Course Design Principles

Course Design Principles Overview

If you're like most faculty, the choice of a textbook and creation of a weekly schedule and syllabus are some of your first steps when getting ready to teach a new class or change up an old one. But your students will learn more and perform better on your assessments if you take a different approach - an intentional one that reverses some key steps.  Let's compare two approaches. 

Traditional Course Design: Content-focused or Topic-focused Approach


A common sequence of steps in preparing a course:


Select textbook or other readings, build a schedule of topics, and create a syllabus.


Create material (lecture, activities, discussions) to fill each class session.


Create assignments, quizzes, and tests to assess and give feedback on student learning.

Backwards Course Design: Results-focused Approach


A more effective, "backwards" design of a course:


Determine learning goals.


Determine acceptable evidence of that learning (assessments).


Plan learning experiences and instruction to help students reach the learning goals.

Benefits of Backwards Course Design  

Backwards course design may feel strange because textbook selection comes in step 3, while planning exams comes earlier, in step 2. However, by focusing our attention on learning goals and guiding us to promptly envision assessments matched to those goals, this method sets us up to maximize the extent to which our instructional activities support the goals, equipping students to demonstrate their learning and perform well on assessments.

Derived from Understanding by DesignOpens in new window (Wiggins and McTighe) 

Diving Deeper Into Backwards Course Design

There are many approaches to this type of backwards instructional design. More elaborate versions of this method help us create more powerful learning experiences by guiding us to:

  • Think carefully about our audience (learners) and the context in which learning will occur.
  • Break down complex tasks (like writing a research paper) into component skills to ensure that sufficient and well-sequenced instruction is provided.
  • Write specific, measurable, learning objectives.
  • Provide both ample opportunities for practicing skills and frequent, prompt feedback.
  • Plan for how we will evaluate and revise our instruction.