Course (Re)Design

Note:  Would you rather watch a video about Course Design than continue reading on this site? Check out this video series titled “Teaching and Learning in Competency-based Programs“. Login to MS365/SharePoint required.

When designing or developing a course or learning activity we often begin with the question: What content do I want to cover?  However, thinking about the instructional purpose may be a more effective approach.

In competency-based programs, the instructional purpose is to enable students to develop competencies. By the end of instruction, the student will be able to integrate learning in the accomplishment of a task or to solve a problem. Students should also be able to transfer learning to new situations or problems to solve. The course(s) become the vehicle for the development of competencies rather than for the delivery of content.

Most program competencies require students to exercise higher-order cognitive skills (levels 3 to 6 of Bloom’s Taxonomy) rather than remembering or comprehending (levels 1 and 2).

When (re)designing a course, unit, lesson or learning activity, with the objectives and standards at hand, ask yourself questions such as:

      • What should students know or be able to do by the end of this activity, lesson or course that is relevant to the achievement of the competency? For example:
            • Should students explain something to demonstrate an understanding of a problem, reality, or situation?
            • Should students be able to analyze a problem or situation to address identified issues?
            • Should students critically examine a situation and make evidence-based decisions or take appropriate corrective actions?
            • Should they behave in a way appropriate to an occupation or further studies, for a task or towards others?
      • What big questions do I want my students to answer?
      • What problems should they be able to solve?
      • How will I know if they have understood what they have learned and what evidence can be gathered to attest to the student’s competency?

In other words, what are the outcomes of learning?

Course alignment is essential for creating meaningful and purposeful learning experiences for students and refers to the alignment between:

      • Learning outcomes (the integration of knowledge, skills and attitudes) that result from exercising the competencies to be developed by the activities in your course
      • Assessment activities (the evidence needed to judge if the learning outcomes have been met)
      • Learning activities students will engage in, that will scaffold knowledge and skills and develop appropriate attitudes as they progress in the course

Alignment and Backward Design

The Backward Design Model (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005) is an approach to course design that helps achieve course alignment. Begin by stating your learning outcomes, then develop assessment activities that provide evidence of mastery of those outcomes, and finally plan the lesson with appropriate learning activities. Designing backward helps us stay focused on the knowledge and skills that students should learn to achieve the expected results and facilitates the choice of essential content.

Below is a suggested process with tools and tips to help you design a course or learning activity.

Step 1: Start with Learning Outcomes

What are learning outcomes? 

Learning outcomes are statements referring to the specific knowledge, practical skills, areas of professional development, attitudes, or higher-order thinking skills that instructors expect students to develop, learn, or master by the end of their learning. 

Learning outcomes outcomes answer the question:  What is it I want students to know, value or be able to do at the end of this course or activity? They are important because they keep you and your students focused on the essential content to be learned, and focus is key in achieving deep learning. (Biggs, 1999). 

Learning outcomes: 

      • Should require students to exercise the course competency(ies) at an appropriate level (e.g. intermediate or mastery level)
      • Are measurable, observable and specific 
      • Usually begin with “By the end of X, students will be able to…”
      • Use action verbs to describe the degree of learning expected. Bloom’s taxonomy can guide you to an approximate learning or thinking level and can help you identify an appropriate action verb
      • Include a statement of the learning to be demonstrated – addressing the “what” 
      • Describe the context in which learning will occur – addressing the “how” or “why” 
      • See examples of Learning outcomes here

Writing learning outcomes 

  1. Before you begin, make sure you have analyzed the ministerial competencies for your course, and consulted any available program and department documentation such as course design documents or frameworks, competency frameworks and the program matrix.  
  2. Write the learning outcomes for your course with the help of this website and/or this guide about aligning a competency to learning outcomes.
  3. Big ideas and essential questions can help you narrow down and define your learning outcomes.  

Communicating learning outcomes to your students 

Students must know why they are taking your course, how it will be relevant to them in the future and what competency(ies) they will be developing. Learning outcomes will make your expectations clear to the student.

Learning outcomes that are aligned with assessment of learning, help students focus on essential knowledge, skills and attitudes and learn in a deep way. (Learn more about this here).

More resources

Teaching and Learning in College-level Competency-based Programs in Quebec – A Video Series developed by Dawson Pedagogical Counsellor Madeleine Bazerghi Dawson-D-Logo-Large(login to MS365 required)

Teach and Design a Course – Eberly Center, Carnegie Mellon University

Samples of Learning Objectives – Eberly Center, Carnegie Mellon University

Understanding by Design – from Creative Design

 Understanding by Design – from Edutopia


Step 2: Align Learning Outcomes to Assessment

What is assessment?  

Assessment is the evidence we need from our students to judge if mastery of learning outcomes has taken place. There are two types of assessments:

Formative assessments evaluate for learning and is used to monitor student learning throughout the learning process. It provides feedback to students about what needs further development while providing us with feedback on our teaching and what needs more focus. Formative assessments are low-stakes assessments.

Summative assessments evaluate the integration of learning – or how well learning outcomes have been achieved and is usually given at the end of a learning period (e.g. course or unit). Summative assessments are high-stakes assessments.

