Course Design

Course design is planning that instructors do before they enter the classroom. During this process, instructors reflect on their goals for student learning, activities and readings to engage students, and how to know if students have achieved their goals. This planning is reflected in the syllabus.

Below is a quick guide to planning your course, but if you are looking for more, contact the FDC for a consultation or additional resources such as those listed at the bottom of the page.

Backward Course Design  |  Seven Principles for Undergraduate Learning  |  Universal Design for Learning  | Resources

Backward Course Design

Backward Course Design is a term coined by Grant Wiggins (see Resources); it describes a course planning process that starts by asking what students should know, be able to do, and think by the end of the course and then works backwards to determine how students will get there.

Step 1: Determine your learning goals.

  • What do I hope students will retain from this course a year (or more) from now? OR
  • What do I want students to know, to do and to value at the end of the course?

These answers form the basis for your course learning goals.

Try to make your answers as specific as possible. The more specific your goals, the easier it will be to see if they have been met.

For example, “Students will learn to think critically” is a common goal, but how will they demonstrate this?  How will they be able to show that they are thinking critically? A more specific goal might be something like, “Students will write an argumentative paper using at least five sources.” This goal would suggest that the instructor wants students to learn argumentation skills.

Framing the goals as things that students will do will also help to keep the course student-centered.

Step 2: Narrow your learning goals.

You may have several learning goals, but if you have more than five or six, it will be difficult to accomplish them all. If you had to narrow your goals down to two or three, what would they be? In your opinion as the instructor, what are the most important things your course will teach?

Step 3: Determine how students will demonstrate their knowledge.

Will students demonstrate knowledge with exams? How many? Would formal or informal writing show knowledge more clearly? Or would a presentation or product (like a poster session or web page) be a better way to judge what students know?

Assignments can also be designed to incorporate more learning goals. For example, if one learning goal is that students will learn the major causes of World War I and another is that they will practice skills of diplomacy, an assignment such as a group project on World War I in which students must negotiate a balance of work might be a good way to have this assignment do “double duty.”

Once you know how students will be demonstrating knowledge, determine how much each of these assessments will be worth. In general, the more important you consider the assessment, the more it should be worth of the student’s overall grade.

Step 4: Plan activities that will enable students to learn and practice what they need to know.

What you teach and how you teach it should flow logically from and align with your learning goals. In planning for teaching each topic or big idea, consider how you will:

  • Hook students into the topic and help them engage with and care about the content
  • Support them to explore the ideas and practice the skills they need to master
  • Give them opportunities to rehearse, revise, and refine their understandings and abilities before being assessed on them

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Seven Principles for Best Practice in Undergraduate Education

The Seven Principles for best practice can help you determine which learning goals are most important and which methods and modes of teaching will support your students toward mastery. Goals that overlap with one or more of the Seven Principles may be worth emphasizing in your class. Below are the Seven Principles along with suggestions for ways to clarify or implement them in your course design.

  • Encourage contact between students and yourself
    • Hold office hours, in person or online.
    • Invite groups of students to your office for pizza and a chat about the class.
    • Respond to email either within 24 hours or on a specific schedule that students know about (e.g., “I will respond to email every Tuesday and Thursday around 5 p.m.”).
    • Get to know students by showing up to class a few minutes early and chatting with them informally.
  • Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students
    • Encourage students to respond to each other, rather than to you, during class discussions.
    • Use peer response.
    • Assign group work, or use team-based learning.
  • Encourage active learning
    • Give students a problem to work out using information they have just learned in lecture.
    • Try class debate or think-pair-share activities (students answer a question by themselves, talk with another student and then the conversation opens up to a larger discussion).
  • Give prompt feedback
    • The recommended maximum turnaround time for grading is 2 weeks (one week is preferable).
    • Return feedback on one assignment before collecting another similar assignment. This encourages students to read and incorporate feedback into future assignments.
  • Emphasize time on task
    • Students will remember and enjoy whatever they spend the most time doing. Are students in your course spending their time on the elements you want them to remember?
    • Help students plan their semester by laying out a clear syllabus.
  • Communicate high expectations
    • Be explicit about your expectations for quality of work and classroom behavior.
    • Model good behavior.
  • Respect diverse talents and ways of learning
    • Consider providing options to standard assignments.
    • Investigate Universal Design for Learning (below).

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Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design began in the field of architecture as a set of principles for designing facilities and products to be accessible to all people, regardless of differences in physical or other abilities. Universal Design for Learning is the idea that courses can be designed to fit everyone, rather than as a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The Three Principles of UDL are:

  1. Present information and content in multiple ways that can be customized by the viewer (textbook, ebook, websites, videos, podcasts, and so on).
  2. Differentiate the ways that students can express what they know.
  3. Stimulate interest and motivate learners in a variety of ways.

The National Center on Universal Design for Learning provides considerably more information on UDL, including specific ways to implement it.

The Office of Accessibility and Student Disability Services at UMBC offers assistive technology support services for faculty. Their Assistive Technology and Accessibility Specialist can provide a range of support services for faculty that serve students with disabilities. In particular, they provide small group and individual training for a range assistive technology related subjects including making course materials and documents accessible for students with disabilities. They also offer over the phone or in-person consultations as well as brown bag lunch sessions to faculty and staff on various accessibility topics related to supporting students with disabilities. To setup an appointment, please reach out to the Accessibility and Student Disability Services front desk at extension 5-2459 or email

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Chickering, Arthur and Zelda Gamson. “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” AAHE Bulletin, 39;7 March, 1986. (Reprinted online.)

Fink, L. Dee. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass 2003.

Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition. Pearson, 2005. (Available from FDC Library).

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