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Course Design. Preparing a Syllabus. “Once you have a sound course design, your syllabus almost writes itself.” -Teaching at its Best L. Nilson, 1998. Course Design. Content-Centered. What will I cover?. Learning-Centered. What will they learn?. Course Design. Learning-Centered.

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course design

Course Design

Preparing a Syllabus

“Once you have a sound course design, your syllabus almost writes itself.”

-Teaching at its Best

L. Nilson, 1998


Course Design


What will I cover?


What will they learn?


Course Design


Students learn how to find knowledge, they do not wait for faculty to provide it

Ongoing student and course assessments show faculty where teaching is effective and ineffective

Students’ performance on activities and assignments is assessed by more people than a single instructor

Students construct the questions they need to ask, rather than expecting teachers to choose what students ought to know

(Allen, 1996)


Course Design

The General Design

Consider your audience

Establish tiered instructional objectives

Evaluate content options and appropriate readings

Determine class format

Develop assessments


Course Design

  • Consider your audience!

What preparation will most students bring?Do prerequisites guarantee this?

Attitudes?Required course? Elective?

What are the student expectations?Are these appropriate? Can they be incorporated into your teaching plan?

Student long-range goals?

Can flexibility be built in to accommodate this?


Course Design

  • Establish tiered instructional objectives

“An instructional objective is a statement that gives instructional focus and direction, establishes guidelines for testing, and conveys one’s teaching intent to others.”

-Stating Objectives for Classroom Instruction

Gronlund, 1985


Course Design

  • Establish tiered instructional objectives

Course Design by Objectives

First define your “ultimate” end-of-course objectives

Then work backwards…what will students have to be able to do before they can accomplish each “ultimate” objective?

Continue working backwards to the most basic performances they must master to achieve the above





Course Design


Course Design








Course Design


Instructional Objective

(for a specific group of students)


(what students will need to be able to do in order to attain this objective)


Class Format

Assessment Format


Does your syllabus share with your students the thinking process that you followed to design this course?


Course Design

  • Establish basic learning objectives

“Students will learn to appreciate their natural surroundings and will know that underlying geologic structures control the landforms we see”


Course Design

  • Translate these, if needed, to become effective instructional objectives

“After working with slide images and through field experiences, students will be able to locate and identify faults, fractures and folds present in an unfamiliar landscape.”


Course Design

  • Identify the skills needed in order for students to be able to achieve the objective

Recognize the surface expressions of different geologic structures AND how expression varies with topography

Critically observe and analyze an unfamiliar landscape for diagnostic geologic contact relationships

bloom s taxonomy taxonomy of educational objectives 1956






Course Design


Bloom’s Taxonomy

Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956)

fink s taxonomy to improve the academy 2001

Learning how to learn


Human Dimension


Foundational Knowledge


Course Design

Fink’s Taxonomy

To Improve the Academy (2001)


Course Design

  • Writing objectives

Many Fewer

Interpretations Interpretations

To know To write

To understand To recite

To really understand To identify

To appreciate To sort

To fully appreciate To solve

To grasp significance of To construct

To enjoy To build

To believe To compare

To have faith in To contrast

from Mager (1975) in Diamond (1998)


Course Design

  • Evaluate content options

Rank the topics

(rank highly your “essentials” AND those that meet student needs or expectations)

Slash, burn & distill

(this always hurts, but designing courses backwards will help establish priorities)

Compare to your “full array” of content options

is something missing that you value? Are you missing a major learning goal?


Course Design

  • Evaluate readings

Consider the level(and financial resources!)of your students

What is the purpose of the reading? How will it support the course? How often will students use this resource?

Read a variety of texts

...unless you wrote the text, you won’t find exactly what you need… BUT...

Is a course reader better?

...can better suit to your needs...but takes a huge effort to integrate well...


Course Design

  • Determine the class format

Lecture based?

Discussion based?

Need labs or experiential components?

How and when will student inquiry take place?

What does the phrase “knowledge transfer” conjure up for you?


