Course Design Strategies

Course design is defined as the development process that includes creating:

  • an instructional plan—the details of how content will be presented to students and how students will make use of the course content; learning outcomes
  • learning materials - information developed to address what learners need to learn,
  • activities created that encourage students to apply the content and
  • assessment methods that are selected to evaluate student learning in context of learning objectives.

This section has been created to provide an overview of the course design strategies.

Your Instructional Designer will work with you every step in the process to design an effective and engaging course.

The topics covered on this page are:


Alignment refers to how the learning activities, resources, and assessments are directly tied to and support the learning objectives. If they do not directly relate to the objective, then the course design needs to be reevaluated. This may be realized if a student says, "The lecture material did not prepare me for the test". What may have went wrong if a student says this? Is it your lecture? Is it your test? It could be either or both; but in the end it shows that the learning activity and resources did not align with the assessment.

A building with pillars. The base of the building is labeled Learning Objectives and the top of the building is labeled Assessment & Measurement. The three pillars supporting the building are labeled instructional materials, learner interaction and engagement, and course technology.

Image © QM MarylandOnline, James Fowlkes and Brenda Boyd

Alignment FAQs

Consider this quote: "If you design assessments as an afterthought at the end of designing the instruction (a common but unfortunate mistake), you are likely to design the wrong content and the course activities and the assessments are likely to be far less meaningful or appropriate" (Shank, 2006).

This is exactly what courses that are not aligned look like. You are giving students puzzle pieces that don't line up. It may be that the course developer had good intentions and created measurable learning objectives; but, then chose content that they liked even though it was irrelevant to the objective. Then, they designed an assessment based on that unaligned content they chose. Since the content was irrelevant to the objective, the assessment, in turn, is not going to evaluate whether the student learned the objective.

Shank, Patti. (2006). To Plan Good Instruction, Teach to the Test. Online Course Design: 13 Strategies for Teaching in a Web-based Distance Learning Environment, 8-9.

There are many benefits to an aligned course. Here are a few to get you started.

  • The objective, learning activities, and assessments will reinforce one another.
  • Students can clearly see what to focus on and how to demonstrate their learning during assessment.
  • Aligned learning activities will allow students to learn and practice the knowledge and skills that will be required on the aligned assessment.
  • “Good grades” are more likely to translate into “Good learning”.
The backward design method we recommend follows these three basic steps:
  1. Write measurable, action-oriented learning objectives that address the appropriate level of Bloom's Taxonomy.
  2. Choose assessment methods that indicate students’ mastery of the objectives and materials.
  3. Choose instructional materials that help students work towards those objectives.

To learn more about how to ensure alignment in your course, enroll in the Focus on Planning program and join the Quality Meets Alignment course.


Objectives are the measurable part of your course. They are also often referred to as learning outcomes. They can't be vague at all. You need your objectives to tell your students how they will prove they learned what they are supposed to have learned. Objectives usually have specific numbers and activities tied to them.

Objective FAQs

  • They guide and organize both the instructor and the learner.
  • They help the instructor to select and organize course content, develop appropriate assessments and determine relevant instructional strategies.
  • They help the student to direct their learning efforts appropriately by clearly communicating expectations.
  • They help the student to monitor their own progress.

There are many different ideas and theories on writing objectives or learning outcomes such as Performance Objective, ABCD, and SMART. Your field may have a specific type of objective that you will be expected to use or you may be familiar with another method that you feel is better for your course.

ABCD Objectives include:

  • Audience: Describe the intended learner.
  • Behavior: Describe the learner capability and ensure it is observable and measurable
  • Condition: Tools or environments that may be utilized to complete the behavior
  • Degree: State the standard for acceptable performance

SMART Objectives include:

  • Specific: Details exactly what needs to be done. Address the five W’s (who, what, when, where and why) and use action verbs.
  • Measurable: Achievement or progress can be measured.
  • Attainable: The objective can be achieved and in the time period stated. Objectives should be challenging, but still achievable.
  • Relevant: Objective is important or worthwhile to the learner.
  • Time-bound: Time period for achievement is clearly stated

To learn more about writing objectives that are specific, measurable, and aligned with your assessments, enroll in the Focus on Planning program and join the Quality Meets Alignment course.

