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Designing Courses

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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At CTL, we have found helpful the concept of learning-centered course design, in which the teacher designingthe course first identifies the learning goals of the course, and then "works backwards:"designing the course from the perspective of what we hope our students will have learned from the course when it is over, and then figuring out how best to help them achieve these goals.


The posting below looks at a useful way for faculty to approach the design of new courses. It appeared in the newsletter: Speaking of Teaching, Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University - Winter 2004, Vol. 13, No.2, produced by the Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The College as Campus (Review)

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Designing Courses


Every year, thousands of university professors, lecturers, and graduate students sit down at their desks and

design courses. They start out excited, their desks are stacked high with all the material they want to cover, but there never seems to be enough time in the academic calendar to cover everything. So compromises are made: topics are cut, or several topics get crammed together in a single lecture, and in the planning crunch that inevitably occurs as the deadline for ordering materials approaches, assignment design gets pushed aside until a later date, usually well into the school term-about a week before the assignment is due.

Sound familiar? Interested in a different model for designing courses? The Center for Teaching and Learning offers quarterly workshops on designing courses for members of the Stanford teaching community, and CTL's three Associate Directors also offer individual consultation on course design.

At CTL, we have found helpful the concept of learning-centered course design, in which the teacher designing

the course first identifies the learning goals of the course, and then "works backwards:"designing the course from the perspective of what we hope our students will have learned from the course when it is over, and then figuring out how best to help them achieve these goals.

This model for designing courses is intended to make the process both more efficient for you and to help focus your attention on where you can make the biggest difference for your students.

Here's how it works:

First Steps

Although "designing backward"is the heart of this process, we suggest that before you begin designing your course that you pay attention to some other initial considerations, like the nature of your students, your own strengths as a teacher, and the curricular framework the course may need to fit into.

Who are the students that will be taking this course? Will they be majors or non-majors? Will the course be

required or elective for them? Will the students be freshmen and sophomores? Juniors and seniors? What prior learning will they have had? What are the best ways to find out? What assumptions about the subject might they need to unlearn? Why will the students be taking the class (as opposed to why you hope they are taking the class)?

Next, reflect on your strengths as a teacher: what do you do best? Giving lectures, leading discussions, designing writing assignments, designing exams? Another way to put it: how will you most likely be able to make a difference for your students? Try making a list of your strengths as a teacher and how you hope to make a difference for your students.See if it will be possible or appropriate to play to your strengths (or develop new strengths) for this course.

Finally, some broader preliminary questions:is the course part of a curricular sequence? Ifso,what issues should be taken into consideration? Is this an existing course? If so,what sort of feedback did you receive last time? What did student performance on exams and assignments indicate about how these

assignments were helping the students to achieve your learning goals for them? Or is this a new course? If it is a true blank slate,you have an opportunity to design from scratch. If it is a new course,what is your vision for it? What do you hope that it will help your students to accomplish?

Reflecting on and ultimately answering these many questions will prepare you for the heart of the learning - centered course design process: identifying and clarifying your learning goals. At the end of your course, what should your students be able to do, know, or understand as a result of their work in your course?

Learning Goals

Taking some time to contemplate the knowledge,attitudes,and skills that you hope your students will have by the end of the course you are designing will have an invaluable effect on your course design process. These goals provide the floor plan for every other choice you make, and your choices will be influenced far less by external limitations. Instead, whenever you make a design choice, the deciding factor will be how the consequences change or support the learning goals at the foundation of the course

Difficult though it may seem, try to limit yourself to a total of only three to five goals. The goals can be general or specific, but either way, they will eventually be broken down into sub-goals that will shape the design of the course and which will ultimately dictate the content, the assignment structure, and the day-to-day classroom format as well.

For instance, if one of your goals is for your students to be able to assess the value of secondary critical arguments,it might be worthwhile to consider what steps are involved in this process, and design a session or two, as well as an assignment, that will model this process for the students and give them a chance to practice and develop this skill. For every knowledge-based learning goal, there should be a skill-based goal: what do we want our students to be able to do with the knowledge they gain from our courses?

When we consider the learning goals of our courses, we can discover the often unarticulated subtext to our

teaching: what matters most? Why do we hope that students will take our courses? What is the value of this subject for us,and how can we best convey this to our students? By taking a learning-centered approach to course design, as opposed to a coverage-driven approach, student engagement with the meaningful qualities of the course is far more likely to be achieved.


Once you have outlined your learning goals for the course, the material you decide to use to support your learning goals may be quite different from what you initially set out to teach. You may have discovered that some of the material you thought was appropriate for the course doesn't really offer you an opportunity to help students reach your goals for them, and similarly you may have realized that there are several other texts or case studies that would support your goals much more clearly and substantially.

Starting with the list of your learning goals,make a short list under each goal of the content materials that will contribute to your hopes for what students will be able to take away from your course. Make a note beside each content topic regarding your plan to use it to support the goal under which it is listed. (See figure 1.) This will help you remember your learning-centered strategy as you plan you syllabus and outline your lecture notes.

Figure 1


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Assignment Design

Although we don't often think of it this way,assignments and exams are the way that we find out if our students have met our goals for them.We tend to think of assignments and exams as demonstrating the depth and extent of student knowledge, but they actually reveal a great deal more.

Once again, start with a list of your learning goals and beneath each goal, list several different kinds of assignments or exam formats that would both offer your students a chance to demonstrate that they had achieved your goals for them (by using the skills you identified as vital to their learning process) and which would allow you to determine how well, in fact, the goals have been achieved.

