Course (Re)Design

For students to learn more effectively, teaching must focus on course design informed by research and learning principles.

On this page:

Why focus on course design?

Traditionally, faculty create courses with a focus on what they will do: the content they will teach and how they will teach it. However, according to Constructivism, learning only occurs when students construct meaning from this content. A faculty-focused approach often ignores whether the student experience will lead to or facilitate meaning making. Consequently, many problems arise that faculty may already be familiar with, including:

  • Students learn content for exams but forget it within a short period of time.
  • Students learn content superficially but are unable to think about it critically.
  • Students are disengaged and unaware of why the content is important.

Learning does not happen by accident nor solely through the goodwill of students and faculty, as the outcomes of lecturing environments often attest to. Learning requires careful design so that students understand the reasons to put forth effort and have the guidance needed to accomplish the learning outcomes of the course.

The shift in focus from teaching to learning is also a shift in focus from faculty-centered to student-centered. This is a consequence of the fact that faculty cannot directly impart knowledge to students. The focus, therefore, should not be on what you are doing but on what experiences you are providing that facilitate the construction of knowledge.

To be clear, the shift is not from mindless coverage of content to mindless activities or keeping students busy. The goal is to make sure there is purpose in all parts and that form follows function. By understanding how students learn we can better design the form that course experiences take in order to improve the function of student learning.

Backwards and Integrated Design

Two overlapping and complimentary approaches to course design form the backbone of CEI’s Core Curriculum for Faculty Development and solve several problems faculty encounter when designing their courses.

These approaches focus on three key elements: learning outcomes, assessment and learning experiences.

Usually faculty begin designing a course with the content they need to cover, figure out how they will teach it (usually lecture) and then where to place exams and homework assignments.

An example of traditional course design that starts with unit one and two, then exam one, followed by unit three and exam two and so on.

Course design that puts deciding on learning experiences first.

Backwards Design

Showing backwards design process focusing on learning outcomes first, followed by assessment and finally learning experiences.

The Backwards Design framework (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) proposes putting content (learning experiences) last instead of first. The initial focus should be what changes you want to see in your students (learning outcomes), then determining how you will know if your students have achieved these outcomes (assessment) and finally what experiences students will need in order to create the changes.

Learning outcomes, therefore, dictate content coverage. If a chapter or section does not contribute towards the changes you want to see in your students then it is irrelevant to these goals.

Integrated Design

Integration (Fink, 2013) adds an additional goal to course design: that the three key elements are aligned. This means that each element interacts with the other two and that choices you make in one element may require you to adjust the other elements.

The interconnection of the three key elements of integrated design (learning outcomes, assessment and learning experiences).

For example,

  • If a learning outcome cannot be assessed the way it is framed it must be altered to something that is measurable.
  • If a required learning experience is too long and cannot be reduced, the number of learning outcomes may need to be shortened.

Although you begin with learning outcomes, influences can go in all directions.

One important reason for aligning all elements is that if there is misalignment between two elements, there will also be misalignment between the others.

Misalignment between the three key elements of integrated design (learning outcomes, assessment and learning experiences).

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 (learning experiences) with no opportunity to think critically. When creating an exam, the faculty member could choose questions to check for student understanding (misalignment between learning outcomes and assessment) or for critical thinking (misalignment between assessment and learning experiences). 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 make sure learning outcomes, assessments and learning activities are aligned.

Example of a completed worksheet for designing a course (link to worksheet in Word format available on this page).