Thoughtful, intentional course planning is essential for a successful course. There are several steps involved in good planning, including: identifying the content of the course; deciding upon course goals; selecting subject matter, materials, activities, and methods appropriate for the goals; deciding how to engage students; and designing methods for evaluation.

Universal Design

(Based on the UCAT Handbook on Teaching (see page 66) and the University of Oregon Teaching Effectiveness Program)

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…

  • evolved from the fields of engineering and construction
  • is an approach to designing a course to benefit people of all learning styles
  • provides equal access to learning, not simply equal access to information
  • allows the student to control the method of accessing information while the teacher monitors the learning process
  • enables the student to be self-sufficient, yet the teacher is responsible for imparting knowledge and facilitating the learning process
  • removes barriers to access
  • is just good teaching.

Principles of Universal Design:

  • 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.
This video featuring Sheryl Burghstaler of the University of Washington’s DO-IT program explains the principles and importance of universal design in higher education. (13:09)



University of Oregon Teaching Effectiveness Program – “Universal Design in College Instruction”

Sheryl Burgstahler (University of Washington “DO-IT”) – “Universal Access: Universal Design of Instruction” (PDF)

DePaul University Productive Learning u Strategies – “Universal Design”


Burgstahler, S. E., & Cory, R. C. (2008). Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice.  Available from OSU Libraries: LC4820 .B874 2008


Higbee, J. L. (2003). Curriculum Transformation and Disability: Implementing Universal Design in Higher Education.  Available from OhioLink: LC4820 .C87 2003

Course Goals

(Based on the UCAT Handbook on Teaching (see page 66); the Washington University in St. Louis Teaching Center; and the Brown University Teaching Exchange)

Among the most important course decisions is the identification of course goals. Clear course goals are the foundation for the development of a course.  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.
  • Students will complain that the course is irrelevant.
  • Students will complain that the tests are unfair.
  • Students will complain that they do not know what to study.
  • Students will complain that the course is disorganized.

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

  • Teaching will be more focused and precise.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • It will be easier for instructors to make decisions about content, methods, and assignments.
This video, “How Learning Objectives Can Save Your Classroom,” from the University of Michigan CRLT, breaks down the process of creating learning objectives (13:09).



Brett Bixler of Penn State – “Writing Instructional Goals and Objectives” 

Northern Illinois University Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center – “Writing Goals and Objectives” (PDF)

University of California at Berkeley Center for Teaching & Learning  – “Learning Goals”  (note: this page refers to “learning goals,” which are the same as “learning objectives”)

Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence – “Articulate Your Learning Objectives”


Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences.  Available from OSU Libraries: LB2331.F495 2003 

Hansen, E. (2011). Idea-based Learning: A Course Design Process to Promote Conceptual Understanding.  Available from OSU Libraries: LB2361.5 .H354 2011



(Based on the UCAT Handbook on Teaching (pages 72-73) and Park University Faculty Resources Quick Tips)

The syllabus is a vehicle for communicating the structure of the course and operating procedures. The syllabus has three functions: practical, theoretical, and institutional.  It will help students know what is expected from the start of the course and will allow them to plan their semester efficiently. A syllabus also provides the departmental office, supervisor, and/or colleagues with pertinent information about the course. Most university departments require some type of syllabus.  Simply put, the syllabus is a formal statement of what the course is about, what students will be asked to do, and how their performance will be evaluated.

One can begin creating a new syllabus by studying syllabi from other instructors or those that have been used previously in the course being taught. Instructors might also check with their departments for specific guidelines they may have about a syllabus format. The following are generally included in the syllabus:

  • Relevant information about the course and instructor.
  • A clear statement of course goals.
  • A description of the means (or activities) for approaching the course goals.
  • A list of the resources to be obtained by the students.
  • A statement of grading criteria.
  • A statement of course policies.
  • Disability statement. As outlined by the OSU Partnership Grant, a syllabus should include a disability statement, which indicates the instructor’s willingness to provide reasonable accommodations to a student with a disability.  The Office for Disability Services proposes the following as a good example statement: “Any student who feels he/she may need an accommodation based on the impact of a disability should contact the instructor privately to discuss your specific needs. Please contact the Office for Disability Services at 614-292-3307 in 150 Pomerene Hall to coordinate reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities.”
  • A schedule.



