Course Design

Attention to design ensures the efficient development of an effective course.

On this page:

Why focus on course design?

Following a design process can help ensure course quality while reducing the time and effort it takes to develop a highly effective curriculum.

Efficient Process: Course design is a complex process that requires determining and coordinating many factors. This means:

  • Considering variables such as subject area, students' background knowledge, and the instructional mode.
  • Making choices and constructing courses using an optimal progression.

Effective Outcomes: In addition to considering parts of your course, effective courses require:

  • Aligning key course elements to ensure that they work well together.
  • Using research-based teaching practices that support student learning and transfer of knowledge.

Backward and Integrated Design

The following processes are complimentary approaches to course design: Backward Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) and Integrated Design (Fink, 2013).

These approaches focus on three foundational elements:

  • Learning outcomes: What students should know and be able to do by the end of the course.
  • Assessments: Evidence that shows students have met these outcomes.
  • Activities: Opportunities for students to learn, practice, and become proficient to achieve these outcomes.

Backward Design

A traditional, but less effective, approach to course design starts with identifying the content to cover then determines where to place exams and homework assignments.

Arrow showing order: Unit 1, Unit 2, Exam 1, Unit 3, Exam 2.

In contrast, the Backward Design framework (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) proposes first determining the changes you want to see in your students (learning outcomes), then how you will know if your students have achieved these outcomes (assessment) and finally what activities will help students learn. This curriculum design approach begins with the end in mind.

Backwards design framework: Activities, Assessment, Learning Outcomes. Starting with Learning outcomes is to design backwards, starting with activities is to deliver forward.

Wiggins and McTighe, 2005

Further, because each element influences the next, alignment is essential. Learning outcomes dictate the assessments and activities as well as the content coverage.

Integrated Design

Fink (2013) also focuses on alignment but recognizes that some parts of a course may be pre-determined, which makes design less linear and more of a negotiation between the parts. For example, course design might be influenced by a technology that students must learn or an important assessment they need to prepare for. This means that each element interacts with the other two and that choices you make in one area may require adjustments in the others.

If misalignment occurs between two elements, it is likely to cause disconnect between the others.

For example, a faculty member teaches biology and wants students to be able to think critically about evolution (learning outcome). During the course, however, only lectures are presented (activities) with minimal opportunity to converse about evolution with their peers. On the exam, students answer questions that check for simple understanding (misalignment between learning outcomes and assessment) and for critical thinking (misalignment between assessment and activities). Focusing on alignment during design can help prevent these conflicts.

As you go through the process of designing or redesigning your course, you can use the following worksheet to help ensure the alignment of learning outcomes, assessments, and activities.

Next Steps

Now that you are aware of the design process, the next step is to consider your teaching approach and the instructional delivery modes available.