Aligned Course Design

Aligned Course Design

Whether designing a new course from scratch or revising an old or inherited course, it can be challenging to ensure that the content and activities of the class actual match the stated goals and objectives. The gold standard for course design is to begin the process by articulating goals for student learning (learning objectives) and then align the activities, tone, and assignments of the class with them. Educational developers call this process of articulation and alignment “backward design” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005; Fink, 2013) —you start with where you want your students to end up, then work backward.

A key concept in the Backward Design framework is alignment; all three stages must align to one another. It's about beginning with the end in mind:  start with desired learning outcomes, clearly stated in measurable terms, and work backward through assessment activities, teaching and learning activities, and content delivery.

Author L. Dee Fink emphasizes these three steps in Designing Courses for Significant Learning (2003), and also notes that instructors should integrate student's situational factors into the course's learning goals, activities, and assessments.

Both alignment (Wiggins and McTighe) and integration (Fink) of desired learning outcomes, assessments, and teaching and learning activities are important for providing students with consistency and ensuring they understand what they need to achieve.

Regardless of our level of teaching expertise, revisiting, revising, and reflecting on our learning objectives makes it more likely that we are effectively supporting the learning goals that are most important to us. To support your iterative process, below you will find an overview of the relevance of identifying learning objectives, a description of the genre, sample learning outcomes, and a planning document to use as you develop or revise your own.

Alignment through Backward Design

When we talk about "aligned design" we're often referring to the Backward Design process, a term coined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design (2nd Ed., 2005). They describe the three stages of the process:


Identify desired results 

What should students know and be able to do at the end of the course? These are your learning objectives.

Guiding Questions

  • What are the established goals?
  • What "big ideas" do we want students to come to understand?
  • What essential questions will stimulate inquiry?
  • What knowledge and skills need to be acquired given the understandings and related content standards?
  • What focus questions will guide students to targeted knowledge and skills?
Determine acceptable evidence

How do you know that students have achieved the learning objectives? These are your formative and summative assessments.

Guiding Questions

  • What is sufficient and telling evidence of understanding?
  • Keeping the goals in mind, what performance tasks should anchor and focus the unit?
  • What criteria will be used to assess the work?
  • Will the assessment reveal and distinguish those who really understand versus those who only seem to understand?
Plan learning experiences, instruction, and resources

What will help students be able to provide evidence that they have met the learning objectives? These are your instructional materials, learning experiences, and general course content/resources.

Guiding Question

What instructional strategies and learning activities are needed to achieve the results identified in the outcomes and reflected in the assessment evidence?

Icon depicting the three stages of backward design


Learning Goals and Objectives

Learning goals and objectives guide your course design and express your expectations to your students. They are the destinations on your course map. Once you know where you're going, the other questions, "How will I know when students get there?" and "What can I do to help students get there?" become much easier to answer. These objectives remind us that even if we assign brilliant readings, even if we perform our hearts out at the podium, “teaching can and unfortunately does occur without learning” (Linda Nilson, Teaching at Its Best, 17). The best—and perhaps only—measure of successful teaching is in its influence on how students “think, act and feel” (Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, 5). Goals and objectices direct our attention where it belongs: student learning.

Goals and Objectives help instructors:

    • plan appropriate teaching strategies, materials, and assessments
    • learn from and make changes to curriculum to improve student learning
    • assess how the outcomes of a single course align with larger outcomes for an entire program

Goals and Objectives help students:

    • anticipate what they will gain from an educational experience
    • track their progress and know where they stand
    • know in advance how they'll be assessed
Learning Goals

Learning Goals are broad, general statements of intent or direction written from the instructor's or institution's perspective. They can sometimes be abstract or difficult to measure and usually have a lengthy time-frame. They generally describe what a program or instructor aims to do.

"The curriculum will introduce students to the major research methods within the discipline."

"Students will learn about the development of constitutional law."

Learning Objectives

Learning Objectives are specific, concrete, and easy to measure statements of what an instructor intends to teach or cover in a learning experience. They can be written in terms of what an instructor intends to teach or what an instructor expects students to learn. 

"Students will demonstrate an understanding of the impacts and effects of new media on identity formation."

"Students will learn historical perspectives and debates about the role of mass communication in the 20th century."

Writing Objectives

There are numerous resources available that provide appropriate verbs for learning goals and objectives utilizing different learning taxonomies.  These verb lists can be extremely helpful when writing learning goals and objectives as they focus on measurable behavior, and sometimes caution against the use of difficult to measure verbs.

