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Course Planning

At the heart of a successful course is the planning that precedes it. Good planning involves several steps:

  1. Identify the content domain of the course.
  2. Decide upon the goals that students are to reach at the end of the course.
  3. Select subject matter, materials, learning activities, and teaching methods that are appropriate and relevant to those goals and objectives.
  4. Determine how to engage students in the subject matter.
  5. Design methods to measure and evaluate students' performance according to the objectives and goals that were originally selected.

Finally, the first day of class sets the tone for the rest of the course. These topics on the subject of course planning are all addressed in this chapter.

Universal Design for Course Construction

The way in which students access, process, and demonstrate information in a course can vary widely, based on their learning style, cognitive development, personality, cultural background, and abilities.

Universal Design is an approach to designing course instruction, materials, and content to benefit people of all learning styles without adaptation or retrofitting. Universal Design provides equal access to learning, not simply equal access to information. Universal Design allows the student to control the method of accessing information while the teacher monitors the learning process and initiates any beneficial methods.

Although this design enables the student to be self-sufficient, the teacher is responsible for imparting knowledge and facilitating the learning process. It should be noted that Universal Design does not remove academic challenges; it removes barriers to access. Simply stated, Universal Design is just good teaching.


  • Use a variety of instructional methods when presenting material
  • Allow for multiple methods of demonstrating understanding of essential course content
  • Use technology to enhance learning opportunities and increase accessibility
  • Integrate natural supports for learning (i.e., using resources already found in the environment, such as fellow students for study partners)
  • Invite students to contact the instructor with any questions or concerns

Course Content

The scope of a course is a curriculum decision and as such, is broadly identified through a process of dialogue that involves not only the instructor, but the department, college, and university at large. Although the University's course approval process is the originating point for content decisions, instructors have latitude within the bounds of the final approved course description in deciding the specific content that will be part of a particular course offering. If the course is part of a sequence that builds on skills and knowledge from a previous course or is standardized across the department, the course will have to include the expected content.

The Importance of Course Goals

Among the most important course decisions is the identification of course goals. Without clear course goals, the following results are likely:

  • The instructor will have difficulty selecting appropriate subject matter, materials, and teaching methods.
  • The instructor will have difficulty staying on topic throughout the course and selecting appropriate topics to be tested.
  • Students will complain that the course is irrelevant, that the material is not related to their personal educational goals or to any other goals they can recognize as being important.
  • Students will complain that the tests are unfair; one topic is assigned, another is taught, and a third is covered on the tests.
  • Students will complain that they do not know what to study since no priorities among topics are provided.
  • Students will complain that the course is disorganized, that the topics do not fit together, and that there is no clear direction.

On the other hand, clear goals enhance the possibility that the following results will occur:

  • Teaching will be more focused and precise. Instructors will have subjected the course to a thorough analysis and will have selected on purpose what they expect the students to learn in the course.
  • It will be easy to identify points where learning needs to be monitored or tested.
  • It will be possible to confirm that student needs are being met.
  • Instructors will be aware of different teaching and learning styles. One can specify the product (which may reduce test and grade anxiety) and make an intelligent choice of the appropriate teaching and learning process.
  • Students will always have a clear statement of the purpose and aims of the course to turn to when they are studying or unsure of the course's aims. They will find it easier to progress through the course in an organized manner.

In short, with well-defined course goals there is a clear communication of intent on the part of the teacher regarding what he or she is trying to teach, what the students are going to be expected to be able to do, how their achievement will be measured, and what will be accepted as evidence that they have achieved the goals.

Instructional Objectives

Over the years, educators have approached goal setting in a variety of ways. During the decades when learning theory was characterized by a Behaviorist approach, educators urged teachers to set broad goals and then develop very precise instructional objectives for each goal. According to Robert Mager (1962), an instructional objective is "an intent communicated by a statement describing a proposed change in a learner-a statement of what the learner is to be like when he has successfully completed a learning experience." Teachers were encouraged to state objectives very narrowly and to include measures specifying how attainment of the objective would be judged; for example, "The student will be able to draw the structures of these chemical compounds to 100% accuracy when compared with the textbook figures."