When you begin to plan your objectives, it is important to consider Bloom's Taxonomy. We could have a whole topic dedicated to Bloom's Taxonomy; but we will just touch on the important pieces as they relate to writing objectives. In simple terms, Bloom's Taxonomy places the different types of learning in a pyramid that begins at simply remembering information and works all the way up to creating new information.

For example, if you give students a list of dates and historical events to remember, they will be at lowest level of learning: remembering. However, if you ask them to use those dates and events to develop theories or predictions you bring them to a higher level of learning: evaluating.

You will notice in your objectives that you use phrases like, 'The students will identify...', 'The students will create...' or 'The students will develop...'. The action verbs in these phrases (identify, create, develop) directly relate to a level of learning in Bloom's Taxonomy. For example, 'identify' is located on the knowledge level, "create" and "develop" are located on the synthesis level, and "demonstrate" is located on the application level.

For even more verb examples, use this Bloom's Taxonomy Action Verb list that contains action verbs for each different level of learning within Bloom's Taxonomy. Save the document and use the list when developing your objectives.

We suggest creating objectives that use a variety of action verbs and that will have students using higher order thinking skills to make the learning much more meaningful. So if all your objectives start with "The students will identify" you are keeping your students at the lowest level of learning and you will probably want to re-evaluate your objectives.

Assessment & Rubric

Since we are designing our course using alignment, after we write objectives, our next step is to determine what we will use to gauge if students mastered the objective. This will be the assessment.

It is important to ensure that you're assessing more than whether or not your students remember individual facts. Ask students to use what they remember by applying it, evaluating it, or creating something new with it.

Another question you will need to answer is "What criteria and standards will be used to assess student work?" In the first FAQ below, you'll notice the Bloom's Taxonomy and Assessment table has a column for how to measure each type of assessment. Notice that "rubric" appears in all but one type of learning objective. As you move away from the clear right-and-wrong standardized tests, you notice the other assessments become a little trickier to grade. Don't let this deter you! A rubric is a great way to organize your grading, keep grading consistent, and to allow you to provide better feedback. Rubrics also allow students to self-assess their work because it gives them clear expectations on what it takes to be successful.

To learn more about choosing which rubric works best for your assignment type and creating rubrics, enroll in the Focus on Planning program and join the Rubrics course.

Assessment & Rubric FAQs

We have already learned that there are action verbs that match each of the different levels of learning in Bloom's Taxonomy and that we use these verbs to create our objectives.

Similarly, there are types of assessments that match the different levels of learning.

The table below, developed by the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon, gives examples of types of assessment for each type of learning objective (also tied to Bloom's Taxonomy). Review this table to learn what type of assessment is best suited for each type of learning objective.

Types of Learning Objective
 Examples of Types of Assessment
 How to Measure


Students will be able to:

  • recall
  • recognize
  • Objective Test items that require students to recall or recognize information:
    • Fill-in the Blank
    • Multiple Choice items with question stems such as, “what is a…”, or “which of the following is the definition of)
    • Labeling diagrams
  • Reciting (orally, musically, or in writing)

  • Accuracy – correct vs number of errors
  • Item Analysis (at the class level, are there items that had higher error rates? Did some items result in the same errors?)


Students will be able to:

  • interpret
  • exemplify
  • classify
  • summarize
  • infer
  • compare
  • explain

Papers, oral/written exam questions, problems, class discussions, concept maps, homework assignments that require (oral or written):

  • Summarizing readings, films, speeches, etc.
  • Comparing and/or contrasting two or more theories, events, processes, etc.
  • Classifying or categorizing cases, elements, events, etc., using established criteria
  • Paraphrasing documents or speeches
  • Finding or identifying examples or illustrations of a concept, principle
 Scoring or performance rubrics that identify critical components of the work and discriminates between differing levels of proficiency in addressing the components


Students will be able to:

  • execute
  • implement

Activities that require students to use procedures to solve or complete familiar or unfamiliar tasks; may also require students to determine which procedure(s) are most appropriate for a given task. 

