Course Design

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Course design includes everything related to your course: planning the curriculum, creating or choosing the content, deciding how and what instructional material is dispersed, choosing how student progress is tracked, providing opportunities for interaction, and even selecting the language you use in class or on an assignment. The design provides a structural foundation that guides students’ experience within the course.

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If you’ve taught before, you know that developing a quality course is a labor-intensive task that involves careful planning, intentional design, and regular iteration because it is all-encompassing: the curriculum, syllabus, lessons, activities, scaffolding, assignments, projects, content (readings, textbooks, slides, and other materials), selected teaching and learning tools, technology, grading and rubrics, even language and color schemes. By following the practices outlined below, you will be on your way to a well-developed and designed course.

Backward Design

As you reflect on your course design, whether you’ve taught it before or it’s completely new, a good place to start is by reviewing the backward design model developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. As the name suggests, this approach requires you to begin at the end by considering the learning outcomes of the course first. Backward design is an intentional approach to course design that can help all of us—even the most veteran—avoid the temptation of building a course around textbooks, assignments, and activities. There are three main steps to backward design:

  1. (Re)examine your course learning objectives.
  2. Evaluate the course assessments to make sure they measure those objectives.
  3. Confirm that your scaffolded lessons prepare students for the assessments.

Play the video below for a basic introduction.

Video Credit: “Introduction to Backward Design” by T C is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Well-written objectives provide you with a blueprint for development and a way to measure learning. They also provide students with a navigable path. Your course may already have a set of learning objectives that indicate the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes that students must be able to demonstrate in order to successfully complete your course. But like anything that is well-crafted, the occasional reconsideration is a beneficial exercise and will help keep learning relevant to our ever-changing world and students’ lives.

A productive first step is to analyze the verb used in the objective, and Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain (updated by Anderson and Krathwohl) offers excellent suggestions. The taxonomy divides the cognitive domain into six levels of increasing complexity: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create.

As you write your own course objectives, think not only about your goals but also how you want students to demonstrate that they have learned the subject and to what degree:

Which level of Bloom’s Taxonomy do you expect students to achieve for each goal?

Actionable verbs are listed under each domain, and these verbs can be used to create or refine objectives that target learning within the categories. It is crucial that these verbs are measurable so that students know what they are aiming for and so that you can fairly assess student progress. You’ll notice that words open to interpretation such as learn, know, and think are not included.

As you review your course objectives and are thinking about the specific and actionable verbs, it may be useful to, again, cross-reference the level of complexity of the verb you have picked with the six levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy. Ensuring your objectives use a verb that signals the appropriate level of Bloom’s Taxonomy students should achieve, you create assessments that are specific while still allowing flexibility in how students might demonstrate their learning.

Finally, it’s a good idea to share your objectives with students for full transparency. You might put them in the learning management system and/or include them in your course syllabus.

Once you have settled on your objectives, you can start developing your assessments and learning activities to align with them. Most faculty also web-enhance their course through the use of our learning management system (LMS). For Sakai-specific design and development information, visit the Design Basics Learning Modules in the Sakai Info – POM site (requires Sakai login).

Lessons and Scaffolding

The final step in backward design is to develop lessons and activities that help students meet the objectives and prepare for the assessments. This is where scaffolding comes into play. Scaffolding requires careful planning so that students build upon prior knowledge in stages and do not become too overwhelmed with new material. Lessons can consist of learning materials, such as readings, instructor lectures, videos, slides, or audio content. They can also include active homework assignments, labs, and hands-on discovery or practice activities. You should aim to have several practice activities, especially low-stakes ones where students can receive feedback. In this way, the first assessment is never really the first assessment. Although they may need to transfer their learning to a new context, students should already be familiar with the material due to scaffolding and ample opportunities to practice. You can also increase transfer by designing assessments that vary in context or scope.

There are three important points to remember when lesson planning:

  1. Connect lessons directly to your assessments, which are tied to your objectives.
  2. Carefully scaffold lessons to build on students’ prior knowledge and facilitate future learning by constantly drawing connections between lessons.
  3. Make lessons relevant to students by allowing them opportunities to make sense of material and construct meaning based on their past learning and life experiences.

You can also refer to Robert Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction as a way to structure your lessons:

  1. Gain students’ attention.
  2. Inform students of the objective(s).
  3. Stimulate recall of prior learning.
  4. Present the content.
  5. Provide learning guidance.
  6. Elicit the performance.
  7. Provide feedback.
  8. Assess the performance.
  9. Enhance retention and transfer.

Consider downloading and using the Course Alignment Grid [MS Word] to help you plan your course and align lessons and assessments to your objectives.

Course Alignment Grid Download Button

Helpful Resources

If you need further assistance, ITS-RITG is available to answer your questions or meet you for a consultation. Contact us through the Online Service Desk.