Regardless of the size, subject, or level of the course, a systematic approach to course design will help you reach your desired instructional goals. This page provides information that will guide you from the initial design phases of your course to polishing and distributing your syllabus.
Reflecting on your students
Before class begins, find out as much as you can about the students. If you are new to teaching the course, consider consulting with colleagues who have previously taught the course or explore past Teaching Quality Feedback Reports for the course. Take time to view your class roster. These questions might help your inquiry:
Understanding by design ("backwards" course design)
One of the best ways you can reach your instructional goals is to make sure you have some and to align what you do in the classroom to those goals. This approach, framed by researchers Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe and labeled "Understanding by design," reverses the typical course design process and, thus, is often referred to as backwards or reverse design. It starts by prompting instructors to ask a series of questions when they begin thinking about their course.
- Where do I want my students to end up? What knowledge or skills should they leave with?
- How will I know if my students get there? What evidence will convince me that they have the knowledge and skills I want them to have?
- What can I do to get them there? What types of activities and content can I develop to help them build knowledge and skills?
Developing measurable learning outcomes or objectives
Learning outcomes are core to the backwards design process. Even if you have never formally written them out, it's likely that learning outcomes (even unspoken ones) have informed the content of your lectures, your choice of assigned readings and classroom activities, and the standards by which you evaluate your students' work.
A learning outcome is a simple, concise statement that tells students what they should be able to do as a result of working through your course. Developing measurable learning outcomes can help instructors and programs determine if learners are achieving the goals we've set for them.
To get a sense of whether students possess the knowledge or skills we want them to have, we need to observe them doing something, such as correctly identifying something or performing some action. When writing learning outcomes, eliminate vague verbs like understand, know, learn, realize, and appreciate. Replace these words with verbs that describe actions students will take to demonstrate their understanding. Here are some tools that can assist you in developing learning outcomes:
- Writing Learning Objectives Worksheet
- Bloom's Taxonomy and active verb list
- Marzano's Taxonomy verb list (an alternative to Bloom's)
- Learning objective builder tool
Aligning your course to learning outcomes
How will you know if your students achieve the learning outcomes you've developed for them? The best way to know is to develop assignments and assessments that prompt learners to demonstrate the knowledge and skills that inform your learning outcomes. But before you can assess their knowledge and skills, you need to design activities that help them develop their understanding and abilities. If they haven't had opportunities to develop their knowledge and skill set, they won't be able to succeed in the assignments and assessments you've developed. In short, you need to align your activities, assignments, and assessments to your outcomes.
Aligning your assignments and assessments
Once you've developed your learning outcomes, reflect on the following questions:
- What type of assignment or assessment would best help me confirm that my students know X or can do Y? Don't be content with inside-the-box thinking. What are options beyond the multiple-choice quiz, midterm/final, or term paper?
- What assessments can I design to check students' understanding during the course? What about at the end of the course?
For more on assessment design see our Assessing Student Learning resource.
Aligning your activities
Learning outcomes are destinations. Our role as instructors is to design the journey toward those destinations. Think of the questions you ask when planning a trip. What's the best way to get to your destination? A train? A car? Walking? Does it make sense to journey solo or in the company of others? In the classroom, you can lead students toward learning outcomes in any number of ways. You might assign readings or videos, lecture on a topic, ask students to engage in active experimentation, explore case studies, practice a skill, write in class, discuss a topic, conduct field work, engage in service learning, or work to solve a problem. How might you combine activities to create an engaging, transformative journey toward your outcomes?
Once you have answered these questions, you are ready to design your syllabus.