Evidence-based Practices

How do I plan and design a course?

Three useful approaches are backward design, integrated course design, and universal design.

Backward Design / Understanding by Design (Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University)

Backward design outlines a course planning approach that starts with identification of key learning goals. These goals then inform the identification of teaching/learning activities and student assessments, in order to create alignment between these components. Key principles in Wiggins and McTighe's (2000, 2nd ed.) Understanding by design are summarized on this site. Student learning and performance can be improved through the use of backward design for course planning.

Integrated Course Design (IDEA Center)

Here, Fink summarizes his own Creating significant learning experiences (2003), which offers an integrated approach to course design. This approach is based on the following steps:

  1. identify situational factors (context), to inform
  2. learning goals (categorized in a taxonomy of 6 types of learning) to identify
  3. feedback and assessment approaches, with practice and preparation from
  4. teaching and learning activities that focus on having students learn knowledge and ideas, participate in experiences (e.g., case studies, literature, labs), and engage in reflection (e.g., journaling, discussion)

Universal Design for Learning (Center for Applied Special Technology, CAST)

The UDL framework outlines how to develop flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences. This site offers principles for UDL-oriented course design, such as placing information about accommodations and accessibility at the front of a syllabus, having a detailed course schedule, and being clear about the connection between course objectives and assignments. Applying UDL principles to your course helps all students learn and master course concepts, content, and skills.

What rubrics can I use to self-assess and improve my syllabus?

Sample rubrics that list some characteristics of effective syllabi are below. Using these to evaluate your course syllabus can help you refine your course design.

Learning-focused Syllabus (from University of Virginia's Teaching Resource Center)

This rubric outlines characteristics of four elements typical of "learning-centered" syllabi:

  1. learning goals and objectives
  2. assessment activities
  3. schedule
  4. overall learning environment (tone, promise and inclusivity)

Research by Palmer, Wheeler and Aneece (2015) finds that learning-focused syllabi were associated with significantly more positive student perceptions of the course, the instructor, and expectations of learning, compared to traditional ("content-focused") syllabi.

Universal Design for Learning (from Enact-PTD, a California State University Consortium US Department of Education Grant)

Eleven criteria of effective UDL syllabi are outlined in this rubric, including varied ways to access required and recommended readings, a detailed course calendar, and multiple ways to ask questions of instructors.