Course and syllabus design

Regardless of the size, subject, or level of the course, a systematic approach to course design will help you reach your desired instructional goals. This page provides information that will guide you from the initial design phases of your course to polishing and distributing your syllabus.

Course design

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?

Understanding by design (“backwards” 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 and labeled “Understanding by design,” reverses the typical course design process and, thus, is often referred to as backwards or reverse design. It starts by prompting instructors to ask a series of questions when they begin thinking about their 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?

Developing measurable learning outcomes or objectives

Learning outcomes are core to the backwards 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 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 classdiscuss 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?

Syllabus design

The syllabus provides the instructor and students with a common reference point that sets the stage for learning throughout the course. Make sure that your students have easy access to the course syllabus by handing out hard copies on the first day of class and (if applicable) posting a digital copy on the course website.

UW syllabus guidelines and resources

Many policies and recommended practices at the UW are enacted at the school or departmental level, so be sure to connect with your departmental supervisor about the department’s expectations regarding syllabi. The university also has institution-wide policies and guidelines that you’ll want to explore as you build your syllabus.

Common components included in a syllabus

The form and content of a syllabus vary widely by discipline, department, course and instructor.  However, there are common components that most successful syllabi contain. These components communicate to your students an accurate description of the course including the topics that will be cover, assignments and assessments students will be responsible for, as well as a clear source for policies and expectations.

Course description

  • Course content: What is the basic content of the course and what makes it important or interesting?  How does the course fit into the context of the discipline?
  • Learning objectives: What should students be able to do by the end of the course?  Objectives are most helpful when they are expressed in terms of knowledge and skills that can be readily identified and assessed.  For example, the ability to recognize, differentiate, apply or produce is much more readily identifiable than the ability to appreciate or understand.
  • Characteristics of class meetings:  What types of activities should students be prepared for?  Discussion?  Lecture?  Small groups?  Student presentations?
  • Logistics:  What are the instructor’s and TAs’ names?  How can they be contacted?  How are course materials obtained?  When and where does the class meet?

Course topics and assignments

  • Schedule of topics and readings: What will the main topics of the course be and when will they be addressed?  What will students need to do to prepare for each class?  Most instructors include a weekly or daily schedule of topics they intend to address, along with a list of assigned readings and other course materials.
  • Assignments, projects and exams: How will students demonstrate their learning?  Include learning goals, estimated scope or length, assessment criteria and dates.  Instructors typically include a breakdown, in point values or percentages, of how much each assignment or test contributes to a student’s final grade.

Course policies and values

What values will shape your teaching in the course and what policies will guide you?  Policies and values that you might want to communicate through your syllabus include:

  • Inclusiveness:  How can your syllabus help you create an inclusive atmosphere that welcomes all students?  Some instructors include statements inviting participation from all students, honoring student diversity and differing points of view, or inviting requests for disability accommodations.
  • Integrity:  What are policies and procedures regarding academic integrity and misconduct in relation to materials and assignment for this course?  For example, considering the types of work you are asking students to do, what do you want to communicate about working with data?  representing original sources? accountability for contributions to group projects?
  • Responsibility:  What do students need to know about your expectations regarding assignments, attendance, online participation or classroom interactions?  Other possibilities include policies regarding late work, make-up exams and preparation for class participation.
  • Expectations for success:   How can students learn most successfully in your course?  In your syllabus, you can express confidence that all students are capable of doing well and you can suggest strategies for success.  For example, what strategies for learning are particularly important for this material?  What resources — such as study centers, web tutorials or writing centers — are available to help students succeed in your course?

Information for Teaching Assistants

Teaching assistant responsibilities regarding course design will vary. However, it is always a good idea to think about your teaching and learning goals. Plan ahead by asking yourself:

  • What do I want students to learn?
  • What challenges to learning are students likely to face?
  • How can I help students meet those challenges?
  • How will I be able to tell what they have learned?

If you are teaching a quiz section or lab, you may not be involved in the development of the course syllabus. However, your students will appreciate receiving a syllabus providing information regarding the section or lab policies, procedures, and expectations, as well as information about your office location and hours, and how to contact you by email. Make sure to discuss the information you provide in your quiz section syllabus with the lead instructor or graduate program advisor before distributing it to students.