Faculty Focus


Instructional Design Basics

How do I start? Instructional design basics

Instructional designers can help with many different course-based problems and challenges, including helping you figure out where and how to start with your course design. When a course is new or needs a little design love, knowing where to start can be difficult. By starting with your main goals and then moving to assessments and content, it is easier for your course to stay in alignment with your goals than working from topics and assessments to objectives. Starting is as easy as asking yourself one simple question.

Start with a Question

In any course design, whether it is a brand-new course or a redesign, the best place to start is to write down what you hope your students will carry with them several years down the road. What do you want your students to be able to do, and what content is crucial for them to remember? It doesn’t have to be the formalized language of objectives and goals that you put into your syllabus but just a straightforward list.

We do this for a few reasons. One is because sometimes the goals of a course change once we have taught it or once we have started to dedicate some brainpower to it. The second is that it creates a short checklist for you as you move forward with the design. No matter what content, interactions, and assignments you decide to put into the course, you should be able to trace a direct path to that list.

Once you have your course designed and content settled, you can revisit this list and solidify the language into course goals and objectives. By waiting to solidify the language, you will also have a second opportunity to check that all of your assessments, activities, and content align with your course goals and objectives.

Build Your Assessments

Once you have your end goals in place, you can start to figure out how you are doing to determine if students can meet those goals. There are a couple of tricks here as well. Look at the skills and content you want students to know. What kind of summative assessment is going to help you determine if students can accomplish those skills or understand the material? If you want them to be able to recall information, a multiple-choice exam could work. If you want them to be able to write a business plan or conduct lab-based experiments, you will need to design a summative assessment that makes them do those things.

When you have your summative assessments in place, make your formative assessments. These should be the practice tests, rough drafts, discussions, and brainstorming that the students will need to perfect the skills necessary to be successful on the big assignment. One great way to figure out what these should be is to break down the big task into smaller tasks or steps. Making this kind of list will also allow you to make sure that you are varying the types of assessments and opportunities for feedback to students.

Outline Your Assessments

Once you have your goals, summative assessments, and ideas for formative assessments in place, break out your favorite planning process. Make sure that your method is one that allows for items to be moved around. For this type of task, many instructors use a Google Doc or Word document.

Start by making rows for each week of your course and marking any holidays or breaks. If you are doing any traveling or know of any big deadlines, make a note of these as well. Place your summative assessments on the table where appropriate. Then, place your formative assessments in an order that makes sense and maximizes student efficiency. Be careful not to put anything that requires careful feedback during the big deadline weeks or travel weeks. Also, make sure things are spaced well enough that you give yourself time to grade and your students enough time to reflect.

Outline Your Content

After these are in place, start to plan your content. Make sure that you’re not leaving too much room between covering a topic and the practice. If you are teaching students a new concept, have them practice immediately and then once more in a week or two. Spacing out the practice of the skills and content will help them recall it later.

Once the content, discussions, and assignments are in place, craft the objectives for that week. It helps to number your informal course goals and place the number of the course goal next to the objective or assessment that aligns with it. This will help you do a quick visual check that all goals are being assessed and covered and help you identify where there needs to be more coverage. This visual assessment can be done as you go along but should also be redone when the course design is complete.

While executing these four steps will help you in your course, they will also help you when it comes time to do your course quality check later. You’ll have all of your alignment—where you check if your course content and assessments are aligned to your course goals and objectives—done from the start. It also creates a document that you can use after the course is being delivered to reflect and make notes for future changes and ideas.

Join Kristin on Tuesday, November 5 at 1:00 pm with her live online seminar, Course Design for Faculty: Instructional Design Basics. This seminar will dive into the prep work before the syllabus and provide you insight on both course goals and the assessments you design.

Krys Ziska Strange is the curriculum and learning innovation designer at the Office of Digital Learning at University of Arizona and is focused on STEM courses for Arizona Online. She holds a master’s of library and information science from Wayne State University and is currently completing her doctorate in curriculum and instruction.