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Designing a Course

Begin the process early, giving yourself at least six months to plan a new course. Successful courses require careful planning and continual revision. Consult with colleagues who have taught the same or similar courses to learn from their strategies and their general impressions of the students who typically take the course. If you are team-teaching, you and your teaching partner(s) should begin meeting at least six months in advance to discuss course goals, teaching philosophies, course content, teaching methods, and course policies, as well as specific responsibilities for each instructor.
Define course goals. Determining the goals for the course will clarify what you want the students to learn and accomplish. Having these course goals in mind will then help you make decisions about which content to include, which teaching methods to use, and what kinds of assignments and exams are appropriate. For a useful introduction to curriculum planning that begins with defining goals for student learning, rather than with course content, see Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design (1998). When you define the course goals, focus on student learning. One way to formulate these goals is to determine what students should be learning in terms of content, cognitive development, and personal development. Be as specific as you can and make sure that the goals define learning in ways that can be measured. Consider the following questions:
  • What do you want your students to remember from your course in 5-10 years?
  • How should taking your course change students?
  • What skills should students gain in this course?
  • How does this course relate to other courses in the discipline?
  • How, then, might you define the course goals accordingly (e.g., for an introductory, fundamental, or advanced course in the discipline)?
  • In addition, you should learn about the students who typically take the course (their level of preparation, their majors or academic interests, etc.) in order to think about how your course will help this group of students build their knowledge and understanding of the topic.

    Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956) provides a helpful framework for identifying the observable and measurable skills you would like your students to learn. As the following table shows, Bloom identified six types of cognitive processes and ordered these according to the increasing level of complexity involved: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. This table links these processes to representative skills, as well as verbs you might use when defining course goals, developing teaching methods, designing assignments and exams, and composing questions to use in class.

    As you plan and revise courses, remember the importance of teaching core concepts and critical-thinking skills. Focusing only on content can quickly lead you to over-emphasize knowledge-based skills and to ignore the teaching of the higher-level thinking skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

    Links and References for Planning a Course

  • Bloom, Benjamin (ed). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Vol. 1: Cognitive Domain. New York: McKay, 1956.
  • Davis, Barbara Gross. “Preparing or Revising a Course.” Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993.
  • McKeachie, Wilbert, et al. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. 12th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
  • “Planning Your Course: A Decision Guide.” Center for Learning and Teaching, Cornell University.
  • Stout, Julie. “Radical Course Revision: A Case Study.” National Teaching and Learning Forum 10(4). May 2001.
  • Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998.