Contributors:Andrew F. Lawrence, Lindsay Murphy

This guide applies to a range of course design or revision techniques. You might use the Rule of 2’s: Simple Course Design Template to make notes and capture ideas as you work through this article. This article and the Rule of 2’s template follow a backward design flow, where you start planning with student learning outcomes in mind. (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Identify Course Goals

You may be familiar with student learning outcomes, also sometimes called learning objectives or course goals. Your course may have preset outcomes already determined, or you might need to identify outcomes. In either case, you want to make sure you have a set of student learning outcomes that are accurate and reflect the purpose of the course. Good student learning outcomes are observable and measurable — so you can observe student work and measure whether it meets the goals of the course. Outcomes might address content knowledge, skills, or even dispositions that you intend students to acquire. For a guide to writing effective student learning outcomes, check out the OAI+ article on assessment methods.

Imagine that a large box arrives at your house. It’s full of parts to assemble but has no instructions and no pictures of the final object — so you are stuck trying to make sense of all the parts without understanding the end goal. This is how students often feel when they enter a course without student learning outcomes or clear goals.

Once you’ve identified the outcomes for your course, they form the foundation, blueprint, or roadmap that everyone in the course is working toward. As you design or revise your course, keep coming back to these outcomes to ensure your planned assessments, assignments, learning activities, and teaching strategies align with your intended learning outcomes.

Build Assessments around Course Goals

Think back to that mysterious box that arrived at your house. What if the box had instructions, but they didn’t match the parts? What if parts were missing or the instructions skipped big steps?

This is analogous to what happens when assigned work doesn’t align with the course goals or when assessments don’t match what has been taught in the class. It’s difficult for students to understand why the work is necessary or relevant or how their assessments reflect what they are learning.

The Purpose of Assessments

This article uses assessments and assignments interchangeably as ways to externalize student learning, to better observe and measure it.

Some assessments are intended to help you and students perceive how much progress you’ve all made toward meeting the course goals. Other assessments are meant to measure whether students are ready to move on to the next stage, whether that’s the next topic in your course or another course altogether. Not all assessments need to be graded. Some can be used as practice that helps you adjust your expectations and helps students know what to focus on as they progress through the course.

On assessments meant to serve as learning tools for future work, it’s often helpful to give students opportunities for peer review, self-reflection, and suggestions rather than a letter or number grade. Research shows that grades are often demotivating for students and can be confusing when students try to improve their grade in future assignments. While we often look at grades as inevitable and ubiquitous, they are relatively new as a standard practice in higher education (Schinske & Tanner, 2014).

Questions to Consider When Creating Assessments

  • Do assessments measure what you mean for them to measure?
  • Are assessments aligned with your Student Learning Outcomes?
  • Which assessments absolutely need grades and which need a different kind of feedback?

Scaffold for Student Success

When asking students to complete large assessments such as term papers, presentations, group projects, lab experiments, final exams, or research studies, it’s helpful to break these assignments into smaller tasks that “scaffold” the work and support the final product.

Questions to Consider When Scaffolding

  • What steps do students need to take to complete the large assignment?
  • What kind of accountability and feedback will help them complete the large assignment? (It often helps to require that students turn in outlines, proposals, and drafts because it keeps them accountable and assists them in breaking their work into parts.)
  • How long will each part likely take, and how can you schedule one or two check-ins with students as they are completing the parts?
  • How long will you need to give students meaningful feedback where appropriate?
  • If planning a group project, what roles do you expect students to take to complete the project together, and how might a group contract or project proposal help to outline those roles and responsibilities?

Another important aspect of scaffolding is ensuring continuity between synchronous and asynchronous aspects of the class. For example, if students are assigned readings and discussions to complete on their own time, class time should relate to those readings and discussions. Maybe that means scheduling time for Q&A about the asynchronous work before moving on to new material, or providing the new material in advance of the class session so students are ready to discuss it in real time.

Design Active Learning Experiences and Plan Teaching Strategies

One of the most common mistakes in course design is assuming the material is the course. Rather, the material is merely one tool of the course. The learning experiences, relationships, and teaching strategies you plan should align with your course goals and students needs. “Those who do the work do the learning” (Doyle, 2011) — so the more students have opportunities to interact with the course materials, their peers, and you, the better. When considering what activities to design for your course, ask yourself what students can do to connect with the course skills, dispositions, and concepts.