As learning theory focused on more holistic ways of thinking about learning, educators began to think differently about objectives. Eisner (1994), for example, stressed that during inquiry or discovery learning, one wants to be open-ended about what might result. He substituted the term "instructional objectives" with the term "expressive outcomes." Today, most educators agree that good instructional objectives should neither be so narrowly stated that they represent the intended curriculum mechanistically nor so generally stated that they lend little clarity to the intended goals. They should not discourage creativity on the part of either teacher or learner, nor should they take away the need for the teacher to communicate the "challenge" of studying and learning to her or his students. Other dangers to be aware of are objectives that insult students' intelligence, that are restricted to lower-level cognitive skills, that seem mechanistic or dehumanizing, or that result in overconcentration on the aspects of a subject while the students miss the "big picture."

Loosely stated objectives - such as "The students in Theatre 100 will understand what makes good theatre" - are not especially useful. It is generally better to refer to a specific realization or ability that the teacher wants his or her students to gain as a result of their course. An example of a well-stated objective might be the following: "The students in Physics 101 will demonstrate awareness of the importance of safety in the laboratory by learning and completing six standard precautionary steps before beginning each of the experiments in the course."

Many educators evaluate their instructional objectives using the work of Benjamin Bloom. Bloom (1956) classified various abilities and behaviors that correlate with cognitive learning objectives into a taxonomy (now commonly referred to as Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning) that represents the thinking processes required of students as a continuum moving from the simple to the complex. This hierarchy can serve as a classification scheme for constructing course objectives since it focuses on the way a student acquires and uses knowledge in any subject area. It includes the following levels, starting from the bottom:

Knowledge. The lowest level. Primarily concerns the students' ability to memorize or recall certain specific facts. A sample knowledge objective is: "Students can define 'osmosis.'"

Comprehension. Involves the ability to interpret, paraphrase, and extrapolate, thus demonstrating the students' basic understanding of ideas that they did not originate. A sample comprehension objective is: "Students can give examples of loosely coupled systems."

Application. Includes activities in which the student applies concepts and principles to new and/or practical situations. A sample application objective is: "Students can use the formula to predict economic effects."

Analysis. Concerns breaking down a piece of information into its constituent parts, differentiating and discriminating. A sample analysis objective is: "Students can diagram musical variations in a given composition."

Synthesis. Involves the blending of elements and parts in order to form a whole. Students should be able to create a structural pattern that was not previously present. A sample syntheses objective is: "Students can summarize the research literature on genetic engineering."

Evaluation. The highest level. Students might judge the value of a work, the logical consistency of written data, or the adequacy of someone else's conclusions. A sample evaluation objective is: "Students can judge the adequacy of research claims according to the supporting data."

If the above are used when formulating objectives, it should be possible to analyze which of the course objectives require higher-order student behavior (application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) and which center around lower-order objectives (knowledge and comprehension). Most instructional specialists argue that effective objectives (and well-designed courses) will almost always include some higher order objectives and not center exclusively around retention and understanding. Likewise, in most curricula there are foundational knowledge and comprehension requirements that must be achieved before higher order objectives can be addressed.

Structuring an Effective Course

In Teaching Assistance: A Handbook of Teaching Ideas (1982), John Andrews suggests that a teacher should use the following questions as a means of planning an effective course. These points should enable the instructor to see how goals can shape planning for other aspects of the class. Note that the questions focus at the end point first and then work backward in time to the first action the teacher will take:

  1. How does the teacher want students to be changed as a result of this class? What should they be able to do that they cannot do now?
  2. How are these changes to be measured? What sort of performances (exams, papers, etc.) will be used?
  3. What subject matter will be covered to help students meet the expectations in (1) and (2)?
  4. What about the "how" of teaching? What sorts of formats or activities will be used to help students practice the abilities needed to meet (1) and (2)?
  5. How are expectations communicated to the students? What is their picture of the objectives they will need to meet?

Mary Minter of the University of Michigan (1986) has suggested a more detailed planning analysis for an instructor faced with a new course if such an expectation exists. She suggests that on accepting the course assignment, well-prepared instructors first set out to acquire as much information as possible about the students they will be teaching (see the first section of this handbook) and the content they will be expected to cover in the course, if such an expectation exists. Resources to consult include the college catalog, previous syllabi, the official department course description, and the assigned textbook. Instructors can also solicit help from anyone who has previously taught the course.

Minter regards the next step as the setting of general goals and specific instructional objectives for the course. Instructors might be able to use a general purpose statement given on a previous syllabus, and/or they might want to include different or additional goals. The next step is to provide the student with even more specific instructional objectives, which should relate to the overall goals and be specific to the major content sections/topics. "Action verbs" that are specific, such as: "list, write, report, do" are highly recommended. The final step is to conduct another level of task analysis. Students' basic learning needs in the subject area should be identified. (This can be based, for example, on past experience with similar groups of students or on a personal questionnaire that students complete on the first day.) From all this analysis an effective course structure will evolve.

