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Building Your Course

Build your Course

Building Backwards

There are some unique challenges when looking to bring a face-to-face course into an online environment as either a hybrid/blended course or a fully online course. There are number of factors that come into play when designing an online or hybrid course, not the least of which is the technology that will be used. However, the central mistakes that many designers make when building their course for the first time is to focus too much on the technology. What technology or tools you use in your class, while important, is only a small part of the overall design. Furthermore, focusing too much on the tools and technology in the early stages of your development process can actually have a detrimental effect. It's like putting your appliances in the kitchen before the walls have even been placed.

Before you begin, you should take some time to define your philosophy of teaching and learning. What do you want your students to get out of the class? What are the big ideas that you want them to remember five years from now? How do you want to interact with your students? How do you want them to interact with you and with each other? What is the most important outcome for your class? Is it to build foundational skills with a lot of drill and memorization, or are you focused on higher-level critical thinking? Will there be traditional papers and questions? Are you looking to add collaborative and experiential learning projects?

Take a few moments and envision yourself as a student in your class. What is the first thing that they will see? Where will they go? What will the flow of the course look like?  From questions like these, you can begin to build course blueprint that can help steer and guide you through the development process.

This process begins at the end, with the Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs). SLOs are the foundation of the course and can be thought of as a statement about what demonstrable skills and knowledge the students will come away with. Keep in mind that these are different than objectives. Objectives often deal with presentation of knowledge and information (for example, "the course will provide students with introductory knowledge to the field") while SLOs deal with the learning that has occurred ("students will apply and reflect upon various indications theories through course collaborative projects"). Objectives deal with what is presented in the course, while SLOs are tied directly into the assessment of students performances.

In between the student learning outcome and the assessment of those outcomes comes both the teaching methods and learning experiences that are designed to achieve those ends.

Overview of SLOs and their relationship to assignments

Course Blueprint: This diagram is an example of a course blueprint for a History course. Adapted from the Blended Learning Toolkit (

What makes a good student learning outcome?

SLOs should first and foremost be statements that deal with what your students will be able to do by the end of the course or unit. Ideally, they should be artifacts or "performances" you can observe. Moreover, the behavior that you observe needs to have set standards that can be evaluated through tools such as rubrics or other grading criteria. One of the biggest mistakes at this point in the process is using language for your learning outcomes that are not easily observable such as with internal states of the mind. Some common words that are very difficult to assess or develop standards for includes students knowing, learning, appreciating, or understanding certain concepts or ideas. It is not enough to say that students will learn five basic models of communication. Instead, a well structured SLO might say that, "students will demonstrate the five basic models of communication through written reflection of their communication project".

Good learning outcomes also need to be achievable by the student within the confines and constraints of the course or course online environment. Ideally, the outcome should be meaningful to the students and framed in such a way that it is relevant to them. Finally, good learning outcomes cover a broad range of skills and competencies from lower level cognitive checks for knowledge higher level synthesis and critical thinking.

SLOs to Assessment

At this point in the design process, it may be useful to discuss two basic frameworks that can help in the course design process. Bloom's taxonomy, along with its current revision for digital literacy, and Perry's stages of cognitive development both play an important organizational role.

Bloom's taxonomy looks at the six levels of cognitive operations for both the acquisition and use of knowledge. Knowledge, at the very lowest level, comprises the memorization and recognition of facts, terms, and dates. This is important at the beginning of a course of study when a student is faced with having to get up to speed with a large body of knowledge. Survey courses, especially introductory courses within a major, rely heavily on students gaining a large amount of this background knowledge before moving on to the next level. Comprehension is next, which moves beyond knowledge and recognition, and demonstrates a students ability to restate facts and terms in their own words. Next comes application, which is a demonstration of using knowledge in a useful manner. Analysis moves beyond application by applying analytical techniques such as comparing and contrasting, identifying underlying assumptions, inductive and deductive reasoning, as well as identifying faulty reasoning. Synthesis looks at the connections and relationships while at the top of the taxonomy, evaluation, looks to assess validity of the concept. While designing a course, you want to move students from lower to higher level outcomes. For additional help, see this list of action words associated with each level of the taxonomy.

Anderson and Krathwohl (2002) has recently revised Bloom's taxonomy arguing that it was important to update it with modern nomenclature that took into account are increasing digital literacy. Under their model, knowledge is replaced by remembering. In the age of the Internet, remembering can be likened to a Google search. If you can remember something, you can search for it and find the "facts". Next, understanding replaces comprehension. Applying replaces application, analyzing replaces analysis, evaluating replaces evaluation, and at the very highest level, synthesis is replaced by the action word "creating".

Blooms Taxonomy

The second framework, Perry's stages of undergraduate development, follows a different progression of the mental development and capacity of the student within the subject. Briefly, this framework sees that students start out at the basic level of duality. Duality is black-and-white thinking and is often subject the fallacy that ideas or positions are either/or. Often, individuals at the duality stage rely on authority and arguments to authority. The next level is defined as multiplicity. Here, authorities are called into question and uncertainty is seen as a legitimate position an inherent to the world. Next, the student moves into relativism where they see all opinions as being equal. Finally, the highest level, his commitment where students can see shades of gray and use scientific reasoning to commit tentatively to the best theory available while acknowledging that upon acquiring new data there may be a better theory that may replace the current theory.