Course Design

Encourage Active Learning

From Davidson & Ambrose, 1994

Students should:

be prepared to work hard when they enter a classroom…

take an active role in acquiring and maintaining new information during the class…

continue their interest after class hours

What questions will you ask... what examples will you use... to help stimulate interest? How will you hear from students during class?


Course Design

Design Effective Learning

From Davidson & Ambrose, 1994

Most of the learning in a typical course takes place outside of class…

design meaningful after class projects, labs, readings…

prepare assignments that apply class material to new contexts

How does each experience contribute to the goals for the course?


Course Design

Provide Prompt Feedback

From Davidson & Ambrose, 1994

Learning is an iterative process… apply, discover errors, try again...

plan to provide prompt and supportive corrections

keep in mind that not all feedback need be graded

How long will it take you to return graded assignments? How can you provide immediate feedback? How can the students themselves provide feedback?


Course Design

Emphasize importance of time and effort spent learning… From Davidson & Ambrose, 1994

Everyone who wants to learn a subject must put in time and effort

Students must make effective use of class and study time

Will you discuss time management with your class? What study strategies will be most successful for the course objectives?


Course Design

Encourage Student-Faculty Contact... From Davidson & Ambrose, 1994

This is at the very heart of the educational process

Allow time both within and outside of class to display enthusiasm, sensitivity, and command of content

How many students will you know by name? How open will your office door be? How will you show students that you are receptive?


Course Design

Encourage Cooperation among Students

From Davidson & Ambrose, 1994

improve collaborative skills

develop personal responsibility

enhance self-esteem

build confidence in science

Will in-class or out-of-class projects be assigned that require students to work together? What do you need to learn about directing successful group work?


Course Design

Communicate High, Attainable Expectations

From Davidson & Ambrose, 1994

attendance and class participation are greatest in courses that demand a lot

students often give highest ratings to their most difficult (yet attainable) courses

What are your expectations for this course? What will students be able to do after this course? How high will you set the bar? How will you “catch” struggling students?


Course Design

Respect diverse talents and ways of learning...

From Davidson & Ambrose, 1994

each student brings a unique set of abilities, interests, and experiences into class

people process and learn science in very different ways

What strategies will you use to reach students with various learning preferences? Will you challenge students to develop new learning styles? How will you discover whether or not your teaching style is reaching all students?


Course Design

  • Develop an assessment plan… for them

What have your students learned?

How will students acquire the skills you value?

Let the course objectives shine through your assessment… end-of-course objectives should map out your projects, homework, exams, etc.


Course Design

  • Develop an assessment plan… for you...

Options for getting feedback… (CATs) Classroom Assessment Techniques

Mid-term formative evaluations

Professional feedback… classroom consultations, videos, etc.


Course Design


Allen, L. R. (1996) “An Instructional Epiphany.” Change, Mar.-Apr. 1996, 28 (2), 52.

Angelo, T.A. and Cross, K.P (1993) “Classroom Assessment Techniques,” Jossey-Bass Publ., San Francisco, 427p.

Davidson, C.I. and Ambrose, S.A. (1994) “The New Professor’s Handbook: A Guide to Teaching and Research in Engineering and Science.” Anker Publ. Co., Bolton, MA 199p.

Diamond, R.M. (1998) “Designing & Assessing Courses and Curricula: A Practical Guide.” Jossey-Bass Publ., San Francisco, 321p.

Fink, L.D. (2001) “Higher-Level Learning: The First Step Toward More Significant Learning” in To Improve the Academy, v. 19 Anker Publ.,

Nilsen, L. B. (1998) “Teaching at its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors.” Anker Publ. Co., Bolton, MA 219p.


Course Design

Other Good Reads

Boice, R. (2000) “Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus,” Allyn & Bacon Publ., 319p.

Davis, B. G., (1993) “Tools for Teaching,” Jossey-Bass Publ., 429p.

Reis, R..M. (1997) “Tomorrow’s Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering,” IEEE Press, NY., 416p.