Course Design

Polishing up your winter term course plans over the break? Hoping your students' final papers and exams will be even better than the ones you just finished grading? Much research on learning and teaching suggests that you can get your students on the right track now by designing your course around specific learning goals--whether you're teaching something new or tweaking a course you've offered before. If you determine early in the planning process what you ultimately want students to take away from the course, you can choose readings, create exams and paper assignments, and structure in-class activities in ways that all align tightly with those central goals. 

Here are a couple of online resources about applying such principles of "Backward Design" to the planning of college courses:

  • Vanderbilt University's Center for Teaching provides this overview of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's influential book Understanding by Design and provides links to resources that assist instructors in applying the book's principles in their course planning.  (The full book is available electronically through the U-M library system to authenticated users.)
  • In this ProfHacker blog post from The Chronicle of Higher Education, literature professor Mark Sample offers a short, simple introduction to Backward Design, discussing his shift from asking the conventional question, "What should my students read this term?" to considering instead, "What do I want them to learn?"

crowd walking

Whether you're starting a course from scratch or revamping something you've taught many times before, careful planning is key to successful teaching. CRLT offers many resources to support U-M instructors in their course planning as the beginning of the semester draws near.

  • The resources on this Course Design and Planning page focus on course design. Do you tend to begin your course planning by asking, "What material do I want to cover?" or "What do I want my students to learn?" Research shows that instructors best promote student learning when they start with the second question, organizing course content, class activities, and assignments around a clear set of learning objectives. The Course Design and Planning resources explain this research and walk you through the process of applying it to your courses.
  • The resources on this Strategies for Effective Lesson Design page focus on preparing individual class meetings. This page outlines steps for developing learning objectives, structuring relevant learning activities, and checking student understanding along the way.  
  • CRLT Consultations are available for U-M instructors at any point in the course planning process, whether you want to explore new approaches to teaching the subject matter, brainstorm about integrating technology into a course, or apply principles of course design.   

Even small changes can produce big impacts on student engagement and learning. And whether it's enhancing a key assignment, tweaking a class activity, or introducing active learning into one lecture session, a well-planned shift can also fuel your own excitement about the new semester.


Stiliana Milkova
Center for Research on Learning and Teaching

A lesson plan is the instructor’s road map of what students need to learn and how it will be done effectively during the class time. Before you plan your lesson, you will first need to identify the learning objectives for the class meeting.  Then, you can design appropriate learning activities and develop strategies to obtain feedback on student learning. A successful lesson plan addresses and integrates these three key components:

  • Objectives for student learning
  • Teaching/learning activities
  • Strategies to check student understanding

Specifying concrete objectives for student learning will help you determine the kinds of teaching and learning activities you will use in class, while those activities will define how you will check whether the learning objectives have been accomplished (see Fig. 1).


Steps for Preparing a Lesson Plan

Below are six steps to guide you when you create your first lesson plans. Each step is accompanied by a set of questions meant to prompt reflection and aid you in designing your teaching and learning activities. Read more »


A successful course depends on the planning that precedes it. The articles and links in this section serve as planning guides for both faculty and GSIs. They provide instructions for developing a new or existing course and for creating a syllabus.

Course Design Tutorial (Carleton College)
This site provides a step-by-step approach to course planning starting with the development of goals for student learning and moving on to teaching strategies, assessment of student learning, and the syllabus. Many of the examples are drawn from the geosciences, but the principles are relevant to all disciplines.

Understanding by Design (Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching)
An overview of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's influential book Understanding by Design and links to resources that assist instructors in applying the book's principles in their course planning.  (The full book is available electronically through the U-M library system to authenticated users.) Read more »