University of South Carolina Institutional Assessment and Compliance – “Syllabus Construction Guide”

University of Delaware Center for Teaching & Learning – “Designing a Learning-Centered Syllabus”

Debora DeZure in Eastern Michigan’s Whys and Ways of Teaching – “Designing Syllabi that Integrate New Approaches to Instruction: A Balancing Act”  (PDF)


Diamond, R. M. (1989). Designing and Improving Courses and Curricula in Higher Education: A Systematic Approach.  Available from OSU Libraries: LB2361.5 .D5 1989

O’Brien, J. G., Millis, B., J., & Cohen, M. W. (2008). The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach.  Available from OSU Libraries: LB2361 .G7 2008

Svinicki, M., & McKeachie, W. J. (2011). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Available from OSU Libraries:  LB2331 .M394 2011


Backward Design

(Based on A. D. Kim (n.d.) and the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching – “Learning by Design” )

In course design, we usually start by thinking about the content.  We may set out to design a syllabus and plan a class by looking at a textbook and mapping out how much content we want to cover.  However, there are other ways of designing a course that place more emphasis on creating and meeting goals for learning.  In backward design — a phrase coined by the authors Wiggins and McTighe (2006) — we start with the results we want from our teaching, and work our way to the methods we will use to accomplish those results.

Wiggins and McTighe (2006) lay out three steps for the backwards design process.

  1. Identify desired results.  This includes making learning goals for the course and deciding what it is that your students should be able to know, understand, and do.  What skills should they develop?  What do you most want them to remember once the course is over?
  2. Determine acceptable evidence.  How will you know when students have mastered the skills and knowledge?  How will you know when they are getting closer to meeting the learning goal(s)?  This step includes developing a wide range of assessment methods.
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction.  This can only happen once you know the results you desire and how you will know you’ve reached them.  This includes designing learning activities and instructional methods.  Ideally, these learning activities will promote and develop deep, engaged learning, not memorization and regurgitation.

Why should we use backward design?  A. D. Kim (n.d.) of the University of California Merced offers these suggestions  as to why backward planning is useful:

  • “By starting your planning with the end in mind, you are able to organize a class more effectively.
  • By identifying learning objectives, outcomes and measures for assessment, you have a well-defined structure over which you plan you lectures and activities.
  • Students will find meaning in the class activities more readily because they are aware of the objectives, outcomes, and measures for assessment, too.
  • The end result is a coherent class where each of the pieces has meaning for a well-defined set of goals.”


This video, “Educational Innovation at UW-Madison: The ‘Backward Design’ Framework from the University of Wisconsin Madison Learning & Support Services, thoroughly explains the goals and process of backward design (9:36).



Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning – “Designing Courses Backwards” (PDF)

San Jose State University Center for Faculty Development – “Backwards Design Template with Guiding Questions” (DOC)


Understanding By Design

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by Design.  Available from OhioLink:

LB2806.15 .W54 2006



Course Design Institutes

Do you need to revise a course…

…because of changes in enrollment? Are you preparing to teach a new course, or are you frustrated or bored with one you are already teaching? These five-part intensive institutes are designed to provide you with the tools, the time, and the collegial support to really dig in and design or re-design that course.

UCAT’s Course Design Institute (CDI) is an intensive five-part workshop in which instructors, with hands-on guidance from UCAT staff, focus on building or rebuilding effective, student-centered courses.

For more information, to see a schedule of upcoming CDIs, and to fill out an application, please see our Course Design Institute page.