The course design process involves intentional and deliberate planning to create a course that best supports student learning. Learning Innovation encourages faculty to use backwards course design, which starts with the question “What will your students be able to do at the end of your course?” This answer informs decisions made about assessments, in-class activities and course materials. This approach shifts course design to what students will learn instead of what materials will be covered. With the help of our course design planner (.docx), you can draft a course plan based on backwards design.
We encourage instructors to think of course design as an iterative process in which the evaluation of student performance allows for minor adjustments of homework, activities and assessments to be made along the way. In other words, course evaluation does not need to happen only after the course is over and thoughtful questions can help a course still being taught.
Table of Contents:
- Consider the context of your course
- Write the course learning objectives
- Decide how to measure the learning objectives
- Choose texts and activities that support mastery
- Create a learner-centered syllabus
- Gather feedback about your course
- Resources & additional reading
Consider the context of your course
Before you start drafting your course, think about the current conditions of your course, including student characteristics, departmental requirements and available resources. This analysis will help you plan a course that is feasible and effective.
What are the academic constraints of the course? This includes the number of credit hours, whether it is required for the major or an elective and how it fits into the curriculum of your program or department. Does it have any prerequisites (and what specifically are the prerequisite knowledge or skills to do well)? Does it feed into more advanced courses, and what knowledge and skills do students need to learn to do well in those advanced courses?
What do you know about the typical student who takes your course? What are their backgrounds, prior knowledge, majors and expectations? What technology do they have access to and are they comfortable with? Are they used to group work and project work (if you plan to use those techniques)? If not, how will you orient them to those skills?
What resources are available to you and your students? Are there materials, equipment, personnel, software and artifacts that you think might be useful or necessary for teaching the course? If there are materials necessary to the course which you need to locate somewhere, include those as well.
Write course learning objectives
When thinking of learning objectives, the key is to identify specific, achievable goals. If the course learning objectives are clear, it makes it easier to identify ways to adjust activities and assessments to fit different teaching scenarios.
What would you like your students to remember and do from your course? When students take a subsequent course in your major or program, what knowledge and skills are essential stepping stones? What should they remember five years from now in their professional lives or as critical thinkers? The answer to these questions are the high-level learning objectives that you expect that all students should be able to achieve. Is the purpose of the course to be able to analyze texts in your field? Or to apply theories and formulas to problems? Should a student be able to create a research paper or communicate information to specific audiences?
Use action verbs when creating learning objectives. Well-written learning objectives are tied to the level of knowledge required by the student. In course design, Bloom’s Taxonomy is considered the best model to help you craft learning objectives that are in line with the type of thinking you hope your students will gain. The taxonomy is depicted as a pyramid of skills that are categorized in a hierarchical way, with lower-order skills building up to higher-order skills. For example, perhaps an introductory course will concentrate on lower-level thinking such as recall of terms rather than higher-order thought such as analysis of ideas. It could also be the case that the course begins with defining concepts but develops into higher-level thinking. The taxonomy provides verbs that produce specific learning objectives that map correctly to your course goals.
Examples of Learning Objectives
“By the end of this course, you will be able to…”
- Critically evaluate other writers’ appraisals of jazz musicians and jazz recordings.
- Compare and contrast the differences between regular and irregular warfare.
- Explain why race is considered a social construct.
- Interpret the geologic history of a landscape by identifying the relevant tectonic, rock-forming and deformational processes.
Decide how to measure the learning objectives
The second criteria for learning objectives is that they should be measurable. If a student is unable to demonstrate a skill or produce an artifact related to the learning objective, it is a clear sign that it needs to be rewritten.
Learning objectives are only useful if the students can produce evidence of mastery. To determine if the learning objective is measurable, ask how you will be able to observe that a student has met this outcome. This observation may help define what assessments you want to give students to measure their level of skill. In fact, if you’re having trouble identifying what you want students to be able to do, another way to approach learning objectives is to think about what assessments and activities you want to include in your course and ask what objectives those assessments and activities address.
Determine what kind of assessment you will use to measure each learning objective. Set explicit criteria for what constitutes mastery of course content, and make sure the assessment type ties directly to the stated objective. For example, if the learning objective is that students can critically evaluate a historical document, and the assessment is a multiple-choice quiz, there may not be a good match. The question is what does “critically evaluate” look like, and what type of product would you want to see from the student to confirm that they can, in fact, critically evaluate a historical document?
Refer to our resource on writing assessments and grading for help creating an assessment plan.
Choose texts and activities that support mastery
Brainstorm materials and resources that will help students achieve each objective. Refer back to your analysis, and think about where your students are starting from and where you need them to be at the end. What texts, resources, outside experts or experiences will help students be prepared to meet your learning objectives? If there are gaps in knowledge what kinds of resources are available to students to catch up? Some instructors find that with well-defined learning objectives they can reduce the amount of overall readings.
Be sure your activities in the classroom supports student learning. Course activities should give students a chance to apply knowledge or practice skills and receive feedback. In general, students will be more engaged in learning when they collaborate with others, answer real-world questions and make their own choices.
Explore our guide for creating an active classroom and discussions to find out more.
Create a learner-centered syllabus
Effective syllabi are learner-centered, meaning they move beyond the mechanics of a course (i.e. office hours, deadlines and textbooks) to outline how students can be successful in a course. Research has found that students learn more, and enjoy courses more, when they are presented with a student-centered syllabus. (1)
You are encouraged to download our Syllabus Template (.docx) as a guide to help you develop your course syllabus. Harvard University offers a checklist of questions to be answered in your syllabus that can be used for a final review.
