Course Design

Effective teaching depends on effective planning and design. Many problems that can occur once a course is in motion can be prevented by advance preparation and planning for your students' learning.


Understanding by Design, a 1998 book by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, offers a powerful framework for designing courses that begins with desired outcomes of "enduring understandings" for students, and then works backwards to design evidence of that understanding, and then learning assessment activities to lead to such evidence. See the CFT's teaching guide on Understanding by Design for more details on this effective course design technique.

In general, a helpful way to design a course is to proceed through the following phases:

1) Identify desired results— GOALS

Organize your course around your core learning goals to foster enduring understandings in your students. Adapt your goals according to student feedback and readiness.

  • Content Goals: What knowledge do you want students to attain? Start with a broad perspective, considering all that you want students to become aware of and then narrow your selection to fit the parameters of your course.

  • Skill Goals: What are the abilities you want students to attain
    What should students be able to do with their learning after your course? How can they apply their new knowledge?

2) Determine acceptable evidence — PROGRESS

Assess students’ ability to meet the learning goals, both at the beginning of the course and throughout the course. Are they getting it?  What progress are they making? What kinds of assessments will enable students to demonstrate that they are making progress toward the course's learning goals?

  • Formative Assessment: Summative assessments sum up a student’s performance with a grade at the end of a particular effort (unit, course).  Formative assessments provide students with frequent, informal opportunities to re-think and revise.  Learning from mistakes leads to ongoing improvement in understanding. 

  • Fit & Feasibility: Give assignments and tests that both teach and test the learning you value most.  Do your tests and assignments fit the learning goals you have set? For example, if you want students to be able to debate both sides of an issue, are your assessments giving them the opportunity to demonstrate that knowledge and skill? Also, are your assessments feasible for both you and your students? Is the workload you are planning reasonable, strategically placed and sustainable?

3) Plan learning experiences and instruction — PRACTICE

In class sessions and homework assignments, give students a chance to practice their learning—to engage new material and apply it.  Adapt your teaching strategies as needed, according to the ongoing assessments you do of student progress. Plan learning activities that support the learning goals of the course:

  • Point your students to exactly what you want them to learn. Provide them with a strong foundational structure on which to build further learning by presenting content in a well-organized fashion.

  • What are the best problems or questions for developing your students’ ability to meet your learning goals? How can they practice engaging content and skillfully using their new learning?

Basic Principles

A useful and pragmatic guide that includes twelve key planning questions (e.g. “Where Do You Want to Go?” “How will Students and You Know If They Get There?” etc.) and two blank worksheets for plotting out learning goals in connection with activities and assessments to support them.

This template covers a number of issues course designers must tackle, ranging from describing the purpose of the course to determining learning outcomes.

Specific Tools and Strategies

  • Cutting Edge Course Design Tutorial, by Barbara J. Tewksbury (Hamilton College) and R. Heather Macdonald (College of William and Mary). Is it time to really shake the tree and do something about one of your courses? This tutorial will give you a way to get your arms around what is typically a daunting task, and will guide you through a practical, effective strategy for designing or redesigning a course.
  • Tools for Teaching, by Barbara Gross Davis, offers a wealth of pragmatic and insightful tactics for designing, revising, and communicating with students about a course:

    • Preparing or Revising a Course includes sections on defining and limiting course content, selecting textbooks and readings, setting course policies, and other administrative tasks.

    • Creating a Syllabus lists twenty categories of information to consider including in a syllabus.

  • Teaching Goals Inventory. This tool, originally created by Patricia Cross and Thomas Angelo in Classroom Assessment Techniques, contains 53 prompts to help instructors identify their goals for a particular course. This on-line version offers rapid self-scoring and data comparisons across goal areas and disciplines. The book Classroom Assessment Techniques is available from the CFT library; read a review.

  • Course Planning and Teaching. This chapter, from Teaching at Carolina (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), offers two particularly useful templates: and Instructional Planning Chart (Figure 1), and a Taxonomy of Educated Objectives (Figure 2), based on Benjamin Bloom’s classic taxonomy. Additionally, the Focus of the Course section offers contrasting cases (Examples A and B) that distinguish between simply describing what will be covered in a course, and articulating specific learning outcomes.

Models and Case Studies

  • Radical Course Revision: A Case Study. In this article from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Professor Julie Stout (Psychology, Indiana University) adapts principles from behavioral psychology in re-thinking course design, and includes sections on syllabus-building, linking grading to course goals, setting the right tone, and providing a safety net.


  • Services for Individuals: Center staff are available to consult with instructors on any aspect of course design, including setting learning goals, creating syllabi, and assessing student learning. To set up a consultation, call 322-7290 or contact us.

  • Working Groups: Every year, the Center sponsors a Working Group on Course Design, where a small cohort meets over a series of weeks; participants offer and receive feedback on their own courses in development. Working groups are available for both faculty and graduate students. Please see our list of current Workshops to learn what working groups are available.

  • Center for Teaching Library: The Center's library has several books related to course design that are available for check-out through ACORN, including:

    • Diamond, R.M. Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula: A Practical Guide (1998). 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Focuses on a learner-centered approach to course and curriculum design, including sections on clarifying instructional goals, using technology, creating a syllabus, respecting diversity, and evaluating the curriculum.

    • Duffy, D.K. Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester (1995). San Francisco : Jossey-Bass. Includes sections on teaching styles, creating a "superior" syllabus, establishing community in the opening weeks, beating the doldrums in the interim weeks, and achieving closure in the final weeks.

    • Grunert, J. The Course Syllabus : A Learning-Centered Approach (1997). Bolton, MA: Anker. Focuses on creating a syllabus centered on learning, and includes sections on fostering critical thinking, and checklists for various kinds of content and samples of what might appear in syllabi.

    • Prégent , R. Charting Your Course: How to Prepare to Teach More Effectively (1994). Madison, WI : Magna. Sections include analyzing teaching situations, formulating course objectives, planning to evaluate students' learning, choosing teaching methods and materials, making detailed course plans, preparing and delivering a lecture, training students for group work, and evaluating teaching.


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