Perry's model can be useful in the design process by asking serious questions.

  1. Foundation: At the start of your course, where are your students? Do they have a faulty paradigm that your course seeks to challenge?
  2. Significance: Why does your course seek to challenge this faulty paradigm? Why should it concern your students? What are the implications to changing this paradigm?
  3. SLO: What is the new paradigm or perspective that you want your students to hold at the end of your course?
  4. Learning Experiences: How can there faulty paradigm be challenged in a creative and compelling way? How can students be made to see the reasons for making such a change?
  5. Assessment: How will you know when your students have acquired, or have demonstrable understanding of the new paradigm?


Step One: Set your SLOs

Start your course design by thinking about your ultimate SLOs and what you want students to walk away with. Determine which framework (or combination of frameworks) works best for your situation. Begin to work backwards from your core SLOs and identify basic background abilities that form the foundational outcomes that need to be developed first.

Step Two: Add your assessments

Each of your intermediate and final SLOs should be paired with a substantive or formative assessment. Your assessment should be designed to measure the gradual process as your students move through the foundational skills towards the final learning outcomes. While lower-level skills can be easily assessed through simple questions and multiple-choice quizzes, higher level skills will require more authentic forms of assessment that are based on real-life application and skills. Rubric should be developed in order to set the standard for your assessments.

Make sure to create a blend of informal as well as formal assessments. Smaller, low stakes or ungraded activities can give students practice, allow opportunities for instructor feedback, in provide students an opportunity to give you feedback. 

Note: Once you have chosen how you will assess your students' performance, make sure that there are plenty of practice opportunities that will require similar performances. Assessments that surprise or contain material that comes out of nowhere are rarely useful.

Example of how foundational SLOs lead into the Course SLOsStep Three: Choose your tools

At this point, after you've identified your outcomes and your assessments to know if you've achieved the outcomes, you can finally focus on the activities and assignments that will best bring about your desired outcomes.

There is a fundamental difference for the ultimate design the course if the instructor starts by looking for particular technology to use rather than looking at the outcomes and figuring out what are the best ways to achieve a particular outcome. To approach a class by saying, "I think I need a blog for my class. What is the best way for me to insert a blog into my class assignments?" Is to develop a patchwork course that may be disconnected from the ultimate SLOs that you're trying to achieve. Instead, consider approaching a course by asking the following question: "one of the main outcomes for this class is for students to interact with each other in a professional manner and for them to demonstrate professional research skills. Therefore, a blog might be useful as a research journal for them to detail their process and findings on their major project. Students can then interact with each other by commenting on their team members research blogs."

Other Concerns

There are number of other important factors to consider when building your blended or online course. Any course has a proper mixture of teaching and learning strategies, pedagogical activities, and learning environment. Some additional areas to pay attention to include:

Instructional method:

There is more than one way to approach any topic that you'd like to present? Should you write an online module for this topic? Should the class discussed this on a blog or online form? Are there videos are online resources that might more effectively present information to your students? Basically, these are questions to get to the heart of how specific learning objectives can be presented effectively. Should the content be presented asynchronously in a textual format, or will there be enough questions or discussion that a face-to-face session (or online video session) would be warranted? Take a critical look at your class from your students perspective: does everything tie together or is there anything extra the could be perceived as busywork by your students?

Organization of the course content and presentation of supporting materials:

Take some time to consider the sequencing and transitions between the various portions of your hybrid or online class. Is the content of your course primarily your own, from a publisher, from an open educational repository, or a combination? Publisher resources generally provide decent outlines, but make sure that the sequencing makes sense and builds on foundational concepts toward overall SLOs.

Defining the course interaction and assessment strategy:

You do not want students to walk away from your online course or the online portion of a blended course feeling like they could have just read textbook. Activities, assignments, exercises, case studies, and assessments are an essential part of engaging your students with the material and helping them see the application of what they are learning. Make sure that there are plenty of examples and practice for the outcomes you will be assessing. Allow for opportunities for self assessment in addition to your own formative and substantive assessments. For a blended class, watching a video online is an excellent primer for class discussion. Games and game mechanics can be used illustrate concepts and start discussions. Online discussions can be conducted through the use of forums, collaborative documents (such as a Wiki or Google Docs), or in real time through services like Google+ Hangouts or Skype.


Early on in the development of your course, you should be thinking of the various mechanisms you would like to see regarding communication in your class. Obviously, there needs to be student-teacher communication. But for online classes, you should also consider student to student collaborative communication as well. Interaction among students within the class helps build student engagement, and lessens the contact burden of the instructor in an online class.

Logistical considerations:

When teaching an online or blended course, your awareness of the technologies, services, and support available to you is important and will grow over time. You should know the University of the Pacific's technical support protocols so that you can guide your students toward additional help if a technical problem arises. The library and writing center provides additional services for students that may relate to your class.

  • Krathwohl, David R. "A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: An overview." Theory into practice 41.4 (2002): 212-218
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