Class Format

The same model applies for planning your class formats.A variety of different class formats is always welcomed by students,and if we can design those formats to be directly geared towards supporting our already established learning goals (instead of for the sake of simply providing variety),then the structure as

well as the content of our courses will have a pedagogical coherence as well as a built-in success mechanism for achieving our learning goals.

Try planning your format strategies class by class: imagine that you have an hour and a half for an ideal class to approach a learning goal,a related skill, and a portion of content that you have just outlined. In this ideal hour and a half, what are three different formats (each one lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to a half hour) that you could incorporate into a single class session? (See figure 2.) If possible,try to imagine at least one of these formats (if not more) involving active learning (direct engagement, participation, or application of knowledge and skills) on the part of the students.

Figure 2


Learning Goal: critical thinking Lecture/Demonstration

Content: Chapter from text Discussion and Questions

Skill: thesis development Exercise: practice crafting sample thesis state-

ments in response to sample essay prompts

Granted, while some graduate seminars run up to three hours, most class sessions are shorter than an hour and a half; but even in a fifty minute lecture session,several different formats can be employed to both support your learning goals and to keep students actively engaged.

For example, every fifteen to twenty minutes, take a two minute break and ask the students a direct question, give them a minute to think about it, and take several responses. Or ask students to take a minute to think of some questions, and respond to one or two of them. Or ask students to work with a classmate sitting next to them and figure out the answer to a question or problem for a minute or two and then take several responses.

Whichever strategy you choose, it is important to tell students what you're doing and why,and to start using these active learning strategies on the very first day of class so that that they come to expect it. This way students will be ready to participate in this manner throughout the quarter.

These brief strategies not only keep students from becoming too passive, they serve as excellent "real time"opportunities for teachers to find out if their students are "getting it" and coming close to achieving the learning goals of the course. This is called a classroom assessment technique, and many more creative options for such activities are offered in the book on this subject listed in the bibliography on the final page of this newsletter (Classroom Assessment Techniques,ed.Angelo and Cross,1993).

The Calendar

Once all of the planning outlined above has been completed, you are finally ready to take out a calendar. But not just any calendar: start with the university's academic calendar so that while planning you can take all the university holidays into consideration. More than one professor has been frustrated weeks into a course after realizing that a lecture had been planned for an unexpected university holiday, or that the term ended a few days earlier than expected.

Now that the calendar is out, creative thinking about your course can take a new turn. Using your original learning goals list, map out a logical progression of knowledge and skills building over the course of the academic term. As a clear pattern emerges and you add the course content and developmental assignment structure onto the calendar, see if you can break down each week of the course into themes that will support your learning goals. This will help the students understand the trajectory of your course even better.

The Syllabus

The final documentation of all this planning is, of course,the syllabus.The syllabus is the place where you can outline your learning goals for the course as well as your philosophy of teaching, your thematic framework for the term, and your breakdown of readings and assignments.

Since the syllabus is also an active contract with the students containing our expectations for them as well as

guidelines for succeeding in the course, be sure to include a section in your syllabus for course and university policies, such as a percentage breakdown of how graded assignments and class participation will be factored into a final grade, an attendance and absence policy, a late papers and revision policy, a scholar/ athlete make-up class and work policy, a disability disclosure policy, and a reminder of the parameters of the honor code.

Getting Feedback

Aside from the in-class strategies discussed above, CTL strongly suggests that you build in a midterm evaluation process for feedback before the course is over. A midterm evaluation gives you the opportunity to make crucial and often easy changes to your course to ensure its success. While end-of-quarter evaluations are useful for the next time you teach a course, midterm evaluations benefit you and your students immediately.

There are many options for midterm evaluation.CTL offers a small group evaluation (SGE) in which a CTL consultant will come to your class at the mid-point of the term and take the last twenty minutes of class to facilitate discussion about the course among your students in small groups. Their anonymous responses are then reported to you in a confidential meeting. Faculty, lecturers, and TAs can sign up (ideally, one week in advance) for an SGE on the CTL website:

If you like, a CTL consultant can also come to your class and observe your teaching, and then consult with you

confidentially afterwards. Alternatively, you can be videotaped while teaching, and a CTL consultant can watch the tape and consult with you about the tape at your convenience.

At the very least,plan to hand out an anonymous questionnaire to your students to receive their candid feedback about the course at least once, if not more often.As with the other options described above, we recommend that these evaluation methods are most valuable when undertaken at the midterm.

Bibliography on Course Design

Angelo,Thomas and Cross,Patricia,Classroom Assessment Techniques, San

Francisco: Jossey-Bass,1993.

Davis,Barbara,Tools for Teaching, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,1993.

Diamond,Robert M.Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula: A Practical

Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,1997.

Diamond,Robert M. Designing and Improving Courses and Curricula in Higher

Education: A Systematic Approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,1989.

Ericksen,Stanford C."Decisions About Course Content."The Essence ofGood

Teaching: Helping Students Learn and Remember What They Learn. San

Francisco: Jossey-Bass,1984.

Grunert,Judith.The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach. Boston:

Anker Publishing,1997.

Lowman,Joseph."Planning Course Content and Teaching Techniques to

Maximize Interest."Mastering the Techniques ofTeaching. San Francisco:


McKeachie,Wilbert.Teaching Tips, Boston: Houghton Mifflin,2002.

Ramsden,Paul."The Goals and Structure ofa Course."Learning to Teach in

Higher Education.London and New York: Routledge,1992.

Williams,Charles."Architecting a Course."Lecture adapted for Excellence in

Teaching Electrical Engineering: A Handbook for Faculty and Teaching Assistants.By

Michele Marincovich and Loren Rusk.Stanford,CA:Stanford University, 1987.