A syllabus should explain why the course matters. One technique for crafting a strong syllabus is to provide a course description that is not merely a list of the content covered in the course but outlines why you find it important and engaging. In addition, you should share with students what skills you expect them to gain from the course and the assessments and activities you have planned. If the learning outcomes of the course (and the route the course will take to get there) are made explicit, the syllabus becomes an invitation to a learning experience.
An effective syllabus emphasizes the students’ role in their learning. A learner-centered syllabus focuses on guiding students through how a course will work and what they will do throughout the experience. The syllabus does this by giving students clear answers to these questions:
- How should I prepare for class?
- When are my assignments due?
- How will assignments be assessed?
- What feedback can I expect to receive?
- What are the expectations for class discussions?
- How can I get help in this course?
A welcoming syllabus creates a sense of community. The learner-centered syllabus describes the course as a learning experience in which students are encouraged to engage and communicate with both the instructor and each other. Our resource on creating an inclusive and equitable classroom details how course policies and the syllabus should make sure every student is included in that community.
Include a communication plan. The syllabus should include a communication plan that lays out how instructors and students will interact. In addition to telling students when and where office hours are, the syllabus should also specify how instructors plan to manage email and how quickly students can expect to receive a reply if they send a message. Particularly for courses in which students will engage in regular discussions, consider adding a statement describing discussion guidelines.
Use a supportive tone. The tone of the syllabus should emphasize the instructor’s willingness to support all students. The syllabus should make it clear that students can share difficulties with the instructor, and point out additional resources for student success that are available to them (for example, student advising and the accessibility office). The syllabus should replace language that is punitive such as “points will be deducted” with language that is supportive such as “students can earn up to.” Another way to make the syllabus feel more inviting is to use language like “we will” and “you will” instead of “this class will” and “students will.”
Learning objectives should shape the course schedule. The schedule should list the learning objectives for each topic, explain what the corresponding course activities will be and list any assessments related to the objectives. If you are creating a syllabus for a course that has at least some online elements, make explicit what activities are happening asynchronously (on students’ own time) and synchronously (in real-time). This will result in a syllabus that functions as a detailed course map that lays out what students should be able to do by the end of the course and how they will get there successfully.
Think about contingency plans. Your course may be interrupted by weather or instructor/student absences. You can plan ahead by making sure all materials are online and clarifying how students can find and submit assignments. For example, you might think of alternative assessments or activities as you are planning how could you change the assessment plan in case of emergency.
Gather feedback about your course
Commit yourself to change. Surveying students can yield valuable insights into your teaching; however, it is important to collect student feedback only if you intend to take action. Seize the opportunity to highlight what is working well, and clarify your rationale for using certain strategies or technologies. Inevitably, some feedback items will not yield direct changes to the course, either because it is too late or because the request is unrealistic. In these cases, explain to your students why no action will be taken.
Use formative assessments find out how students are progressing. Frequent, short feedback assessments (formative assessments), such as minute papers or exit tickets, can also be used to measure teaching effectiveness on a regular basis. You can use a note card or an anonymous poll to ask quick, open-ended questions, such as “how would you rate the fairness of the take home exam?” or “what isn’t clear to you from today’s class?”
Provide students with insight into their learning process. Be sure to grade and provide feedback in a timely manner so that students understand their progress in the course and how to improve their work in the future. If you would like to provide students insight into their study habits in particular, consider asking students to fill out a reflection as a final step of a major assessment. If students are struggling or express concern about their grades, you can also refer the students to the Academic Resource Center for information to support their learning.
Distribute a midterm evaluation to get the bigger picture. Instructors usually use polls for midterm evaluations and ask high level questions about content, instruction or assignments. Common choices of polling are Qualtrics and Sakai Tests and Quizzes. Learning Innovation offers Qualtrics and Word templates for midterm evaluations and other surveys that you can use. This list of sample midterm evaluation questions offers additional examples of what to ask. You can also ask Learning Innovation to conduct a midterm student feedback focus group activity with your class, and then review the results with a Learning Innovation consultant.
Use self-observation to gain insight. You could create a teaching journal to record your thoughts after each course or record a video of a class session. If you do decide to record yourself, choose what aspect(s) of your teaching you’d like to concentrate on before viewing. Here are some examples of target areas for critique:
- Am I calling on and hearing from multiple students?
- Is there enough wait-time after asking a question?
- Am I providing a good balance of instructor talk-time and student talk-time?
- Is my delivery clear and engaging?
- Are my instructions for discussion in the classroom clear?
- Are my technologies (digital whiteboard, etc.) achieving their desired effect?
Have a colleague observe your class. Peer observation can provide valuable insight into your teaching. Trained colleagues can give you feedback on a variety of topics that you might be interested in assessing, including alignment between content and targeted skills, effectiveness of certain teaching practices, behaviors of students, and more. Please see our page on the Best Practices in Teaching Evaluation for more guidance on peer observation.
Observe the teaching of others. Learning Innovation offers the Visit a Classroom Program which provides Duke faculty with an opportunity to observe the teaching of instructors from other disciplines, not to critique but to inspire change in their own teaching.
Resources & additional reading
Designing Effective and Innovative Courses (tutorial)
Writing Measurable Course Objectives (UNC Charlotte)
Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning (D. Fink via Boston University)
Sample Syllabi (Carnegie Mellon)
Seven Ways to Make Your Syllabus More Relevant (Faculty Focus)
Evidence-based approaches to learner-centered syllabi (The Learning Scientists)
Guidelines for Interaction for Better Discussions (Learning Innovation)
Suggested policies for using AI in your course (Learning Innovation)
Reflective Teaching (Yale)
Classroom Assessment Techniques (Vanderbilt)
Survey Templates (Learning Innovation)
- See the literature review in Constructing a Learner-Centered Syllabus: One Professor’s Journey