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Ashley Wiersma is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Michigan State University. You can follow her on twitter at @throughthe_veil.

“A synthesis of cognitive research endorses the idea that deep understanding of subject matter transforms factual information into usable knowledge. Knowledge learned at the level of rote memory rarely transfers; transfer most likely occurs when the learner knows and understands underlying concepts and principles that can be applied to problems in new contexts. Learning with understanding is more likely to promote transfer and application than simply memorizing information from a text or lecture.” [1]

As graduate students, we intuitively understand this, but how do we apply this knowledge to our own teaching practice? This post will outline how to design a course or unit in any subject using research-based tools that have come out of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).

The Scholarly Teaching Process is summarized in the following diagram [2]

We will apply this process to course or unit design by following the principles of “backward planning” outlined in Understanding by Design:

Step 1: Identify Desired Results

What should students know, understand, and be able to do?
What content is worthy of understanding?
What enduring understandings are desired?

At this stage, define:

  • the major objectives of the course (unit or lesson)
  • the “big ideas”
  • what students should know and understand about these ideas
  • what skills students should develop
  • what students should eventually be able to do with their knowledge and skills

Step 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence

How will we know if students have achieved the desired results?
What will we accept as evidence of student understanding and proficiency?

At this stage, decide:

  • What types of assessment and what performance tasks will demonstrate students’ understanding of the big ideas?
  • How will you judge whether students have met learning objectives? What criteria will you use? (Consider creating a rubric to make this transparent to students and make grading easier.)
  • What other evidence might be used to assess students’ knowledge, understanding, and skills?
  • How will students reflect on and assess their own learning?

Step 3: Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction

How will we support learners as they come to understand important ideas and processes?
How will we prepare them to autonomously transfer their learning?
What enabling knowledge and skills will students need to perform effectively and achieve desired results?
What activities, sequence, and resources are best suited to accomplish our goals?

At this stage, consider how the design will:
W = Help the students know Where the unit is going and What is expected. Help the teacher know Where the students are coming from (prior knowledge, interests).
H = Hook all students and Hold their interest?
E = Equip students, help them Experience the key ideas and Explore the issues?
R = Provide opportunities to Rethink and Revise their understandings and work?
E = Allow students to Evaluate their work and its implications
T = Be Tailored (personalized) to the different needs, interests, and abilities of learners
O = Be Organized to maximize initial and sustained engagement as well as effective learning [6]


Last Step: Evaluate the Overall Design

To what extent is the entire unit coherent, with the elements of all three stages aligned? [7]


​What tips do you have for designing an effective course? Let us know in the comments below.

[1] Jay McTighe and Elliott Seif, “Teaching for Meaning and Understanding: A Summary of Underlying Theory and Research,” Pennsylvania Educational Leadership 24, no. 1 (2003), 7.
[2] Laurie Richlin, Blueprint for Learning: Constructing College Courses to Facilitate, Assess, and Document Learning (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing Co., 2006), 3.
[3] Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Ed. (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005), 17.
[4] Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design, 18.
[5] Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, “Understanding by Design Framework,” ASCD, (Accessed 12 December 2012).
[6] Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design, 22.
[7] Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design, 28.

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