Teaching Handbook

Course Design Essentials

Course Design & Development Overview | Course Preparation Resources | Relevant Books

Course Design and Development

Current trends in course design are moving from teacher-centered approaches to more learner-centered approaches in order to foster deeper learning. In student-centered education, faculty take on less responsibility for being sources of knowledge, and take on greater responsibility as facilitators of a broad range of learning experiences. For their part, students are called on to take on more responsibility for their own learning.

As shown in the following table, the responsibilities of students and faculty and the relationships between them are quite different in the two models:

Teacher-centered Learner-centered
Knowledge Transmitted from instructor Constructed by students
Student participation Passive Active
Role of professor Leader/authority Facilitator/partner in learning
Role of Assessment Few tests, mainly for grading Many tests, for ongoing feedback
Emphasis Learning correct answers Developing deeper understanding
Assessment method Unidimensional testing Multidimensional products
Academic culture Competitive, individualistic Collaborative, supportive


Backward Design is an approach to course design that emphasizes learning by beginning the course development process by first identifying the desired results (learning objectives) before determining how to assess whether those outcomes have been achieved and, lastly, selecting learning experiences and instruction tools that will prepare students to both learn and prove their learning. Keeping the number of learning objectives relatively small by focusing on Big Ideas or Threshold Concepts can help focus your instructional efforts and avoid overburdening students.


Identify desired results leads to determining acceptable evidence, which leads to planning learning experiences and instruction.


Using Backward Design in a learner-centered approach provides a solid foundation for effective course design. Once your course objectives are clear, you can think beyond quizzes and tests to find ways for students to demonstrate their learning creatively and pragmatically. Articulating these objectives early and clearly will set students up to succeed; couple this with instructional strategies and active learning approaches that will effectively facilitate students' progress toward the desired goals. You can find more tips in the teaching handbook on effectively lecturing, facilitating discussions, and more active learning tools. With these decisions made, you are ready to compile course materials, develop your syllabus, and step into class on the first day!

Course Preparation Resources

Source Information

1. McKeachie, W. J. (1986). Teaching Tips: A Guidebook for the Beginning College Teacher. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Company.

2. Knefelkamp quoted from: Wright, D. L. (1999). The Most Important Day: Starting Well, as republished from University of Nebraska online via Honolulu Community College.

3. Wlodkowski, R. J. (2008). Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Relevant Books