For example, if one of your course goals is to have students evaluate different perspectives on global development, your learning activities and teaching strategies should give students the chance to do such evaluation. Instead of just listening to lectures, students could be invited to:

    • Share examples espousing different perspectives from global development organizations.
    • Engage in class role-playing scenarios based on different perspectives.
    • Apply case studies to global development scenarios.

These experiences give students more active involvement in learning about and evaluating perspectives.

The wide range of teaching and learning approaches includes:

    • Flexible teaching strategies that emphasize teaching and learning across course modalities (online, in-person, or blended)
    • Community-based learning that invites students and community members to participate toward mutually beneficial goals and projects in well-planned and structured partnerships
    • Open education focusing on using free learning materials that allow students to co-create alongside their instructors, building nondisposable assignments and encouraging agency
    • Universal design for learning that emphasizes student choice, access, and agency in assignment and course design to reduce/eliminate barriers to learning

Get Student Input during Design

Whether you use feedback from last term’s students or suggestions from this term’s students, inviting your students to give design input will do a lot to help the course run smoothly.

    • Student input encourages student motivation, participation, and agency.
    • Course co-creation helps to meet student needs by encouraging a diversity of ideas and choices.

Ways to Encourage Student Input as You Plan the Course

Ask: Send out a poll about a week before the course begins asking about technology access, communication mode preferences, and assignment type feedback. Students might be most interested in devoting some class time to ask questions while working on video projects rather than term papers — but as instructors, we won’t know that unless we ask.

Brainstorm: Give students three or four learning outcomes on the first day, and ask the class to brainstorm other outcomes they would like to include on the list. Work to include one or two of their suggestions on the final list of student learning outcomes.

Offer: Offer choice in how students complete some assignments. This might mean a choice of assignment formats, collaborations, or due dates.

Negotiate: Create a negotiated syllabus with your students during the first week of class. Give them a say in the course goals, assessments, assignments, and activities. You don’t have to make everything negotiable. A critical part of planning is to identify the scope of choice. This is a great way to build community and get student buy-in around course requirements. “The Negotiated model is totally different from other syllabuses in that it allows full learner participation in selection of content, mode of working, route of working, assessment, and so on. It should by this means embody the central principle that the learner’s needs are of paramount importance” (Clarke, 1991).

Student-Faculty Partnerships in Curricula has additional details and strategies.

Plan Regular Communication and Feedback

Even before you meet your students, it’s important to think about how you can engage with them, give them feedback, and check in with them regularly. Building community and a sense of instructor presence goes a long way in helping students feel supported and part of a learning community.

Ways to Stay in Touch with Your Students

Post a weekly announcement or send a weekly email. This message can include due dates, recommended practices, campus resources, and/or something fun, human, and non-academic to lighten the mood. The goal is to stay present with your students and build a regular communication pattern.

Hold regular student office hours in-person or via Zoom. Even if it’s just 30 minutes twice a week, being available to answer questions and build connections can be a big support for students. If your students are shy about attending student hours, consider having them sign up for at least one check-in of 10 to 15 minutes during the term.

Make weekly feedback videos of two to three minutes each for the whole class. Giving every student individual feedback can be time prohibitive. Instead, when students are doing those scaffolded assignments, send out a quick video to the whole class with your impressions of their work-in-progress and any tips about how they can improve it. Video feedback can be particularly effective in an online or blended course where you may not have as much visible presence.

Contact students individually when you notice they have not been participating regularly. Students are juggling a lot, and sometimes they might drop the ball. Having an instructor reach out to check in on them can make all the difference between a student who fails a course and one who persists and succeeds. Such outreach can be most effective when framed as an invitation to participate or an expression of care instead of a punitive reminder.

Reflect and Iterate

Despite all the planning you’ve done, each time you teach a course you and your students will have different needs and outcomes. It can be helpful to keep a running log of changes you’d like to make or strategies that worked well. Then when you prepare to teach the course again, you have an idea of where to focus your efforts. An OAI course consultation or a student-centered course review can also give you feedback and ideas to continue refining your course.

Clarke, D. (1991). The Negotiated Syllabus: What Is It and How Is It Likely to Work? Applied Linguistics, 12(1), 13–28.

Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning into Practice. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.