Want personalized help designing your course, syllabus or curriculum?

Program design strategies

These strategies have been identified as central to the development of programs that prioritize student development and help improve student retention, engagement, and academic performance.


A number of specific program design strategies increase the possibility that students of all backgrounds will have positive, strong learning outcomes. These strategies have been identified as High Impact Practices (HIPs) by The National Survey of Student Engagement and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Implementation of these strategies, as appropriate, reinforces the McGill commitment to providing a healthy learning environment to students.

Some examples of HIPs from programs at McGill are provided below; this list is not comprehensive. If your program incorporates any of these strategies, please tls [at] mcgill.ca (let us know) so that we can highlight them.

Provide structures that facilitate a common intellectual experience

  • Ensure (groups of) students take 2 or more classes together

    McGill examples

    • The Faculty of Engineering offered the General Engineering Program for incoming students from high school.

    • The Faculty of Science holds Field Study Semesters, which are semester-long experiences taking place abroad supervised by McGill professors and centred on a geographic theme. Sites include Barbados, where the focus is on resource use and sustainability, Kenya/Uganda, where the focus is on conservation and ecology, and the Arctic.

    • Offer first-year seminars to encourage incoming students to get to know each other and the program in smaller classroom contexts

      McGill examples

      • The Faculty of Science holds Freshmen Interest Groups consisting of approximately 15 U0 students and led by a professor and an upper-year student. These not-for-credit groups meet twice monthly, allowing students to become familiar with instructors, the Faculty, and each other.

    • Offer discipline-linked seminars (methodology, ethics, professional skills) to encourage inter-year interaction

      McGill examples

      • The School of Religious Studies offers a 400-level course (mandatory for Honours; optional otherwise) examining various approaches to the discipline

    • Offer capstone courses in the final year/term to provide graduating students the opportunity to revisit their first-year cohorts and reflect on the program as a whole

      McGill examples

      • The Faculty of Science requires Honours students to take a 3-credit research course in their final year; similar courses are optionally available for students in other streams.

    Emphasize diversity and global learning

    • Offer opportunities for service learning/community-based learning

      McGill examples

      • The Faculty of Dentistry hosts the Mobile Outreach Clinic, which partners community agencies with dental students and volunteer support staff and sets up day-long dental clinics in community locations to provide free care and education to vulnerable populations

      • The Macdonald Campus hosts the Farm to School project, an outreach program where undergraduate students help lead workshops about agriculture, nutrition, and the environment for primary and secondary school students. Farm to School also hosts a summer camp program and a program for people with special needs

      • The School of Environment hosts a 400-level field semester (Montreal’s Urban Sustainability Experience) to explore urban sustainability through interactions between students, professors, and the community while fostering student initiatives

      • The Faculty of Arts facilitates student internships with NGOs and research groups working on community initiatives, social justice, and educational development. Students in these internships are required to be returning to the university in order to give back to the McGill community and to provide mentorship to future interning students.

    • Offer opportunities for discipline-related internships, both within the university and outside of it

      McGill examples

      • The Faculty of Management offers transcript notation or academic credit for approved internships that complement academic work and provide networking opportunities, and hosts workshops and company presentations to help students find internships

      • The Faculty of Law gives students the opportunity to earn credits while working with community organizations through the Legal Clinic Program and gives partial funding to students working with NGOs through the International Human Rights Internship Program, among other programs

      • The Faculty of Arts offers students the opportunity to earn credit for writing a major essay after an 11-week summer internship for which they also provide partial funding. They also offer students partial funding to work with a faculty member of the university on a research project, for which they also receive credit. These internships are preceded by extensive training, and followed by a debrief session.

    • Create opportunities for public demonstrations of competence

      McGill examples

      • McGill’s Persian classes host a Persian New Year event every spring. This event is open to members of the Institute of Islamic Studies and friends and family of the presenters.

      • The Faculty of Science hosts the Undergraduate Research Conference each fall, where departments within the faculty nominate up to 5 student research projects to be judged by professors across the faculty. The projects are presented as posters, similarly to how they would be at a professional conference. This event, which also includes a prize ceremony and a prominent keynote speaker, is open to the public.

      • The Faculty of Arts hosts Arts Internship events in September and January where students who have participated in internships present their experiences and/or research with poster presentations. The event also allows students the opportunity to interact with faculty members, invited speakers, and the donors who fund the internship awards

    • Include courses focused on professional ethics

      McGill examples

      • The Faculty of Engineering offers a 100-level and 400 level course on the engineering profession (FACC 100 and FACC 400)

      • The Faculty of Management offers a 400-level course on professional ethics (MGPO 450)

    • Encourage the development of a personal philosophy through creating supportive structures for self-assessment

    Facilitate student-faculty interaction

    • Provide undergraduate research opportunities

      McGill examples

      • The School of the Environment offers a course (ENVR 401) where approved students are selected to work in teams on projects with real-world clients (e.g. a water management study for Camp Oureau or trail mapping and improvement for the Town of Hudson) and a faculty supervisor

      • Sustainability McGill offers an opportunity for Applied Student Research, where students, supervised by a faculty member, earn academic credit for taking on projects that serve community sustainability needs while applying theory taught in the classroom

      • The Bachelor of Arts and Science (BA&Sc) program offers a 400-level integrative research project course where students work individually with professors

      • The Faculty of Science offers an award that appears on transcripts for students who take 9 credits of independent research courses, including 3 credits from a different department. The Faculty works to make this kind of achievement accessible by providing funding (through NSERC and through private donations) to allow students to work full-time in a lab for 15 weeks. Similar funding opportunities exist in the Faculties of Engineering, Agriculture, and Medicine.

