Basic Course Design

Basic Course Design


Designing a new course, or redesigning an existing course, can seem daunting, particularly if you have a limited background in educational theory or are new to teaching. This article intends to give a basic background and starting point for course design using the constructive alignment framework 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 learning theory (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 will result in explicitly linking teaching and learning activities to classroom assessments and evaluation, course learning objectives, and ultimately to course learning outcomes.

Starting with the End in Mind

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 students 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 roadmap for the semester.

Figure 1 can serve as a scaffold that you can apply as you redesign an existing course or design a new course from scratch.

A flow chart showing how objectives should be related to content and teaching approach


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…

For additional information, review CELT’s Tips on writing good learning outcomes objectives page.

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.

For ideas, use these web tools:

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. A combination of assessment (not graded) and evaluation (graded) approaches provides students with various opportunities to show their mastery of the course content.

Figure 3 illustrates the relationship between assessment and evaluation

Figure 3 illustrates the relationship between assessment and evaluation.

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.

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

Next Steps: Revamping Your Lesson Plan

Once you’ve determined the most effective way(s) to teach, download this worksheet that focuses on four steps to revamp your lecture. This contains reflection, strategies to consider moving forward, reviewing a sample class, and a class planning template.

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

Biggs, J.B., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does. New York, Estados Unidos: McGraw Hill Society for Research into Higher Education: Open UP.

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

Knaack, L. (2011). A Practical Handbook for Educators: Designing Learning Opportunities. Whitby, ON: De Sitter Publications.

Wiggins, G.P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.