Designing a Course

When creating a new course, many faculty understandably think first about what material they want to “cover” (what books or articles to assign, what lectures to give, etc.); however, it can be advantageous to focus first—in what some call “backward design”—on what you want your students to learn or be able to do upon completion of the course.

After identifying key learning goals or competencies, you then clarify how you’ll know if your students have learned those things, and finally then plan the learning activities (including readings, class exercises, etc.) to help students develop those competencies (and generate evidence of that learning).

Below are several resources that outline the basic steps involved in this kind of approach to course design. 

Designing Learning Goals

At the heart of the course design process is a set of concrete, clearly-phrased learning goals.

Effective learning goals should challenge students to exercise higher order thinking skills (analyzing, synthesizing, and creating vs. naming or understanding). They should be clear, precise, and measurable. This enables students to distinguish average from excellent work, and it assists the instructor in giving actionable feedback to students. See below for resources and strategies on articulating those goals.

  • Learning Objectives –  Boston College: Discusses the benefits of learning objectives and how to write effective ones.
  • Creating and Using Effective Learning Goals – Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, University of British Columbia: Briefly describes the process and benefits of writing clear learning goals, and includes examples from two courses.

Designing Assignments and Exams

​Below are four main tips for effective design of assignments and exams:

  1. Decide on a small number of "desired outcomes" for your course.
  2. Align your assignments and exams with your desired outcomes.
  3. Offer students a rationale for the choices you make.
  4. Many short assignments and exams spread throughout the semester produce better learning than a long paper and final exam at the end, especially if returned with adequate feedback.

Assignments and examinations play a crucial pedagogical role in any course. The care that goes into crafting lectures and discussions is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for effective learning. Assignments and examinations not only send a signal to students about what the instructor considers worth learning in a course; they also serve to offer feedback on how well students are meeting course expectations.  There is, in fact, a direct relationship between frequency (and quality) of feedback on the one hand, and student performance on the other. This is one reason why some courses now place such stress on paper drafts, and why short assignments like response papers and examinations like weekly quizzes are becoming more common. Students perform better with practice and feedback, so the more practice they have, the better they perform.

A key to creating effective assignments and exams is the concept of "alignment":  starting with the desired outcomes of the course and working backwards so that the assignments and examinations reflect and support them. In some sense a successful course can be considered as an exercise in reverse engineering. Figure out first where you want your students to end up, and (only) then how best to help them get there.

Tip Sheets

SLATE has prepared the following guides to help faculty develop and assign effective course work.

Building a Syllabus

Syllabi are easier to read if certain standard information appears in all syllabi. Here is a syllabus template recommended for HKS courses.

For more information on preparing and posting syllabi and course materials, we invite HKS faculty to visit us on KNet (password required).