      • The Faculty of Arts offers students the opportunity to work with a faculty member, where funding is provided half by the faculty member and half by the Arts Research Internship Awards (funding largely by private donations). These students contribute to the faculty member’s research for 11 weeks and receive mentorship. Students are trained extensively before beginning their internship.

      • The Faculty of Engineering offers the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE) in which students work closely with a McGill Engineering professor on a research project.

    • Offer discipline-linked seminars and events where students can learn not only about the discipline but also about the different approaches to it represented by the faculty members

      McGill examples

      • McGill’s Faculty of Engineering offers a seminar series to explore the opportunities of each engineering program

      • McGill’s BA&Sc program requires students to take a 200-level course integrating both arts and sciences to investigate the value of an interdisciplinary approach

      • McGill’s Faculty of Science hosts Soup and Science events once a semester, where 5 professors speak for 3 minutes each about their research, followed by group discussion between faculty and students. These expose students to the different research being conducted in the faculty, as well as offering opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration between faculty members

    • Outline mentorship expectations for program faculty, including providing training and resources for faculty

      McGill examples

    Create structures to produce program-level takeaways

    • Offer capstone courses with final integrative/cumulative projects

    • Offer discipline-linked and/or methodology seminars

    • Require students to develop a personal learning plan and a cumulative portfolio, regularly assessed at the program level

    Emphasize individual learner development

    • Provide research opportunities for undergraduates

    • Provide opportunities for service learning/community-based learning

    • Provide internship opportunities

    • Offer capstone courses

    • Offer discipline-specific courses (e.g., methodology, professional skills)

    • Offer basic skills courses

    • Provide opportunities for public demonstrations of competence

    • Encourage the development of a personal philosophy


    Supporting students’ financial needs

    Programs should be designed in a way that supports students’ ability to access need-based financial assistance, and meet full-time status and visa requirements.

    One out of every three full-time degree students relies on some form of need-based (often debt-based) government or institutional financial aid; constraints around a student’s aid can prevent them from participating in certain academic programs (or opportunities within programs). The Scholarships & Student Aid Office and International Student Services suggest the following program design strategies to minimize this impact:


    All semesters within a program should be offered as full-time.

    • In general, students need to be registered full-time to receive sufficient government aid to cover their academic and living costs whereas government aid for part-time students will only cover tuition, if anything.
    • Quebec students on government aid must be registered for at least 12 credits per semester to be considered full-time and eligible for aid. (Other provinces enforce 9 credits; the U.S. enforces 7.5 credits.) Where possible, programs should not be designed such that it is mandatory to be part-time in a particular semester. Under such conditions, and only in some provinces, students can resort to applying through the Part-time Loan program, which only covers tuition (not living expenses). Students are also not eligible to use the Part-time Program if that study period is between two full-time periods.
    • Part-time programs (no registered student can carry a full-time course load) are not recognized by Quebec’s government aid program whatsoever, and therefore, other provincial government aid programs will also not recognize them.
    • International students are required to maintain full-time status per Quebec and Canada immigration policies. In some cases, at the time of renewal, McGill can explain why students had to be part-time (usually for medical reasons). A student who has studied part-time is not eligible to obtain a 3-year Open Work Permit after graduation.

    Length and timing of semester

    • Programs and semesters with a duration less than 3 months are not recognized for government aid.
    • Programs starting their academic year prior to the University officially defined semesters) are considered part of the prior academic year and must be registered before the 15th of the month for that month of living costs to be recognized.
    • Projects, stages, co-ops, etc. that are a mandatory part of a program are recognized as full-time effort.

    Mandatory projects, stages, and co-ops

    • Students in financial need are unable to receive government aid if their program requires them to work on projects full-time (often during the summer) for which no credits are attributed. Some stages require full-time effort but only attribute part-time credits. Students in financial need find themselves working full-time, unpaid, and are not eligible for aid. The ideal approach is to have full-time effort recognized with full-time credit. The Scholarships & Student Aid Office may be able to suggest other options.
    • International students may only obtain a co-op work permit if the stage/co-op/placement is an integral part of the program of study (i.e., required for all students in the program for completion of the program). 

    Financially supported experiential learning opportunities should be considered.

    • Offering opportunities for service learning/community-based learning and discipline-related internships can be problematic for students in financial need if the experience is unpaid and the effort does not award full-time credits. Moreover, these efforts tend to preclude students from being able to earn money through part-time work. To ensure these opportunities are accessible to all, they should be for-pay arrangements, or the program should offer awards to offset the impact, or faculties should contact the Scholarships & Student Aid Office to have these activities recognized for the Enriched Educational Opportunity (EEO) Bursary Program.
    • ​For international students, co-op work permits are required whether the placement is paid or unpaid.

    Alternatives to mandatory courses delivered online should be considered.

    • Mandatory courses with all or a significant online component prohibits American students from accessing their federal aid. Consult the Scholarships and Student Aid Office to study the impact on your student body and to understand alternative solutions.



    For a detailed consultation with government student financial assistance specialists, please contact the Scholarships & Student Aid Office at ssaopartners.ssao [at] mcgill.ca


    For questions regarding international students’ eligibility to work and study, please contact International Student Services at international.students [at] mcgill.ca


    McGill University is on land which has served and continues to serve as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. Teaching and Learning Services acknowledges and thanks the diverse Indigenous peoples whose footsteps mark this territory on which peoples of the world now gather. This land acknowledgement is shared as a starting point to provide context for further learning and action.

    Back to top