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Getting started with course design

Intentionally designing your course with your instructional goals and students in mind increases the likelihood that students will be engaged and learn. The strategies and guidance below can get you started on planning and developing your course and syllabus.

Reflecting on your students

Before class begins, find out as much as you can about the students. If you are new to teaching the course, consider consulting with colleagues who have previously taught the course or explore the datasets generated by the UW Office of the Registrar to gather information. Take time to view your class roster. These questions might help your inquiry:

  • Are your students new to UW? New to the course topic? New to the disicpline?
  • What motivates students to take your course? Are they majors or fulfilling a distribution credit?
  • What knowledge/skills might you expect students to have before the first class?
  • What problems do students typically have with this material at this level?

“Backward” course design

One of the best ways you can reach your instructional goals is to make sure you have some and to align what you do in the classroom to those goals. This approach, framed by researchers Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, reverses the typical course design process and, thus, is often referred to as “backward” or “reverse” course design. To ensure that all the parts of your course are working together, ask yourself the following questions when you begin to develop your course:

  • Where do I want my students to end up? What knowledge or skills should they leave with?
  • How will I know if my students get there? What evidence will convince me that they have the knowledge and skills I want them to have?
  • What can I do to get them there? What types of activities and content can I develop to help them build knowledge and skills?

Backward design also acknowledges that learning happens incrementally. In the beginning of a course, it is unlikely that students will be able to produce a complex project that requires a lot of higher-order thinking. Backward design prompts instructors to break down that complexity and develop smaller assignments that help students build the portfolio of skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in more complex assignments.  This is a concept known as scaffolding.

Developing measurable learning outcomes or objectives

Learning outcomes are core to the backward design process. Even if you have never formally written them out, it’s likely that learning outcomes (even unspoken ones) have informed the content of your lectures, your choice of assigned readings and classroom activities, and the standards by which you evaluate your students’ work.

A learning outcome is a simple, concise statement that tells students what they should be able to do as a result of working through your course. Developing measurable learning outcomes can help instructors and programs determine if learners are achieving the goals we’ve set for them.

To get a sense of whether students possess the knowledge or skills we want them to have, we need to observe them doing something, such as correctly identifying something or performing some action. When writing learning outcomes, eliminate vague verbs like understand, know, learn, realize, and appreciate. Replace these words with verbs that describe the actions students will take to demonstrate their understanding.

Here are some tools that can assist you in developing learning outcomes:

Aligning your course to learning outcomes

How will you know if your students achieve the learning outcomes you’ve developed for them? The best way to know is to develop assignments and assessments that prompt learners to demonstrate the knowledge and skills that inform your learning outcomes. But before you can assess their knowledge and skills, you need to design activities that help them develop their understanding and abilities. If they haven’t had opportunities to develop their knowledge and skill set, they won’t be able to succeed in the assignments and assessments you’ve developed. In short, you need to align your activities, assignments, and assessments to your outcomes.

Aligning your assignments and assessments

Once you’ve developed your learning outcomes, reflect on the following questions:

  • What type of assignment or assessment would best help me confirm that my students know X or can do Y? Don’t be content with inside-the-box thinking. What are options beyond the multiple choice quiz, midterm/final, or term paper?
  • What assessments can I design to check students’ understanding during the course? What about at the end of the course?

For more on assessment design, see our Assessing Student Learning page.

Aligning your activities

Learning outcomes are destinations. Our role as instructors is to design the journey toward those destinations. Think of the questions you ask when planning a trip. What’s the best way to get to your destination? A train? A car? Walking? Does it make sense to journey solo or in the company of others? In the classroom, you can lead students toward learning outcomes in any number of ways. You might assign readings or videos, lecture on a topic, ask students to engage in active experimentation, explore case studies, practice a skill, write in class, discuss a topic, conduct field work, engage in service learning, or work to solve a problem. How might you combine activities to create an engaging, transformative journey toward your outcomes?

Integrating technology into your teaching

Learning technologies offer instructors additional opportunities to create dynamic, relevant learning experiences, share information, and structure interaction for students in in-person, hybrid, and online courses. They can also sometimes (but not always) boost the accessibility of a course’s materials or assignments. But technology, in and of itself, cannot foster learning. The technologies you adopt need to support your larger vision and goals for the course. Here are some questions to guide your decisionmaking when it comes to integrating technology into your course:

  • What are my learning goals? The adoption of any technology should be driven by your learning outcomes and objectives. The best technology is useless if it isn’t connected to a clear instructional purpose.
  • Does the technology add value? Loading up your class with lots of new technologies might seem like a good idea, but asking students to devote brainpower to learning new technologies every week may reduce the amount of brainpower they can devote to course concepts. Avoid choosing a complex technology where a simpler one will do and think carefully about how many new technologies you introduce in your course.
  • Is the technology supported by the UW? Many technologies on the web are advertised as “free.” That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use them. The old adage, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” definitely applies to “free” technologies you find on the Internet. Free software often carries hidden (non-monetary) costs, usually involving the appropriation of student data. The UW carefully vets its technology vendors to ensure that they follow privacy and security best practices. When choosing technology, first explore the learning technologies supported by the UW and/or connect with the learning technology support staff on your campus.

Where to get teaching technology support

Creating your syllabus

A syllabus provides the instructor and students with a common reference point that sets the stage for learning throughout the course. Get guidance on how to create a syllabus.