Course Planning: From Fuzzy to Focused

by Patricia Paulson

With each new year, with each new course, with each new day, we continually make decisions as to what our outcomes are for the course, what instructional strategies we will use, what specific skills and knowledge we expect the students to have at the end of the course, and how we will assess the learning.  Sometimes these decisions are made at the beginning of the course, and sometimes we are building the plane as we are flying it!

We begin with a somewhat “fuzzy” view of the general outcomes based on our own prior learning, other courses we teach, what we know about our students, and what textbooks, videos, and other readings provide. Lattuca and Stark (2009) claim, “Instructors, who are usually well versed in and enthusiastic about the principles and concepts embodied in their fields, tend to start planning by considering content, rather by stating explicit course objectives for students” (p. 117).  

Research (Diamond, 2008; Lattuca & Stark, 2009; Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, 2005, 2011) has demonstrated that the more focused we can be in our design, the greater the probability that students will reach the outcomes we have set.  Wiggins and McTighe (2005) developed the model for Backward Design often used for curriculum development:

Microsoft Word - Faculty Development Blog from fuzzy to focused.

Diamond (2008) affirmed, “The most important concept in bringing quality to any curriculum or course is the fundamental relationship that must exist between goals, outcomes and assessment” (p. 148), Fink (2003) recommended an integrated model for course design through the Taxonomy of Significant Learning, while holding true to the concept of connecting outcomes, teaching activities and assessments. Posner and Rudnitsky (2006) advocated the need to “teach with a purpose” (p. 183) using a set of “intended learning outcomes” to guide the learning process.

Based on these models, the following key questions can guide the planning process:

  1. Why are you teaching this concept? What are the “enduring understandings” you want students to gain?(Goals)
  2.  What do you want the students to know and be able to do with this concept? (Outcomes)
  3. How will you know if they understand this concept? (Assessment: Formative and Summative)
  4. What instructional strategies will assist in developing the desired outcomes? (Instruction)
  5. What supporting materials will you need to effectively deliver instruction? (Texts, videos, etc.)

Microsoft Word - Faculty Development Blog from fuzzy to focused.

The three overriding principles in the boxes are based on current knowledge on the brain and learning. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (a free download from National Academy Press) articulated specific strategies that differentiate experts from novices.  A more recent publication is Brown’s (2014) book, Making It Stick, which many faculty have read and discussed.

Diamond (2008) summarized essential factors for determining successful course and program design (p. 150):

  1. High-quality outcomes stated in performance terms
  2. The translation of these goals into course-specific goals
  3. The match between goals and assessment
  4. The match between objectives and the instructional method selected
  5. The ownership of the initiative by participating faculty and the academic unit

Steven Covey’s (2004) second habit of highly effective people spoke of the importance of starting with the end in mind. This holds true for curriculum development as well, for, as Forest Gump stated, “If you don’t know where you are going, than you probably won’t end up there.”  



Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R., (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Covey, S. (1989, 2004, 2013). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Diamond, R. (2008).Designing and assessing courses and curricula: A practical guide (3rd Ed.) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lattuca, L., & Stark, J. (2009). Shaping the college curriculum: Academic plans in context (2nd Ed.).. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Posner, G., & Rudnistky, A. (2005). Course design: A guide to curriculum development for teachers (7th Ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA:ASCD.


Patricia Paulson
Patricia Paulson is Professor of Science Education at Bethel University. She focuses her research on trustworthy practices for learning science, focusing specifically on scientific practices. She has led the GEMS program, coordinates the STEM certification program, teaches Life Science Concepts, Applied STEM Practices, and Science Curriculum and Methods at all levels. Paulson also teaches in Bethel's Ed.D. program.

Comments are closed.