Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology

Course Outline

You’ve done some heavy lifting: you’ve articulated clear learning objectives and aligned them with appropriate assessments and activities. Now, how will these components fit together in your course? Better yet, given the Cal Poly quarter system, how can all the components possibly fit together?

Student Doing vs. Teacher Coverage: Revisiting the Verbs and Nouns

Because it begins with learning objectives, an integrated or backward approach to course design places the emphasis on student agency – what the student will be able to do by the end of the course. However, a conventional course outline and structure, listing weekly topics with midterm, final project and exam dates, often places the emphasis back on content and coverage – the nouns. 

Western Civilization - Version 1 (Topic-Driven)

Consider this typical outline for a Western Civilizations course (adapted from Barbara Walvoord’s Effective Grading), which ambitiously covers the 16th century through World War I:
Date Topic Assignment
WEEK 1 Renaissance and Reformation Reading & Lecture
WEEK 2 Absolutism Reading & Lecture
WEEK 3 Age of Reason Reading & Lecture
WEEK 4 French Revolution Reading & Lecture
WEEK 5 Midterm Review and Exam
WEEK 6 Industrial Revolution Reading & Lecture
WEEK 7 Marx, Communist Manifesto Reading & Lecture
WEEK 8 Imperialism Reading & Lecture
WEEK 9 Conrad, Heart of Darkness  Reading & Lecture
Week 10 World War I Reading & Lecture
Dead Week Final Project or Paper Work on Project
Exam Week  Final Exam Review and Exam

Such a course structure inevitably requires that the instructor assess student understanding by testing them on the topics covered. In order to prepare students for these assessments, the instructor will most likely rely on lecture (or some other form of information transmission). In turn, the students will passively demonstrate learning by studying lecture notes and repeating them on the exam. Falling at the end of the quarter between the last content topic and the Final Exam, the paper or project will likely be done in a concentrated (and panicked) burst of activity in the hours before the assignment is due. Since few instructors would identify receiving and regurgitating information or producing a single-draft essay as core learning objectives or learning evidence for their Western Civilization course, this course outline works against the best efforts at integrated course design. The nouns have replaced the verbs.

How might this course look different if it was structured to reflect the course learning objectives and their alignment with assessments and activities?

Western Civilization - Version 2a (Objective-Driven)

Course Learning Objectives:

  • Students will be able to define and describe historical events
  • Students will be able to use historical data to develop the elements of an argument
  • Students will be able to write essays that take a position, back the position with evidence, and answer counter-arguments.
date assignment
week 4 Argumentative Essay on Age of Reason and the French Revolution 
week 8 Argumentative Essay on Industrial Revolution and Imperialism
exam week Argumentative Essay on World War I & Imperialism

Having identified and positioned key assessments that support the explicit learning objectives, the instructor is now in a position to structure class activities and course assignments in the weeks that build toward and support these objective-aligned assessments. For example, weeks 1-3 might present and engage the information on the Renaissance and Reformation, Absolutism, and the Age of Reason as argument-based answers to key questions at issue having to do with political philosophy, the impact of specific historical events, etc. The in-class and out-of-class work would provide models and opportunities for students to develop the analytical and argument-based skills identified in the objectives. Such a course outline places the emphasis back on the verbs.

Western Civilization - Version 2b (Objective & Assignment - Driven)

DATE In-class and OUtof-Class Activities
Weeks 1 & 2

Reading: Luther, More, Machiavelli

Group Work: Answer a key question at issue (e.g. How would you characterize the chief differences between  Protestantism and Catholicism after Luther?) and report to the class

Writing Prompt: Draft a scene where Thomas More and Nicoló Machiavelli talk about their vision of how a state should be ordered and ruled, their attitudes toward violence and warfare, and their views about giving advice to rulers

week 3

Reading: "Tennis Court Oath (1789)," poltical cartoons (First, Second and Third Estates), "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen"

In-Class Debate: Nobility, Clergy, Commoner

WEEK 4 Argumentative Essay on Age of Reason and the French Revolution 

Here the course outline serves the learning objectives. Students will read and engage with primary historical texts, and they will have in-class and out-of-class practice in making arguments about historical events. The first essay will have been preceded by active learning experiences that prepare the students for the first essay assignment.

To ensure that your course outline supports your student-focused learning objectives and their alignment with assessments and activities, consider the following suggestions (based upon Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Anderson’s Effective Grading) when outlining your course:

Prioritize Major Assessments and Activities

Think of your initial course outline as a skeletal structure (Version 2a). What are the key assignments and activities that support core learning objectives?  These should serve as the foundation for additional details. Instead of developing your structure chronologically (Week 1, Week 2, Week 3), place key assessments and activities that underscore learning objectives or key themes. Once you have the basic skeleton, you can fill in additional details (Version 2b), as described below.

Fit and Feasibility

Answer these two questions candidly.

1) Do my tests and assignments fit the kind of learning I most want for my students?

2) Is the workload I’m planning for myself and my students reasonable, strategically placed, and sustainable?

If you answer “no” to either of these questions, you need to keep tinkering with your design. Let’s look, again, at the revised Western Civilization course.

Do the tests and assignments fit the kind of learning the instructor wants for his or her students? Yes, there are three essays, each requiring a specific argument using historical data. Because these essays are staggered throughout the quarter and reinforce core learning objectives, it is likely that students will be able to perform the learning objectives by the end of the term.

Is the workload feasible for the instructor and students, and is it reasonably placed and sustainable? For the students, yes. Three essays, sequenced over the term, is roughly equivalent to studying for and taking two high-stakes exams and completing a final project or paper. For the instructor, so much depends on the size of the course and the scaffolds used to support the assessment process. If exams from the first version of the course are recycled year after year with scantron-scored multiple-choice answers, the workload in the revised course will certainly be greater. But is it feasible? Yes, if the essay assignments are scaled to fit the class size. For example, in a larger course (40 + students), the instructor might have the students write a draft of the first essay in class and then revise it based on comments. The second essay might involve guided peer review and revision, and the third essay might be an in-class essay scheduled during the Final Exam period that is scored holistically with a rubric. Because students will have received instructor feedback on their writing in the first essay and peer review on the second essay, the final essay can involve fewer scaffolds, making the workload more feasible for the instructor, especially at the end of the term. The CTLT can assist instructors with adjusting their key assessments and activities to create a feasible and sustainable workload.

Create an Integrated and Differentiated Teaching Strategy

As Fink points out, a teaching strategy is more than a teaching technique, such as lecturing. "A teaching strategy is a series of learning activities in a particular sequence” that work together to reinforce student learning (130). In the revised Western Civilization course, the  teaching strategy invovles a series of in-class and out-of-class activities that prepare students to make arguments in writing about historical events. 

To Flip or Not?

With the advent of flipped pedagogy, the relationship between in-class and out-of class work is being seriously reconsidered. For the purposes of course design and the creation of a coherent course structure, an integrated teaching strategy is one that helps you to fill in the skeletal structure with sequenced activites that build toward key assessments aligned with core learning objectives. Rather than simply listing topics and pages to read, use this two-page planning tool, adapted from L. Dee Fink, when developing your course outline. Along with reinforcing the emphasis on student doing, this planning sheet will likely provide a more compelling, thematic and comprehensive account of the course. These are features that will enable you to write an outstanding syllabus.


Fink, L. Dee. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Walvoord, Barbara and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.


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