Basics of Course Design
Authored by: Josie Baudier and Traci Stromie
Sometimes instructors may approach new course preps by assigning book chapters to specific weeks and then plan instructional activities one week in advance. However, deep learning does not happen by accident or without intentional planning. Course design is something that instructors should think about as a systematic process. Before we begin teaching, it may be helpful to think about how to design a course that truly facilitates student learning.
When we think about teaching, we might think of it as an action. Teaching is something that can be observed, which is commonly referred to as delivery or facilitation. In actuality, there should be a course design plan behind that action, a thought-out process before the teaching occurs. A course design plan helps us to monitor the learning experience of the students and their success throughout the course. Additionally, it helps instructors reflect on their own success by evaluating student learning throughout the semester as well as at the end of the course, so that adjustments or improvements to our instructional strategies can be made, if necessary.
Systematic course design allows us the opportunity to think extensively about a course, thus planning the course initially before it is taught. Knowing where to start with course design is the first step. Wiggens and McTighe’s (2005) Understanding by Design (UbD), provides a helpful framework for course design based on the idea that teaching is the means to an end. UbD is also referred to as Backward Design because the instructor starts by determining the class goals and objectives, which commonly might have been the last thing the instructor identified. Next, the instructor identifies how students will prove, through assessments, that they have mastered those goals and objectives. Finally, the instructor creates learning experiences that scaffold, support, and guide student learning toward the aforementioned goals and objectives.
Course and Module Objectives:
Observable and measurable course objectives are central to systematic course design. Without knowing the skills or knowledge students should acquire by the end of the course or module, it would be hard for the instructor to determine if the students were successful in the course. Instructors communicate objectives at two levels in a class: course level objectives and module level objectives. Broad course level objectives state what students should be able to do at the end of the class. Typically there are five to eight course objectives that may range in complexity and focus on different cognitive domains of learning (Bloom, 1956). Module or unit level objectives are more specific and support the course level objectives. These specific objectives are associated to the way the content is chunked in the class, whether it is by week or unit. The module level objectives communicate what the students should be able to do at the end of module and are aligned to the course level objectives.
Assessments should be designed in a way that helps the instructor measure if the students have met the learning objectives. Two different types of assessments that the instructor might include throughout the semester are formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments are typically informal, ungraded, or low-stakes assignments that measure the student progress. Summative assessments are graded, major assignments that measure student learning and skill achievement. Furthermore, assessments should be well paced, occurring at regular intervals throughout the semester. Pacing will help the student leverage feedback on the assessment to make performance changes on future assessments. Instructors may also consider creating authentic assessments or self-assessments to provide opportunities for students to practice with the content and demonstrate learning.
Learning Activities and Interactions:
Regardless of the modality, students should be active participants in any course. Active learning will likely look different from course to course depending on the content and instructor. Designing engaging interactions in a course provides students with an opportunity to be involved in their learning, and just not passively attend class. Each course should have student-to-student, student-to-content, and student-to-instructor interactions. Interactions include many different activities, such as small group discussions, collaborative assignments, or student response system questions in class. These active learning activities can be designed so they are scaffolded, allowing time to complete smaller, easier tasks early in the course in order to complete more complex tasks on their own later in the course. This way students will be challenged at the appropriate levels throughout the course, thus leading to proving their mastery of skills in a summative assessment.
Alignment, situational factors, and the course syllabus all need to be considered before the semester starts. These things might impact the learning experience and achievement of student outcomes.
The critical course components, objectives, assessments and activities, cannot exist independently. They must all align, or connect, to one another. By aligning these facets of course design we are making sure there are connections between the expected outcomes of the course (goals/objectives) and the assessments and activities students are engaging in. Without alignment, students may not understand the purpose of the course: feeling unprepared for exams, interpreting activities as busywork, or becoming confused about the course content.
Fink identifies situational factors as details that may affect course design and student learning experience (2003). Situational factors are details that the instructor may not have control over, but need to be aware of as soon as possible. These could range from the content of the course, the prerequisites of the course, and the type of course (current or historical) to the layout and size of the classroom, the instructor’s level of knowledge, and student beliefs about the subject matter (Fink, 2003).
One of the last steps of the course design process, according to some learning scientists, is to write the course syllabus (Fink, 2003, Svinicki, 2011). The syllabus communicates the instructor’s course plan to the students. In addition to course and university policies, this is an opportunity for instructors to explain their passion for the course, their teaching philosophy, and other intricacies about the course.
The benefits of planning a course before the semester begins should make the initial time investment worth it. By establishing course and module level objectives, instructors can articulate what the end result of the class should be. Designing assessments and activities that align with those objectives will allow students to master and meet the course goals. Intentional course design helps the instructor have a clear end point in sight and helps the students expertly navigate the semester.
Fink, D.L. (2005). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Svinicki, M., McKeachie, W. (2011). McKeachie’s Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13 e.d.). Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Wiggins, G., McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2 e.d.).New Jersey: Pearson.
Bloom, B., Englehart, M. Furst, E., Hill, W., & Krathwohl, D. (1956). Taxonomy ofeducational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York, Toronto: Longmans, Green.