Both types of assessment are essential to the learning process because they:

      • drive the curriculum by focusing the student on the essential knowledge to acquire and skills and attitudes to develop
      • help students consolidate the material to be learned
      • provide you and your students with feedback on their learning

Aligning assessments with learning outcomes

Developing learning outcomes is half the battle when designing assessments because they describe: what your students will know, do or value; the context in which the task should be performed; the level of thinking (Bloom’s taxonomy) students should be working at (expressed with an action verb) and the criteria by which performance should be measured.

What do well-aligned assessments look like?

Well-aligned assessments can be identified by a match between the outcomes and the demonstration of skill or knowledge being assessed. It is recommended to use different ways of assessing students so that they have multiple ways of demonstrating their learning. This table (Source: Eberly center, Carnegie Mellon University) presents examples of the kinds of assessment activities that can be used to assess different types of learning outcomes. The table also helps you ensure that you are testing the appropriate levels of thinking (Bloom’s Taxonomy).

Additional considerations when assessing your students

  • Assess only the learning outcomes you have identified and ensure that students have had an opportunity to exercise the competency(ies) during learning activities so that the assessments are no surprise.
  • Make assessments as relevant as possible to situations students are most likely to encounter in the occupation or higher education. See more on authentic assessments here.
  • Be transparent with your students about what they will be tested on, the format and context of the assessment. Students should understand what a good or poor performance looks like. Rubrics can be helpful. See more on rubrics here.
  • Include sufficient formative assessment activities in your course to provide both you and your students with feedback that can help them succeed.

More resources

Understanding the role of assessment in learning – Queen’s University

Formative Assessments – Yale University

Dawson’s Institutional Student Evaluation Policy (ISEP) Dawson-D-Logo-Large

Academic integrity at Dawson Dawson-D-Logo-Large

Step 3: Align Learning Outcomes to Instructional Activities

Choosing appropriate learning activities

Once learning outcomes and related assessment activities are identified, the next step is to determine the learning activities, inside and outside the classroom, that will best help students develop the competencies and meet the learning outcomes. As with assessment activities, employing a variety of learning activities will help to accommodate all learners and to give students opportunities to exercise the comptency(ies) in a variety of situations or contexts.

It is also important to keep in mind that some instructional approaches foster different levels of student cognitive engagement. Lecturing, for example, is a great and effective way to relay and clarify information. But as a passive learning strategy it may not help the learner retain information long-term. Active learning and reflection activities, on the other hand, such as idea-mapping, participating in a debate, or reflecting on one’s process for problem-solving or ideation, require students to be actively engaged with higher order thinking, which in turn fosters deeper learning (and students are more likely to retain information).

What do well-aligned learning activities look like?

This table from the Eberly Centre can guide you as to which types of activities are best suited for which types of learning outcomes.

Additional considerations for developing learning activities

When deciding on how your students will engage in learning activities, consider the following learning principles:

  1. Safety: We learn best when we feel emotionally and physically safe.
  2. Active and deep learning: We learn in a meaningful way when our brains actively engage and work with the material being learned (i.e., when we categorize information, rank, relate, discuss, teach etc.). Active learning refers to this type of cognitive engagement. When students engage in active learning activities (these may be in a small group), we can “see” the learning taking place. When we lecture and students listen, they may well engage with the material in their own heads, or they may not. There is sure way to know what is happening.
  3. Learning is socially constructed: We learn best when we have opportunities to articulate our learning and work with others to better understand what is learned.
  4. Activate prior knowledge: We learn best when we can attach new knowledge to something we already know.
  5. Cognitive overload: We can only keep so much information in working memory at a time. It may be necessary to slow the pace and use memory aids such as printed copy of instructions or writing on the chalkboard or SMART Board.
  6. Practice and feedback: The more we practice over time, the more opportunities we have to retrieve stored material from memory, the better we learn it and the higher the chances are of being able to transfer that learning to new situations. Feedback is key. Effective feedback is provided often, is linked to a learning outcome and the strategies used to meet the outcome, should help close a learning gap, and is specific and acted upon.
  7. Motivation: We are motivated to learn when we can see value in what we are learning; have ownership of our learning; and feel that the level of difficulty isn’t not too hard and also not too easy.


Step 4: Design for an Inclusive Classroom Experience

Create an inclusive classroom experience

Check out this short e-book titled:  How Fellow Instructors Create an Inclusive Classroom Experience. It is published by Cengage.

Incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) 

UDL is an approach to teaching and learning that gives all students equal opportunity to succeed, by keeping the following questions in mind, when designing instruction:  

      • How can I engage all students in my class? 
      • How can I present information in ways that reach all learners? 
      • How can I offer purposeful options for students to show what they know? 

This site  gives you concrete examples on how to implement UDL in your classroom by incorporating the official UDL guidelines designed by CAST.  

More resources

Making Learning Inclusive and Accessible – short video tutorials anchored in best practices

Inclusive Teaching Practices Toolkit

Design Your Course for All Types of Learners

Use a PowerPoint Template! Here is a sample of the most popular Accessible PowerPoint Templates fully optimized for use by people with visual disabilities (Microsoft Support)

For students with accommodations through the Student AccessAbility Centre (SAAC), visit the Dawson SAAC websiteDawson-D-Logo-Large

Contact the Dawson UDL Community of Practice!Dawson-D-Logo-Large



Last Modified: May 2, 2024