Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Course Design

Course Design - Resources from the CTLT

The Benefits of Backward Design

As with mazes, home construction, recipes, and flight plans, course design benefits immeasurably from an integrated and backward approach, one where the end results are clearly envisioned and identified at the outset. If you start with a clear articulation of what students will have learned from taking your course, you will be more apt to design effective assessments and course activities that ensure that learning. Highly effective teaching and learning stem from strong course design.

From Nouns to Verbs 

Educators are often tasked with covering scope and content in their courses, and most course titles and catalog descriptions privilege topics. However, when the topics and content of a course take precedence in its design, this often shifts the emphasis away from what students learn to what the instructor does in order to cover the material. There is a powerful difference between:

Students will learn about … (NOUNS)

Students will be able to …  (VERBS)

The first stresses teaching as transmission and reception. The second stresses agency and knowledge production. Research in the learning sciences strongly shows the benefits of designing a course with student performance in mind at the outset. Such an approach does not preclude content or scope, but it does require that instructional design reinforce student learning objectives – what the student learner does, rather than what the instructor covers.

I never try to teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.

— Albert Einstein

In my end is my beginning.

— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

These resource pages on Course Design offer a pathway for planning, (re)designing and/or converting your course to or from a traditional, hybrid or online format. You can certainly jump to areas of interest; however, the pages are sequenced intentionally to reinforce an integrated approach to course design. Such an approach is also referred to as backward design because it reverses some of the longstanding course design models that begin with topics, book selection, scheduling, etc. In the integrated or backward model, for example, crafting a course calendar and syllabus come later in the course-design process, which is why Syllabus Design is located after other pages in this resource section. A syllabus written after clearly articulated student learning objectives, aligned assessments and extended in-class and out-of-class activities will present the course in a more coherent light to students. Likewise, a course calendar will be much more than a list of topics and assigned readings. It will convey a thematic and sequenced approach to learning that research shows is more enduring for students. From our experience, integrated courses are more engaging for instructors as well.


Related Content

Teaching Resources

Teaching Resources

CTLT Workshops

Want to learn more?




Cal Poly Canvas...

Learn More


Diversity & Inclusion in the Classroom.

More about inclusion


​Writing across the curriculum.

Writing Matters