when students have had the opportunity to properly develop their skills through practice and feedback prior to assessment. Now you have a learning and assessment pathway for a group of units of competency with no duplication of training or assessment which usually means it is very efficient. At least, that is how I do it. We then repeat the process for all units in clusters and sequence the clusters for delivery as a course. Easy! Seriously, its not that easy, but you get the picture.


  • Holistic. Holistic course design is almost lost to the sector and is something I encounter very rarely these days. Designing a course holistically was very common under a module based curriculum design. It is very similar to clustering except on a larger scale. We take all of the knowledge from all units and synthesise these down to a unique list of knowledge in a logical learning sequence. We analyse all of the skills in all units of competency and synthesise these down to a unique list of tasks that align with the workplace expectation. We overlay these and massage them into a logical learning sequence and insert assessment at logical points in the sequence. The point is with holistic course design, the units of competency have basically disappeared into the background and are only identifiable via a very complex mapping document. There are also no or very few exit points where the student can exit with units of competency achieved. It is common that the student needs to complete the entire course to be issued any units of competency. Holistic course design is still occasionally seen delivered in RTOs where the overriding focus is on the personnel capability development going into very specific roles and the quality of the skills being developed. A couple of examples include large enterprise RTOs such as Defence, policing, aviation or niche private RTOs delivering very high end training in things like aviation, paramedicine or performing arts. Units of competency in these examples are secondary to designing and delivering training which results in very high end and durable skill development where the margin for error can either have major consequences or the industry itself will accept nothing other than perfection (performing arts). Why use units of competency at all? Because the RTO is either obliged to deliver Nationally Recognised Training to align with the accepted (mandated) national quality framework (think government enterprise RTOs) or the training may be funded via VET Student Loans and therefore needs to align with a nationally recognised qualification (aviation).


In Part Two of this article series on unit-by- unit course design we commence by taking a look at the training development process of Analyse, Design, Develop, Deliver and Evaluate. I hope you can continue the journey.

Course Design – Part Two – The TD Process


Good training,

Joe Newbery

Published: 25th April 2022

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