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Course Design

General Course Design Principles

When designing a course, where do you begin? Perhaps you typically begin by identifying topics you’d like to address or texts you want to include. In this approach, the focus is primarily on content and coverage. However, covering a variety of topics doesn’t mean that students will necessarily learn them.  If you want to be sure that students leave your course having learned particular concepts, skills, habits, and ways of thinking, it is helpful to begin your planning with the end in mind. This approach is called backward design.

What is backward design?

Backward design is a way of designing lesson plans, courses or curricula that ensures learning activities are aligned with objectives. It is called backward (or sometimes integrated) design because it works backwards from learning goals through learning objectives and outcomes to lesson plans or learning activities.

The backward design process has three stages, which can be framed as a series of questions:

1. Learning goals: What should students know or be able to do?

Consider these factors when you create the learning goals:

  • Academic connections: Is your class part of a series or a prerequisite for another class? If so, what skills or knowledge are required for success in subsequent classes?
  • Workforce preparation: Does your class prepare students for some aspect of their lives or future work experience?

2. Assessment strategies: What are the best ways for students to show they have reached each learning goal?

Consider these factors when you create the assessment strategies:

  • Authentic assessment: Are there ways that students can show proficiency that mirror what they will be asked to do in a work setting or other discipline-specific environment?
  • Reflection: How can you ask students to demonstrate that they not only have mastered the concept or skill, but also why it is important to learn?
  • Student self-assessment: Are there intermediate strategies that will help students determine how much they have learned and if there are any learning gaps?

3. Learning activities: How can students prepare to reach each learning goal?

Consider these factors when you create the learning activities:

  • Balance: What is the best way to balance classroom time with homework assignments and class projects? Should you consider using  strategies for one or more class sessions, so you can facilitate activities in more depth and resolve challenges as they arise?
  • Application: If you want students to leave your class with real-world skills, is there a way to have them perform an appropriate activity for a campus unit at SCU or some external organization?

For more information about Course Design, check out the infographic below:

Online Course Design

Teaching a course exclusively online means that you may need to reframe how you approach your course. 

Academic Technology has created a step-by-step guide for designing an online course. You can find the full guide in the Camino course, Keep Calm and Carry On:  Adapting Instruction for Times of Disruption, but here’s a preview of the essential steps:

  • Send a welcome email to your students
  • Build introductory content (course introduction, syllabus, course structure) in Camino
  • Build out the course content for your first few weeks
  • Create a welcome video for your students
  • Create a Zoom meeting to use for virtual office hours throughout the quarter
  • Create opportunities for students to collaborate with each other

In the “Steps for Teaching Online” module, you’ll find detailed instructions for how to complete each step, and you’ll also see examples from SCU instructors who have taught online.

As with any course, beginning with the end in mind can be a good place to start. While your learning objectives for an online course may be the same as they would be in a face-to-face version of your course, your assessments and learning activities will need to work in the online medium. Additionally, you’ll want to think about how you can create community within your online course by providing opportunities for students to connect with you and with each other. Be sure to consider how students in different time zones can participate in the activities you have planned. Here are some ideas as to how you might facilitate learning activities, assessments, and community-building in the online classroom.

Task Potential Approaches
Explaining a concept
  • Create a video or audio recording using Zoom or VoiceThread
  • Create a Powerpoint with notes (either written notes or recorded notes)
  • Post a pre-existing video or audio file 
  • Write an explanation and post it as a Camino page 
  • Post a pre-existing article that explains the concept
Facilitating whole group or small group discussions
  • Assign discussion questions to the class in Camino
  • Assign discussion questions to small groups in Camino
  • Ask students to work together on shared Google Docs (they can use comments and the chat function to exchange ideas)
Facilitating individual or small group practice/problem solving 
  • Have students solve problems, create concept maps, and make graphic representations using Google Drawings or other programs
  • Ask students to solve problems or create graphic representations on paper, take a photo, and upload their photo to a Camino assignment or discussion forum
Checking students’ understanding of concepts 
  • Create quizzes in Camino or by using Google forms
  • Use low-stakes assignments to monitor students’ engagement with assigned readings and videos
Fostering community
  • Engage with students in discussion forums
  • Facilitate small-group interactions
  • Create a course welcome video and invite students to introduce themselves using short videos

View directly, or right-click to save a copy.

Additional Resources

Fink, D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. (2nd Edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.


Page authors:
Dr. Kevin Kelly, Lecturer at San Francisco State University
Dr. Rachel Stumpf, former SCU Faculty Development Program Manager

Last updated:
July 13, 2020