Course Design: Begin with the End in Mind - Spring 2015

Accessible Version

By Wendy A. Crocker, Curriculum Specialist, Teaching Support Centre

Key questions of course design

Recently, curriculum conversations have been occurring across faculties and departments as part of a larger movement toward aligning program outcomes, assessments, and courses. Inevitably, the question arises, “Should I do this for my courses as well”? The answer is a resounding, YES! Using a course design process that helps align course outcomes, assessments, and teaching and learning strategies not only helps you, as the instructor, to clearly map out the key ideas in a course, but it will help you to address the following three questions that are the basis of good course design:

1. What do I want students to know?
2. How will I know that they have learned it?
3. What techniques/resources will I use to share information?

Your responses to these questions are also important to students. We spend huge amounts of time crafting what we believe to be a suitable course syllabus to present to students in the first class of the semester. However, the information that students want to know – What will I learn?; How will I be assessed?; and What will we be doing in class? – is also contained in those three questions. Good course design begins with considerations of Outcomes (what will students know and be able to do), Assessment (how will I know that they have learned it), and Teaching Strategies (what techniques/resources will I use to share information). This notion of Constructive Alignment was forwarded by John Biggs (2003) and has been adapted for use in the Teaching Support Centre as Figure 1, below.

Figure 1: Constructive curriculum alignment

Figure 1: Constructive curriculum alignment

What do I want students to know?

In designing a cohesive course, begin at the top of the triangle with OUTCOMES ~ what is it that students will know and be able to do as a result of learning in your course? In order to not become mired in the myriad detail of content knowledge, it is helpful to think of meeting a student in the future. What key concepts would you hope that they would recall from your course years later? These ideas become the Enduring Understandings (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), “statements summarizing important ideas and core processes that are central to a discipline and have lasting value beyond the classroom”. Enduring understandings:

1. Frame the big ideas that give meaning and lasting importance to such discrete curriculum elements as facts and skills;
2. Can transfer to other fields as well as life beyond the classroom;
3. Help “unpack” areas of the curriculum where students may struggle to gain understanding or demonstrate misunderstandings and misconceptions; and
4. Provide a conceptual foundation for studying the content area.

Enduring Understandings are BIG IDEAS and must be broken down into key or “Essential Questions” around which your course can be framed. McTighe and Wiggins (2013) explain the relationship between enduring understandings (Big Ideas) and essential questions in this way:

If the content that you are expected to teach represents “answers”, then what questions were asked by the people who came up with those answers? This conceptual move offers a useful strategy both for seeing a link between content, and important questions, and for coming up with ways of engaging students in the very kind of thinking that is required to understand the content…The questions thus serve as doorways or lenses through which learners can better see and explore the key concepts, themes, theories, issues, and problems that reside within the content. pp 4-5

To illustrate the relationship between the two, here are some examples from a number of disciplines of Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions that have been adapted from McTighe and Wiggins (2013).

Enduring Understandings
(Big Ideas)
Essential Questions
The geography, climate, and
natural resources of a region
influence the economy and
lifestyle of the people living
in the area.
How does where you
live influence how you
Statistical analysis and
data display often reveal
patterns. Patterns enable
What will happen next?
How certain are you?
Dance is a language of
shape, space, effort,
and timing that can
communicate feelings and
How can movement
express emotion?

Essential Questions become course outcomes

When you have determined the several essential questions that are addressed in your course, the next step is to change these questions into outcome statements. Nilson (2010) asserts that an “outcomes-centred course design guarantees a high level of student engagement because the process steers you toward student-active teaching strategies” (p.18). A learning outcome is a statement of exactly what your students should know, value, or be able to do after completing your course, or at specified times during your course. An outcome consists of three parts: a statement of performance, a statement of conditions for the performance, and the criteria and standards for assessing the performance. It may guide your thinking to consider Bloom (1956), and Krathwohl (2002) frameworks that are arranged as taxonomies of cognitive operations from lower order (knowledge) to higher order (synthesis/evaluation). Outcomes that are written using a higher order verb (critique, defend, construct, design, validate) expect students to demonstrate their knowledge using more sophisticated means. In turn, your assessment tools and classroom teaching and learning strategies must support and enable these demonstrations of learning. Figure 2 is an illustration of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

For example, a student learning outcome that asks students to recite Kreb’s cycle is only requiring student rote knowledge and memorization. While lower order skills have a place in our curriculum, they should not be the end point for a course. Instead, consider ways in which these lower order skills can be combined with other knowledge and key ideas which then require students to demonstrate what they have learned at a higher level – perhaps by constructing a model to illustrate a cellular level cycle or assess the validity of a conclusion based on their understanding of Kreb’s cycle.By inviting students to demonstrate their learning at a higher level, they are combining knowledge and skills from the lower levels and applying it in different ways. Outcomes that ask for higher order thinking are aligned with the essential questions that underpin a course. Lower order questions (Label, identify, explain, describe) may represent the learning from topics that are covered in a lesson or lab, but do not in themselves relate to an essential question.

When creating course outcomes, remember:

1. Outcomes must be observable and measurable – that is the instructor can observe (see or hear) and evaluate each learner’s performance according to a standard (e.g., how well, how many, or to what degree);
2. Most outcomes require high degrees of cognition according to Bloom’s taxonomy;
3. Outcomes must be achievable for students given the length of the course, the number of course hours, and the level of scaffolding provided through classroom instruction and activities; and
4. Course outcomes are related to the essential questions and are therefore relevant to the course and meaningful to students.

Watch for the next edition of “Course Design: Begin with the end in Mind” in the 2015 Fall Reflections. It will focus on the second aspect of the design triangle – connecting assessment to course outcomes.

Figure 2: Blooms taxonomy

Figure 2: Bloom’s Taxonomystaircase indicating the cognitivelevels and correspondingactivities, Retrieved

*Covey (1989, p. 98)

Biggs. J. (2003) Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.
Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook 1: Cognitive domain. New York, NY: David McKay.
Covey, S.R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York, NY: Free Press.
Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(4), 212-218.
McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
Nilson, L. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe. J. (1998).What is backward design. In G. Wiggins and J. McTighe (Eds.). Understanding by design (pp.7-19). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
Wiggins, G & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.