Basic Course Design: Aligning Course Objectives with Class Assignments and Your Teaching Approach

Case Study: How I Became a More Effective and Efficient Teacher

As I prepared my syllabus a few semesters ago, I realized that the many small changes I had made to the course over the previous few years had actually resulted in pretty significant changes to what I was evaluating students on, how I was doing the evaluation, and even some of the content covered in the course. I had just finished reading A Practical Handbook for Educators: Designing Learning Opportunities by Liesel Knaack and realized my course was ripe for some re-design work.

The concept of constructive alignment guided my course redesign. I started with rewriting my course learning objectives so they were clearly measureable. Then I reviewed the course assignments and revamped them so they each mapped to a course objective in some way or another. And finally, I changed some of the teaching strategies I was using to increase student engagement with the content.

That work I did up front, has paid off in a number of ways. Now, assignments are more focused and relate to each other better. There are actually fewer assignments to grade and I am able to provide more valuable feedback to students. And, I’ve been able to more clearly scaffold assignments throughout the semester. Student comments about these changes have been positive, and I know I am more efficient and effective in my teaching as well. ~Ann Marie VanDerZanden

Starting with the End in Mind

Designing a new course, or redesigning an existing course, can seem like a daunting task, particularly if you have a limited background in educational theory or are new to teaching. This article is intended to give a basic background and starting point for course design using the constructive alignment framework, which is commonly used in higher education. Additional resources are included to provide more details and further reading about course design approaches including the backward design process.

Constructive Alignment

Constructive alignment in teaching links the constructivist theory of learning (where students link new material to previous knowledge and experiences, and extrapolate to future understandings) with outcomes-based teaching. Implementing constructive alignment in course design results in explicitly linking teaching and learning activities, to classroom assessments and evaluation, to course learning objectives, and ultimately to course learning outcomes.

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Figure 1: Constructive alignment shows the relationship between learning objectives, assessment and evaluation strategies, and teaching approaches.

Implications for Course Design

Figure 2 can serve as design scaffold that you can apply as you are redesigning an existing course or designing a new course from scratch.

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Figure 2

Consider including this type of flowchart, specific to your course, in the course syllabus to help students see the connections between course assignments and learning outcomes. This is often called a graphic syllabus and also supports the concept of transparent teaching. It helps student gain a broader understanding of how the course is organized and why you do the things you do to support their learning in the course. In essence, it gives them a course road map for the semester.

Course Learning Outcome

Start with the end in mind. What are the overall course learning outcomes? Another way to think of the outcomes is to consider them as “enduring understandings”. If you had the chance to ask students six months after completing your course what they learned from the course, ideally they would be related to the course learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are a broad statement of what the students will be able to do when they have completed the course. A practical approach to writing learning outcomes is to frame them as responses to the phrase: Upon completion of this course students will…

Learning Objectives

Next, determine appropriate measurable learning objectives that map to the course learning outcome. If the course is divided into a series of modules, each module may have a set of specific learning objectives. On the other hand, it may make sense to have a set of learning objectives that span across the entire course. These learning objectives will allow students to demonstrate specific knowledge, mastery of a skill, or a change in attitude.

Assessment and Evaluation

Once learning objectives are established, the next step is to create assessment and evaluation tools that will allow you to determine if students have accomplished/achieved a learning objective. Using a combination of assessment (not graded) and evaluation (graded) approaches provides students a variety of opportunities to show their mastery of the course content. Figure 3 illustrates the relationship between assessment and evaluation

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Figure 3

Teaching Approach

The final step is to determine the most effective way(s) to teach based on the assessment/evaluation. In order to make learning accessible to all learners it is best to use multiple teaching approaches. These might include: direct instruction such as demonstration or lecture; use of individual learning strategies such as in-class worksheets or problem sets, or directed online discussion posts; group learning strategies such as peer instruction, guided group discussion or team-based learning; activity focused strategies where students conduct a small experiment or simulation in class or lab; or problem solving strategies that use case studies or require students to create a concept map. A comprehensive list of teaching and learning strategies are available in Knaack, 2011.

Depending on which teaching approach you select, you may be able to imbed either and assessment or evaluation as part of the activity.

Resources

Tips on writing good learning outcomes objectives (CELT)

The University of Minnesota Center for Educational Innovation offers a 5-part online tutorial on Integrated Aligned Course Design 

Further Reading

Biggs, John Burville, and Catherine Tang. Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does. New York, Estados Unidos: McGraw Hill Society for Research into Higher Education: Open UP, 2011. Print.

Fink, L. Dee. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. Print.

Knaack, Liesel. A Practical Handbook for Educators: Designing Learning Opportunities. Whitby, ON: De Sitter Publications, 2011. Print.

Wiggins, Grant P., and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005. Print.