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Part Three: Designing Courses for Learning: An Introduction

Objective: This part of the seminar will briefly introduce common principles of course design. Afterward, you should be able to describe some general principles and processes of effective course design.

From Coverage to Learning

Designing courses can be a meaningful experience for many teachers. For those of us who pursue advanced academic study and research, designing courses in our field or area of specialty can feel like an extension of other scholarly work. Designing and teaching courses gives us an opportunity to demonstrate our knowledge of and enthusiasm for our disciplines.

But our expertise also can create pressure to get the content portion of our courses "just right," and this can sometimes feel like our priority should be pouring all the things we know about a topic into our course plan. This is especially true for graduate students and other new teachers. Similarly, we often feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to our content and our discipline (and perhaps even to our departments) that can sometimes lead to the belief that we must "cover" as much "content" as possible during class time. After all, isn't that why students come to learn from us?

For many of us, our first attempts at designing courses involved starting with a big list of the "content" that must be covered (e.g., readings, imagines, concepts, formulas, etc.), a list of all the things we happened to know about the topic, and the semester calendar of course meetings or sessions. In a coverage-based approach, instructors diligently plug in readings and concepts and lectures until the calendar is filled up (and wring their hands over what to do with all the content that doesn't fit!). Then, they slot in some due dates for major assignments (which may or may not be fully thought out at this point), package the whole thing up nicely, and hand students a syllabus that conveys what will be covered and what will be due over the course of the semester. That is, we articulate what they will be doing in the course, but we don't always clearly articulate what those things will be doing for them.

Are you teaching if no one is learning?

However, in recent decades, course design models have shifted to focus more on learning and less on coverage, for a variety of reasons: the list of things considered "essential content" continues to grow for most disciplines, and some have argued that it is now (perhaps always has been) impossible to "cover" everything we might want to in a single course. Additionally, the changing expectations for accreditation and accountability in higher education continue to evolve and to exert pressure on universities and academic departments to focus more on student learning - that is, what students will know and be able to do upon leaving a course, a curriculum, a program.

In fact, the distinction between designing courses for coverage and designing courses for learning is somewhat false. Teachers always have been committed to student learning. As the clichéd old question asks: are you teaching if no one is learning? And many instructors design courses that both cover content and facilitate student learning. The question is: how?

Begin at the End

The best way to ensure that your students will learn what you want them to learn is to design your courses with their learning in mind from the outset. Designing courses in this way may require a shift in your thinking. While for many of you, this approach will be obvious, perhaps even second-nature, others of you will be learning about this approach for the first time.

In their now-famous article, "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education" (1995), Robert Barr and John Tagg describe the need for a shift from an Instruction Paradigm to a Learning Paradigm. Getting to the Learning Paradigm shift, they argue, typically requires a shift away from a coverage-based, information-delivery course model, and away from the goal of transferring knowledge and covering content, to a model where "elicit[ing] student discovery and construction of knowledge" (16) is prioritized. Over the years, this general approach to course design has been described as "learner-centered," "outcomes-centered," and "backward." [NOTE: for many, like Maryellen Weimer, learner-centered course design is more than simply designing with learning in mind; it's actually allowing students to be involved in the course design and decision-making processes.] For our purposes here, it doesn't matter what you call the approach, as long as you understand it.

Very simply, designing courses for learning asks you to begin at the end: to start with where you want students to end up - what you want them to know and to be able to do - and to make decisions about the design and execution of the course with these results in mind. Of course, it isn't simple at all, but hopefully, by the time you complete this seminar, you'll at least have a working understanding of some of the steps involved.

Just a few short years after Barr and Tagg, Wiggins and McTighe wrote one of the germinal books on designing courses for learning: Understanding by Design (1998). Although the process of "backward design" had been around for a while, the phrase was made meaningful with this publication. As Wiggins and McTighe explain it, that there are essentially three stages of backward design; they are represented in the diagram below:

Understanding By DesignIMAGE: reproduced from Understanding by Design, 2nd edition, 2005,

Later, in in Creating Significant Learning Experiences (2003), L. Dee Fink framed it slightly differently - as "integrated" design - but drawing on the same basic processes: (1) integrate student learning objectives with (2) the specific teaching and learning strategies that will achieve those objectives, and (3) the specific forms of assessment that will measure achievement of them. While there is more to Fink's model than this brief introduction can provide, it's worth pointing out that Fink's Integrated Course Design model (as well as Wiggins and McTighe's Backward Design model) underscores the importance of the relationships between goals, activities, and feedback. And Fink's model is more fully grounded in deep considerations of course context, or, what Fink calls "situational factors."

Ultimately, Fink argues that, for significant learning to occur, there must be an ongoing interchange amongst and between these elements of course design. This may be different from the way many of us actually design courses.


Often, even those of us who design courses intentionally around student learning defer decisions about specific teaching and learning activities and/or assessment methods until we have to make them during the semester. But this deferral can create challenges. For example, if we don't make decisions about teaching and learning activities and assessment methods as we are designing learning objectives, we risk assigning activities that are not actually aligned to our learning objectives. This means we may not prepare students to achieve the learning objectives we've set and/or that we may not assess student work as effectively as we could and/or that our students experience our classes a series of disconnected, seemingly purposeless tasks to get through.

Our discussion about course design processes and principles, then, is meant to foreground the importance of thinking in an intentionally integrative way about learning objectives, teaching and learning activities, and assessment methods - every time you design a course. This does not mean that you must work out every single teaching and learning activity you might wish to use even before the course begins, but it does mean you have to be aware of the relationships between the goals you have for student learning and the strategies by which you strive to help them achieve those goals.

At a minimum, then, give some thought to three key questions:

questions for course design

If you can begin to answer these questions, you're ready to begin designing courses for learning. For the rest of this seminar, we'll focus our attention largely on the first question.

Continue to: Part 4: Developing Course Goals

To Learn More About...

The shift from teaching to learning:

Barr, R. B. & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change Magazine, 27 (6): 12-25.

Designing courses for learning:

Fink, L.D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Prégent, R. (2000). Charting your course: How to prepare to teach more effectively. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Fransciso, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.