Many faculty members start their verb search with "Bloom's Taxonomy," which considers a range of objectives that run from Bloom’s lowest or foundational level, knowledge (students remember/recall) to:

  • comprehension: students can explain/translates ideas and concepts;
  • application: students can use information in another context;
  • analysis: students can break down information into parts, identify patterns;
  • synthesis: students can combine information and ideas to create new knowledge; and, ultimately,
  • evaluation: students can make judgments/assess ideas and theories.

Another excellent resource is L. Dee Fink's taxonomy of "Significant Learning," which asks us to think about a fuller range of affective, developmental and “metacognitive” dimensions of student growth. It, too, begins with foundational knowledge, then works up to:

  • application: What do I want my students to be able to do (analyze, evaluate, calculate, critique, etc.)
  • integration: What kinds of connections do I want my student to be able to make (between my course and another, my course and the broader field, my course and their everyday lives, etc.)
  • human dimension: How do I want my students to grow in their understanding of themselves or others? What are the personal and social stakes of my class?
  • caring: Do I hope my students come to care about something more? How might the course impact their feelings, interests, and/or values?
  • learning how to learn: Have my students learned something about the process of learning itself that will help them in other courses and environments?

No matter the taxonomy from which you select verbs, the components of a good learning objective remain the same.

  • Good learning objectives are student-centered, action-oriented, observable, and measurable. They are also concise and outcome-based.
  • Objectives should have an appropriate level of rigor—they shouldn’t be easy, nor should they be impossible. With their diligent effort and your support, students should be able to achieve them.
  • They should be in a language students can understand, not shrouded in specialist language.
  • Several objectives should demand a high level of student cognition—if they’re all about memorizing and recalling information, that’s probably a missed opportunity for a university-level course.


Assessment and Evidence of Learning

To assess student learning is to obtain and analyze evidence of students' development of the knowledge, skills, etc. that indicate the extent to which students are meeting learning objectives. That is, students must demonstrate their learning in some tangible way, which can be either formative or summative. 

Summative assessment involves an evaluation of student learning at the end of a unit or course, a "summing up" of the content or substance of what students know, can do, etc. Summative assessment is often formal and associated with grades. Examples of summative assessment include comprehensive exams, research papers, projects, reports, presentations, etc.

Formative assessment refers to an evaluation of student learning during an intermediate moment of the learning process, which provides an opportunity to give students feedback and to allow them to reflect on their progress, ongoing challenges, strategies they might pursue moving forward, etc. Summative assessment is often informal and not graded - at least, not for the content or substance of student learning.  Examples of formative assessment can include a range of options, such as:

  • Prior Knowledge Probe: Use a short survey at the beginning of a course or unit to uncover student misconceptions or what they may already know or have experience doing, etc.
  • Minute Paper: Ask student at the end of a class session or video lecture to write down what was the most important thing they learned or what questions they have.
  • Muddiest Point: Have students indicate what point or idea in a lecture, discussion, reading, film, lab procedure, etc. was most confusing or unclear.
  • Peer Review: Have students offer each other feedback - using a rubric or handout guide - about work such as papers, assignments, etc.
  • Self-Reflection: Have students comment on their own work and their process for doing it, indicating for instance what is challenging, which strategies they are using, what they ought to do differently moving forward, and so forth.

Find many more examples of assessment techniques for both in-person and online courses in Learning Assessment Techniques (Barkley and Major, 2016)

Alignment and Transparency of Assessment

Formative assessment activities are most effective when they allow students to work directly with or apply course content and receive feedback or engage in self-reflection that, in turn, helps them prepare for summative assessments. Indeed, it is helpful for any activity students are asked to do in a course to be aligned clearly with learning objectives and include some manner of formative assessment that helps them prepare for summative assessments. Therefore, be transparent about the purpose of activities and assignments, clearly indicate the criteria and standards for success involved in assessment, and delineate the necessary tasks to be completed. The Transparent Assignment Design Template provides a good model of transparency.

The value of assessment can also be enhanced when activities, assignments, etc. use real life contexts, which helps students discern the relevance of their learning in the course to their lives outside the course or work after the course is over.  The Teaching Toward Career Readiness Toolkit provides a variety of examples of "career readiness" assignments.

Learning Experiences and Instruction

There are many ways for students to engage with course content, from asking and answering questions to discussing issues and presenting ideas to applying and synthesizing their knowledge. A variety of considerations and specific ideas can be found on the Active Learning and Metacognition page.

Below is a course planning/mapping template that can be useful for planning and organizing student learning experiences and instruction and aligning them with learning objectives and assessments.