UW Continuum College Instructor Resources

Course Design

The following section provides overall guidance for course development. When designing a course for a program, your starting point will be the intended outcomes of the entire program and those outcomes you are to address in your course. Your Program Manager will discuss learning outcomes and previous syllabi if the course has been taught before.

As you design your course, ask yourself these questions:

Who are the students?

  1. What are the students’ motivations for taking the course?
  2. What might you expect students to know before the first class?
  3. What range of backgrounds and previous experience is typically represented among students in this class?
  4. What problems do students typically have with the material in this program?

By asking yourself these questions at the onset of your course design process, you will be able to focus more concretely on learning outcomes as opposed to merely shoehorning large quantities of content into a set number of class meetings. Your Program Manager and fellow program instructors can help you answer many of these questions. Visit the UW PCE student demographics and motivations page for more information.

What do I want students to be able to do at the end of this course?

Try to answer this question as specifically as you can by using terms that emphasize student abilities you can measure or easily recognize.  If you are teaching a course that is part of a certificate, be mindful of whether your course is the first or later in the sequence. It is important to understand the curriculum for the entire program so that you know what knowledge and skills the students bring to the course and those that they should master before they leave your course.

What activities, assignments, and materials will support learning?

No students, especially adult learners, want to sit through three hours of lecture after a long day of work or to be assigned busy work. Students want activities that will improve their current knowledge and skills or prepare them for new work. When possible, design activities relevant to the workplace and draw upon the experiences the students bring to the class. As you select activities, think about the entire lesson length and make sure that class experiences build upon each other and provide sufficient variety to keep the students engaged. Visit the Engaging Adult Students page for more information.

How will I measure student progress and mastery?

What will provide you with reliable evidence during the course that your students are learning? What will provide you with reliable evidence at the end of the course that they have obtained/mastered the abilities you envisioned at the beginning of the course? This is the part where you choose assignments, activities, and other methods of assessment.  For example, will you have weekly quizzes? Objective tests? Presentations? Performances? Group or individual projects? Assessment is an important aspect of student learning. Make sure to think carefully when pairing assessments with learning objectives. For more on assessment design, see the Assessing and Grading page.

Resources for the Course Design Process

The following videos are especially helpful if you have limited experience with the course design process. You will learn about a planning framework known as Understanding by Design, which focuses on starting with the desired outcomes and then working backward to the learning activities.

Video Resources

Educational Innovation at UW-Madison: The “Backward Design” Framework

What is Backward Design?

Alignment and Backward Design

Additional Resources

Understanding by Design-Authentic Education

Backward Design Model – Educational Learning Theories