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Designing a Course

Designing a course can cover a multitude of different activities, ranging from the development of a totally new course to adapting elements of an existing course in response to advances in disciplinary knowledge. As a first step, it is important to consider the 'big picture' issues:

A good way of thinking about course design is to consider John Biggs' notion of constructive alignment. Biggs recognized that teaching is not just about what happens in the classroom, but is also driven by the intended outcomes of the course and by the planned assessment tasks. Essentially, each of the three elements in a course—outcomes, in-class teaching and learning activities, and assessment tasks—is inextricably linked to the other two, and cannot be undertaken in isolation. Thus, for instance, as you are writing your outcomes, at the same time you also need to consider how you are going to teach towards them, as well as how you are going to assess them.

1. Setting your course outcomes

Outcomes, also sometimes referred to as objectives, are essentially what you want your students to know and be able to do by the end of your course. As with anything in life, it is a good idea to begin with the more fundamental outcomes that you want achieved before moving on to more complex tasks. Bloom's Taxonomy is often the tool used by faculty to develop their course outcomes. The table below summarizes this taxonomy:

Level of achievement Verbs that can be used to articulate outcomes:
Knowledge: Data recall outcomes that require basic memorization Define, describe, identify, label, list, match, name, recognize, reproduce, state
Comprehension: Demonstration of understanding and/or restating a problem in one’s own words. Comprehend, convert, distinguish, estimate, explain, defend, interpret, infer, paraphrase, summarize, translate
Application: Use of a concept in a different context/situation Apply, change, compute, construct, demonstrate, manipulate, operate, predict, produce, relate, show, solve, use
Analysis: Break something down into its component parts in order to understand it Analyze, break down, compare, contrast, differentiate, deconstruct, distinguish, illustrate, infer, outline, relate, select, separate
Synthesis: Pulling together a structure from diverse elements in order to create a new understanding Categorize, combine, compile, compose, create, devise, design, generate, modify, organize, rearrange, reconstruct, revise, rewrite
Evaluation: Making a judgment based on what has been learned Appraise, conclude, critique, defend, discriminate, evaluate, interpret, justify

Ideally, you should develop two or three outcomes from each of these levels, building up from the most basic thing that you want your students to know and be able to do to the most advanced. Each level acts as a scaffold into the next; gaining competence in an easier level helps students prepare for the next level in the taxonomy. To give you an idea of how this might look, here is a set of outcomes for a (fictitious) course entitled Transnational issues: refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

As you can see, knowledge and skills are built up gradually across the course.

Outcomes/objectives are often quite difficult to articulate—you know what you want the students to know and be able to do by the end of the course—but actually putting it into words can be tricky. It takes practice. Please feel free to give us a call or drop us an email to set up an appointment if you would like to talk about writing outcomes.

2. Course topics and themes

The temptation is often to begin your course planning with a list of topics and themes to cover in your course. The end result is invariably a course plan that is rather like a table of contents in a textbook—that is, you end up with a list, and not a plan. So it is generally more effective—and easier—to start listing your topics and themes after you have your outcomes in place. Once you have identified these main themes, you can begin to fill in the sub-themes, the elements that make up the broader theme.

As you are putting the themes and sub-themes in place, you need to consider the teaching and learning activities that you will be using in the classroom to teach them. In other words, how will I teach this section to this class? What methods can best be harnessed to encourage learning and understanding? Below is a list of techniques; we would be happy to chat with you about the details of each, as well as teaching methods that could be used.

Any of these methods can be used in conjunction with traditional lectures. Their aim is to get the students actively engaged in the content of what is being taught, instead of simply being passive recipients of knowledge. In general, students can handle about twenty minutes of a lecture before their attention begins to wane and you lose them. Introducing a technique like one of those above can help to maintain students' attention for the entire period.

3. Assessment tasks

It is important that you draft these at the same time as you write your outcomes to ensure alignment between what you said you wanted the students to know and be able to do, and what you assess them on. There is a meaningful difference between the formative and the summative assessment tasks that you develop for your course:

Formative assessment generally refers to the assignments and tasks that you set for students during the semester, such as essays, class projects, laboratory reports, and so on. The defining feature of formative assessment is the feedback that students receive alongside their grade. This feedback is an important learning opportunity for students because it provides them with information about what they did well, where they went wrong (and why), and what they ought to have done. Thus, formative assessment tasks gives students the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them before the more high-stakes summative assessment.

Summative assessment, by contrast, is more cumulative in nature; it is essentially a judgment of students' competence by the end of a semester or course. It usually, although not always, takes the form of an examination, and there are rarely any opportunities to provide students with feedback on their performance.

Depending on the content of your course, you can use a wide range of different types of assessment to evaluate student learning. It is also important to explain what your expectations are regarding each assignment, and to provide and unpack criteria against which they will be assessed. Common forms of assessment include:

4. Using Blackboard and other types of educational technology to support your teaching

Technology, including Blackboard, can be used effectively to advance your students' learning. We encourage you to contact the Blackboard support staff to explore the ways that Blackboard may help meet your technology goals for your class. We would also be happy to work with you on maximizing the effectiveness of these tools for your classroom practice.