CTL: Center for Teaching and Learning

Course Design

Written by Rachel Jameton

This is a brief overview of "Backwards Design," also referred to as "Integrated Course Design," which starts with course outcomes, then the activities and assessment. In CTL workshops on Course Design, we use Fink's Integrated Model, linked in the resources at the end of this page. 


Course Design Overview

Fink's guide is based on a Backwards Design (BD) model. In the BD model, the steps of course design are to write and align:

  1. course outcomes, followed by 
  2. the assessment plan, and then
  3. classroom activities.

The model is referred to as “backwards” because we start with the end result, the outcome.

Throughout Fink’s guide, student background and preparation is fundamental to the planning process. For example, if you were to teach a first year class in which students were often required to prepareby reading independently, an outcome related to application of college level reading strategies may be necessary, which would then lead to assessments and an activity plan related to teach those strategies.

While a well-prepared design is important, responding to challenges, successes and individual student needs throughout the semester is also an essential part of teaching. Many of our other workshops at the CTL offer support throughout the semester.   

A note about terminology: Outcomes, assessments and learning activities go by many names (e.g. goals, objectives, evaluations), and the meanings behind those names vary slightly and can be important. For the purpose of this introduction, however, we have chosen one term for each section and defined it. 

Elements of Course Design

In addition to the overview described above, the CTL also offers more detail about course design during one hour workshops on each of the elements. The workshops include time for work and reflection with colleagues from across campus. You are invited to attend some or all of the elements workshops, and attend them as many times as you wish.

1. Course Outcomes

Course outcomes describe what students should be able to do after successfully completing the course. They provide structure and focus for course design.

Outcomes should be clear, attainable, assessable, specific and student-centered. They usually address a range of levels of learning discipline-related content from basic understanding to higher level critical thinking skills. Outcomes may also address acquisition of general skills (e.g. empathy, team work, metacognition, learning process) in addition to discipline-related content.

Four to seven of the big picture course outcomes are often listed in a syllabus. More focused outcomes, those for a week or for a lesson, can also be included in an assignment or online folder for a week or unit

2. Assessment

Assessment encompasses a wide range of tools for determining student progress, some graded and some ungraded. 



Formative Assessment

Summative Assessment


Usually not graded

Sometimes graded, sometimes not graded

Usually graded


Improvement: to provide a starting point

Improvement: feedback to instructor & students

Judgment: to derive a grade


Varies widely

  • Requires less time from instructor/students
  • Usually done in class or prior to class if inverted
  • Low stakes
  • Requires more time from instructor/students
  • Higher stakes


At the CTL, we offer workshops in Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs), which are a fundamental part of good teaching practice and we also model their use in most of our workshops. CATs can be used to quickly assess prior knowledge and performance during learning activity, and also used to reinforce learning. Examples include Muddiest Points, clicker questions, and quick writes. Many more examples are online here or we have multiple copies of Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2nd edition, by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross (Jossey-Bass, 1993) available in the CTL.

3. Learning activities

Because we “connect learning to life” at LCSC, most CTL workshops are related to active learning. Broadly, active learning is learning by productively doing. In the range of teaching strategies, we focus on activities that are student focused and guided by faculty, as shown in the middle column of the figure below.

Teacher Student Focus

One challenge that we run into is that students don't always feel like they have learned as much in an active learning classroom as when they are lectured to. Here is an article about why that happens.

Infused throughout our workshops on learning activities is a learning cycle model. The model can be though of as a circular staircase in which new content is introduced and then applied, ultimately leading to the next level of new content.

Common workshops include:

  • Writing guided inquiry workshops
  • Engaging students online and in the classroom
  • Gamification
  • Experiential learning

Many LCSC faculty teach in an active way already and we welcome additional workshops. Please let us know if you are interested in collaborating.


Slides from presentations at the CTL