Designing a Course

Designing a course can cover a multitude of different activities, ranging from the development of a totally new course to adapting elements of an existing course in response to advances in disciplinary knowledge. As a first step, it is important to consider the big picture issues:

  • Audience: What is the course level? Is it intended to introduce students to the discipline (or to one aspect of it)? Or is the goal to add to the knowledge and skills of more advanced students?
  • Department and disciplinary fit: How does this course align with other courses in the department? Does it flow naturally into/out of other courses? Is it a required course in a major, minor, or cluster?
  • Course content: What are the key themes that you want your students to understand and be able to apply by the end of the course? Also, what skills do you want them to gain? These should be articulated right from the start.
  • Classroom/tutorial/recitation/laboratory activities: What kinds of tasks would best support your students in learning this content? For example: traditional chalk and talk lectures, group presentations, impromptu quizzes, movies, guest lecturers, or field trips? There are many alternatives to the traditional lecture as a learning event.
  • Keep accessibility in mind: Have you taken care to ensure your class website and instructional materials are accessible to students with hearing or visual impairments (e.g., closed captioning, using a website validator, and so on)? Did you select textbooks and articles available in formats for use with screen-reading software? It is tremendously important to be proactive; plan in advance for the lead-time required for obtaining videos with high-quality captions.

A good way of thinking about course design is to consider John Biggs' notion of constructive alignment. Biggs recognized that teaching is not just about what happens in the classroom, but is also driven by the intended outcomes of the course and by the planned assessment tasks.

Essentially, each of the three elements in a course—outcomes, in-class teaching and learning activities, and assessment tasks—is inextricably linked to the other two, and cannot be undertaken in isolation. Thus, as you are writing your outcomes, you also need to consider simultaneously how you are going to teach toward them, as well as how you are going to assess them.

Setting Course Outcomes

Outcomes, sometimes referred to as objectives, are essentially what you want your students to know and be able to do by the end of your course. As with anything in life, it is a good idea to begin with the more fundamental outcomes that you want achieved before moving on to more complex tasks. Bloom's Taxonomy is often the tool used by faculty to develop their course outcomes. The table below summarizes this taxonomy.

Bloom's Taxonomy Summarized
Level of achievementVerbs that can be used to articulate outcomes
Knowledge: Data recall outcomes that require basic memorizationDefine, describe, identify, label, list, match, name, recognize, reproduce, state
Comprehension: Demonstrating understanding and/or restating a problem in one’s own words.Comprehend, convert, distinguish, estimate, explain, defend, interpret, infer, paraphrase, summarize, translate
Application: Using a concept in a different context/situationApply, change, compute, construct, demonstrate, manipulate, operate, predict, produce, relate, show, solve, use
Analysis: Breaking something down into its component parts in order to understand itAnalyze, break down, compare, contrast, differentiate, deconstruct, distinguish, illustrate, infer, outline, relate, select, separate
Synthesis: Pulling together a structure from diverse elements in order to create a new understandingCategorize, combine, compile, compose, create, devise, design, generate, modify, organize, rearrange, reconstruct, revise, rewrite
Evaluation: Making a judgment based on what has been learnedAppraise, conclude, critique, defend, discriminate, evaluate, interpret, justify

To give you an idea of how this might look, here is a set of outcomes for a (fictitious) course entitled Transnational issues: refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • Define the terms 'refugee' and 'internally displaced person' [Knowledge]
  • Define the term 'transnational issue' [Knowledge]
  • Describe the difference between a refugee and an internally displaced person [Knowledge]
  • Summarize the key elements of the United Nations Charter on Refugees and Internally Displaced People [Comprehension]
  • Demonstrate the gaps in both the UN Charter and other international conventions on refugees and internally displaced people [Application]
  • Compare and contrast the UN response to refugee and IDP crises in developed, oil-rich regions with those in the un(der)-developed Third World [Analysis]
  • Relate these responses to Realist Theory [Analysis]
  • Critique (or defend) and reconstruct the UN Charter in terms of emerging and current global concerns such as food and health (in)security [Synthesis and Evaluation]

As you can see, the course learning outcomes clearly state the knowledge and skills students will develop in the course.

Outcomes/objectives are often quite difficult to articulate—you know what you want the students to know and be able to do by the end of the course—but actually putting it into words can be tricky. It takes practice. Please feel free to set up an appointment if you would like to talk about writing outcomes.

Course Topics and Themes

The temptation is often to begin your course planning with a list of topics and themes to cover in your course. The end result is invariably a course plan that is rather like a table of contents in a textbook—that is, you end up with a list, and not a plan. So it is generally more effective—and easier—to start listing your topics and themes after you have your outcomes in place. Once you have identified the main themes, you can begin to fill in the sub-themes, the elements that make up the broader theme.

As you are putting the themes and sub-themes in place, you need to consider the teaching and learning activities that you will be using in the classroom to teach them. In other words, you need to determine how you will teach each section to the class and what methods would encourage learning and understanding. Possible techniques include:

  • Demonstrations
  • Quizzes
  • Think-pair-share
  • Class discussions
  • Concept maps
  • Role playing
  • Debates
  • Games

We would be happy to chat with you about the details of each, as well as teaching methods that could be used.

Any of these methods can be used in conjunction with traditional lectures. Their aim is to get the students actively engaged in the content of what is being taught, instead of simply being passive recipients of knowledge.

In general, students can handle about twenty minutes of a lecture before their attention begins to wane and you lose them. Introducing a technique like one of those above can help to maintain students' attention for the entire period.

Assessment Tasks

It is important that you draft these at the same time as you write your outcomes to ensure alignment between what you said you wanted the students to know and be able to do, and what you assess them on. There is a meaningful difference between the formative and the summative assessment tasks that you develop for your course:

Formative assessment generally refers to the assignments and tasks that you set for students during the semester, such as essays, class projects, laboratory reports, and so on. Formative assessments always provide feedback to students alongside their grade. This feedback is an important learning opportunity for students because it provides them with information about what they did well, where they went wrong (and why), and what they ought to have done. Thus, formative assessment tasks give students the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them before the more high-stakes summative assessment.

Summative assessment, by contrast, is more cumulative in nature. It is essentially a judgment of students' competence by the end of a semester or course. It usually, although not always, takes the form of an examination, and there are rarely any opportunities to provide students with feedback on their performance.

Depending on the content of your course, you can use a wide range of different types of assessment to evaluate student learning. It is also important to explain what your expectations are regarding each assignment, and to provide and unpack criteria against which they will be assessed.

Common forms of assessment include:

  • Essays
  • Problem sets
  • Reports
  • Examination equivalents
  • Multiple choice question-types
  • Case studies
  • Projects (group, pair, or individual)
  • Presentations
  • Posters
  • Reflective practice (such as a journal)
  • Portfolios

Using Blackboard and Other Educational Technology to Support Teaching

Technology, including Blackboard, can be used effectively to advance your students' learning. We encourage you to contact the Blackboard support staff to explore the ways that Blackboard may help meet your technology goals for your class. We would also be happy to work with you on maximizing the effectiveness of these tools for your classroom practice.

For more information about educational technology available at Rochester, see the technology section on the teaching guidance overview page.