Activities include:
Problem sets, performances, labs, Prototyping, Simulations

 Accuracy scores, Check lists, Rubrics, Primary Trait Analysis


Students will be able to:

  • differentiate
  • organize
  • attribute

Activities that require students to discriminate or select relevant from irrelevant parts, determine how elements function together, or determine bias, values or underlying intent in presented materials.

These might include:
Case studies, Critiques, Labs, Papers, Projects, Debates, Concept Maps,  

  • Rubrics, scored by instructor, juries, external clients, employers, internship supervisor, etc.
  • Primary Trait Analysis


Students will be able to:

  • check
  • critique

A range of activities that require students to test, monitor, judge or critique readings, performances, or products against established criteria or standards. 

These activities might include:
Journals, Diaries, Critiques, Problem Sets, Product Reviews, Case Studies.    

  • Rubrics, scored by instructor, juries, external clients, employers, internship supervisor, etc.
  • Primary Trait Analysis


Students will be able to:

  • generate
  • plan
  • produce
Research projects, musical compositions, performances, essays, business plans, website designs, prototyping, set designs  
  • Rubrics, scored by instructor, juries, external clients, employers, internship supervisor, etc.
  • Primary Trait Analysis

Did you notice?

After you reviewed the table, go back and count how many types of learning objectives are tested with multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions.

How many did you see? Did I hear you say just one? That is correct! These types of questions are most beneficial when assessing if students can remember factual information. And yet they are the go-to assessment strategy a majority of the time. If you only use standardized tests in your course, how are you going to find out if students can apply and analyze the knowledge you have given them? As you study the table, you will see that in order to bring students up to using higher order thinking skills, you will need to vary your assessment techniques.

Eberly Center of Carnegie Mellon. Align Assessment with Objectives. Retrieved from

A typical rubric consists of three elements:

  1. Criteria. Criteria are the items in the assessment that you are grading. If the assessment is a persuasive essay, the criteria might be the claim, reasons in support of the claim, organization, tone, and word choice.
  2. Levels of Performance. The criteria are judged on levels of performance. You might assign labels to the levels of performance or you may just leave them as numbered levels. For example:
    1. Needs Work, Good, Excellent
    2. Beginning, Developing, Accomplished, Advanced
    3. Inadequate, Developing, Proficient, Skilled, Exceptional
    4. Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, Level 4

    Each level of performance will have a range or specific point value. For example:
    Inadequate (0 points); Developing (1 point); Proficient (2 points); Skilled (3 points); Exceptional (4 points)
    Needs Work (0-1 point); Good (2-3 points); Excellent (4-5 points)

  3. Descriptor. The descriptor tells what it takes to obtain a level of performance for each criteria. Descriptors are how rubrics are able to set clear expectations for students.

Learning Activities

The next step in keeping our course aligned is to develop learning activities that support the objective. An activity that does not contribute to the objective may confuse the learner and may lead them to dissatisfaction at having to complete an unnecessary activity.

Some important questions to consider are:

Learning Activities FAQs

Being active while learning is better than being inactive. Students perform and learn more efficiently through active learning.

Think back to the most memorable lesson you have had as a student or the most memorable lesson you have given as an instructor.

What made it memorable? What were you doing during the lesson?

Did you answer that the lesson was memorable because you were actively doing something? I would guess that most of you did.

Active learning is defined as “students [that are] engaged in more activities than just listening. They are involved in dialog, debate, writing, and problem solving, as well as higher-order thinking, e.g., analysis, synthesis, evaluation” (Bonwell & Eison,1991). Activities can serve as memory cues. Engaging learning activities can help to improve memory cues, allowing students to recall information even faster and easier.

We learn more when we are active (discussing or teaching someone else) than when we are passive (hearing a lecture). During “learning time” we want the student to be doing and explaining what they have learned instead of only the instructor doing and explaining. If we do not give students the time to explain what they have learned during their learning activities, they do not receive valuable feedback from the instructor and only have a chance to explain themselves on an exam; which is a little too late to help them with their misunderstandings.