Course Design for Student Learning

The success of a course is often determined long before the students walk into the classroom. Whether you have taught a course a hundred times before or are prepping a new course from scratch, taking the time upfront to think carefully about your goals and overall course design can not only increase student learning but can make the actual implementation easier and can save you time in the long run. Specifically, good course design ensures that all the components of a course are in alignment; that is, the activities and assessments are explicitly linked to the learning goals so that activities actually help students develop the skills and content knowledge you want them to develop and those skills and knowledge are then used in assessments that actually assess whether students have learned what you want them to learn. Thus, having a well-aligned course strongly increases the chances that students will actually achieve your intended learning outcomes.

Unfortunately, many courses are constructed, rather than designed. It is not unusual, particularly when teaching a new course, for instructors to focus on content (perhaps from a syllabus acquired from another instructor or the table of contents of a commonly-used textbook), then plan their lectures or class activities to ‘cover’ the content, and then write their exams or other major assignments based on what they have done in class. But good course design takes the exact opposite approach, using what is often referred to as “backward course design”. As the term implies, this requires instructors start at the end, thinking about what students should know and be able to do by the end of the course and then working backward to determine what evidence will tell the instructor that students have achieved the intended outcomes, and what learning activities will help students be able to provide that evidence, while keeping in mind the specific context in which the learning will happen. Angelo (2012) suggests instructors consider the following questions (in this order):

  1. What is the overall purpose of this course?
  2. Where does this course fit (within the larger curriculum)?
  3. For whom is this course designed?
  4. What specifically should students learn and be able to do by this course’s end?
  5. What standards will be used to evaluate their learning?
  6. How will their learning be assessed?
  7. What specific content will be taught and assessed?
  8. What will motivate students to learn deeply and well?
  9. What work will students do to learn?
  10. What work will teachers and others do to help students learn?

[Angelo, Tom, “Designing courses for learning: practical research-based principles and guidelines,” in Hunt, L. & Chalmers, D. (2012). University Teaching in Focus. London: Routledge]

The following resources can provide additional guidance as you explore these questions:

  • Wiggins and McTighe’s 1998 Understanding by Designis the original ‘handbook’ of backward design – Chapter 1 provides an overview of the process while this ASCD white paper gives additional details about each step
  • Dee Fink's Creating Significant Learning Experiences provides an updated approach to backward design focused on learner-centered principles. Fink's Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning is a stand-alone complement to the book.
  • Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center has a Design Your Course tutorial with additional resources and guidance on each stage
  • University of Colorado – Denver also has a tutorial on assessment and alignment that covers each of the steps with an emphasis on aligning outcomes, activities and assessments
  • Arguably the most important phase of good course design is establishing your intended learning outcomes. Bloom’s taxonomy is a common tool for categorizing education goals, emphasizing the hierarchy of skills and abilities. While most mentions of Bloom's taxonomy focuses on the cognitive domain, Bloom's team also identified objectives in the psychomotor and affective domains. Fink (see above) has developed a taxonomy that also includes emotional and metacognitive dimensions
  • This rubric highlights the characteristics of good learning outcome statements. An important characteristic is that they should be observable, assessable and measurable; to help ensure that, this CTL Action Verb placement has 360 suggestions for ways to begin your outcome statements
  • This grid provides examples of activities and assessments aligned with outcomes at various stages of Bloom’s taxonomy. A similar grid provides examples of activities and assessments aligned with Fink's taxonomy of significant learning. Mapping assessments and outcomes is another way to ensure your course components are well-aligned.
  • These and additional resources, including several handouts that help you walk through the backward design process, are among the materials from the CTL's Course Design Boot Camp (which hopefully, will be offered on a regular basis so keep an eye out for announcements of the next dates!).  
  • For those proposing new courses at SDSU, this CurricUNET checklist and "CurricUNET for Dummies" guide provide additional explanation of several of the items you will need for your proposal.