Designing a course of study is one of the most challenging – yet important! – aspects of teaching. And, of course, we are never really done designing a course: we continually adjust our curriculum, assessments and materials based on our experience teaching the course.
Effective course design starts with outcomes. We do want to select important texts, design engaging assignments – but first, we want to focus on the outcomes students should gain from the course. What are the most important skills and knowledge students should learn from the course? (These are typically reflected in departmental course outcomes.) Then we design our course around helping students meet those outcomes. (This is often referred to as backward design or Understanding by Design.) In addition to skills and information, we also want to think about the higher-order thinking skills or habits of mind we want students to develop in our course.
It is critically important to think about how we can provide all students with an equitable opportunity to master the outcomes of the course. Our courses should be inclusive and accessible to students of different backgrounds and learning needs. Designing a course with equity and inclusion in mind may require us to question some of our assumptions about learning, or what counts as good teaching. Our courses should give students multiple ways to learn skills and content, and multiple ways to demonstrate their learning.
After we design (or re-design) our course, we want to think about how to present that course to students in a way that will excite and motivate them. One way we do that is through our syllabus. Rather than simply laying out policies and assignments, think about how the syllabus can serve as a first step to engaging students in a meaningful learning experience. We also want to be sure our syllabus is accessible to all learners and sets a tone that invites students into the course.