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Planning Your Course

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Main Thistle (TH) hallway, Brock University
Main Thistle (TH) hallway, Brock University

[1] There are some basic questions that you can ask yourself to facilitate planning a new course or restructuring an existing curriculum.

  • To whom is this course addressed?
  • Where is this course situated in the program structure?
  • Are there any prerequisites for the course? If so, how will this influence the structure of the course?
  • Is this a compulsory course?
  • What level is it at?
  • What prior learning will your students 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?
  • If so, 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?

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.

[2] Types of Learning Goals

  • Foundational Knowledge: understanding of key content: facts, principles, concepts, etc.
  • Application: thinking skills, other skills [physical and intellectual], managing complex projects.
  • Integration: connecting ideas, information, realms of life, etc.
  • Human Meaning: understanding the personal and social implications of this subject.
  • Valuing: making changes in one's feelings, interests, and/or values.
  • Learning How to Learn: learning how to keep on learning after the course is over.

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. This will help you remember your learning-centered strategy as you plan you syllabus and outline your lecture notes.


[edit] Designing Courses Backwards: A “Forward-Looking” Approach to Effective Teaching!


You’ve got your calendar in one hand and your content in the other…you are ready to design your course! “What will I cover?” But wait…that is forward thinking…and the most successful courses are designed backward. “What should they learn?” Or even more boldly, what should they remember next quarter, or next year?

[edit] Step 1 - Consider your own rationale for teaching this class

What is important to you about the material? About the way you plan to teach the material? About how the students interact with the content?

[edit] Step 2 - Skip directly to the end of the course

Distill five (or fewer!) major learning outcomes. (If this number is too small for comfort, you can add more later if you really must… but stick with 5 or less now… this is the way to get to the underlying, often unifying, themes of your course.) Think broadly about these outcomes… content or foundational knowledge is but one broad category in which you might have specific goals. For other ideas, turn to the back of this page!

[edit] Step 3 - Work Backwards

What skills will demonstrate achievement of the learning goals? What content is required to support those skills?

[edit] Why bother?

Some of the best payoffs include:

The outcome goals will be threaded throughout the course. They provide unifying themes and context for the material you cover. These choices define the skills embedded in homework, projects, exams, etc. Students who have met the learning goals will be able to do what? Student work becomes more obviously relevant to the topic, exam questions or projects become more authentic.

This process helps distill the huge content “problem.” Cutting content is always painful, but we know we have to do it… working backwards establishes priorities.

  1. 1.0 1.1 (2004) Designing Courses. Speaking of Teaching Newsletter. Stanford Teaching & Learning Center. Vol. 13 (2). retrieved on August 11, 2008 from
  2. Fink, D. Planning Your Course: A Decision Guide retrieved on August 11, 2008 from

[edit] Related Resources

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