Grunert (1997) stresses the importance of a "learning-centered" approach to course planning. She suggests that students should be involved in course planning through clarifying their own goals for the course, helping choose learning activities, monitoring and assessing their progress, and assisting in establishing the criteria on which performance will be judged. Some instructors use portions of the first class to modify or build upon their own plans for the course by asking for student participation and suggestions.

Selecting Learning Activities

Much of this section has assumed the use of traditional classroom formats such as the lecture/discussion mix or lectures coupled with laboratory demonstrations. There are, nonetheless, a variety of other possible methods for the delivery of instruction. These are discussed in the following chapters on modes of teaching and assessment. In selecting and planning classroom instructional strategies to match course goals and objectives, it is important to consider the following:

  • Will the strategy accomplish the objective? It is unlikely, for example, that straight lecturing in a course designed to increase problem-solving skills would be an appropriate strategy for all class sessions. Group work would be a poor choice if rapid transfer of information is the goal.
  • Will the strategy be accessible to all students? If only hands-on work is used, those who learn best by listening, reading, or writing will be at a disadvantage. It is best to establish a rhythm of strategies, varying the approach and introducing redundancy so that all can learn.
  • Will the strategy be feasible, given the context? Is the classroom structured to preclude certain activities? Is the class too large or too small for certain activities? Are the class periods long enough to accommodate the use of certain activities?
  • Will students need preparation to respond to the strategy? Since students are so used to being passive in class, instructors cannot automatically assume that their students will be able or want to respond to group work, independent work, or other activities. It is often important to build in some time for helping students get the most from a given instructional approach before it is used.
  • Is the instructor comfortable with the approach? Often, even when a given approach seems most appropriate, an instructor will not be at ease with it. Although instructors should continually try to expand their repertoire, it is important to choose strategies that are within one's personal range.

Teachers choosing to use these important alternative methods need to be clear about specifying the learning task and breaking it up into manageable units if it is complex. Students will need monitoring through the exercise, and an external resource person who can offer students help should always be available. It is a good idea to test new material on a sample group so that it can be revised before it reaches the intended audience. Finally, it is vital to ensure that easy access is available to all the materials and that sufficient opportunities for student feedback are built into the course design.

The key, of course, is to begin with good goals and objectives. Helping students more easily attain the goals set for the course should be the main criteria for selecting instructional approaches.

Culturally Inclusive Content

Shulman and Hutchings (1994) advise instructors to think about underlying assumptions throughout the process of planning a course. For example, they suggest that instructors should think about whether their content is inclusive (of varying approaches and viewpoints) or concentrates on only a very narrow perspective, whether their approach takes new developments in the field into consideration, and how their course will complement other courses in the department.

In their approach to curriculum reform, Banks and Banks (1995) suggest that instructors be inclusive in their choice of content. They distinguish among increasingly more complex levels of infusing diversity into the curriculum:

Level 1: The Contributions Approach
Heroes, heroines, holidays, foods, and discrete cultural elements are celebrated occasionally. For example, African American historical figures are only celebrated in February during Black History Month.

Level 2: The Additive Approach
Course content, concepts, lessons, and units are added to the curriculum without changing the structure of the course. For example, instructors might add the book The Color Purple by Alice Walker to a unit without changing its structure.

Level 3: The Transformation Approach
The structure of the curriculum is changed to enable students to view concepts, issues, and themes from multiple perspectives. For example, a lecture on World War II might address the meaning of the war to African Americans, or a lecture on standard medical practices might be examined in light of eastern or Native American theories of healing.

Level 4: The Action Approach
Students make decisions on important personal, social, and civic problems and take actions to help solve them. For example, a class might study the effects of institutional discrimination practices in higher education and develop an action plan to improve these practices at their institution.

In addition, instructors are expected to make content decisions with a sense of balance, striving to broaden student perspectives and prepare them for subsequent learning experiences. Banks (1997), Adams et al. (1991), and Friedman et al. (1996), just to name a few, have suggested and recommended strategies to integrate content from an interdisciplinary perspective.

More on Course Planning...

How to Design a Course
Learning Objectives
Situational Constraints
Timing and Logistics
Writing Course Objectives
Design Guide