1 Chapter One: Design Principles

Lisa Endersby

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those

who cannot read and write, but those who cannot

learn, unlearn, and relearn” – Alvin Toffler

Using a ‘model’ to design your course

[Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2018, from http://www.tacoma.uw.edu/sites/default/files/sections/Canvas/ios-user-interface-design-course.png

An instructional design model is the starting point for effective, strategic course planning. Models are frameworks to help build the structure of your course, and roadmaps for both you and your students to travel a defined yet flexible pathway from the first day through to the final exam. Particularly for online and blended learning, course design models help to focus the student experience on meaningful learning. A model that identifies and mitigates potential challenges related to the use of instructional technologies (e.g. ambiguous instructions, possible technical failures) ensures the emphasis remains on student development rather than imposing unnecessary barriers on meaningful teaching and learning.

[Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://georgecouros.ca/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Learner-Centred.jpg

Learner-Centered Design Practices

Many programs that train instructors for the classroom focus on a myriad of tools, strategies, and topics meant to develop skills in exceptional teaching practices. These competencies, however, are only most effective when accompanied by a lens that privileges the student experience. A learner-centered approach to design considers the active role of the student in their learning; it disrupts more traditional views of teaching as the transmission of knowledge and places more of the decision-making power in directing the learning experience with the students themselves. A learning-centered approach, by contrast, may emphasize content delivery and student evaluation as a way of ‘quality control’ to ensure that students are learning. While this approach has merit in its interest in learning, it does not privilege the role, agency, and experience of our students in the learning process.

The popular and often-quoted saying of “sage on the stage or guide on the side” encapsulates the role of the teacher in learner-centered design. The instructor’s role in learner-centered design is to guide, support, and navigate rather than instruct, tell, or disseminate course content to a passive audience. A guide also has a deep understanding of their students – their expectations, their past experiences, and their current interests. This insight helps instructors to lead students along the pathways they have created for learning, but also provides valuable information as to how students might go astray on this journey. A guide will walk beside or behind those they have been charged to teach rather than charge ahead to complete the journey first. Ultimately, students at the centre of the learning experience are not passive consumers but rather active participants in shaping and directing this developmental journey.

3 Principles of Learner-Centered Design

Explicit Instruction

The use of explicit instruction involves much more than providing a clear explanation of course content. In contrast with implicit methods, explicit instruction encourages students to be consciously aware not just of what they are learning, but that they are indeed engaged in a learning process (Ellis, 2009). One result of effective explicit instruction is that a student is able to verbalize their learning; both the content as well as the process by which they have gained these new insights.

Explicit instruction also encourages instructors to offer clear and explicit directions for what students are meant to do as part of their learning activities. Rosenshine and Stevens (1984) identified three important components of explicit instruction, also at times referred to as direct instruction: demonstration, guided practice with feedback, and independent practice. These components overlap with several other definitions of effective teaching and practices, ultimately keeping the student at the centre of the learning experience. The goal, then, is to provide clear direction to guide the students’ learning experience, while also providing ongoing, formative feedback to help students consciously identify and continuously modify their learning strategies. Explicit instruction will help us as instructors work to encourage students to identify not only what they must know, but how they have come to know it.

Active Engagement

Students may learn well on their own, but there is considerable literature to suggest that they often learn best with and from others. Many important principles of engagement are present in active learning, typically defined as any activity that engages students in the learning process, where they are required to do meaningful learning activities and think critically about what they are doing (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). There are many strategies to actively engage students in learning with each other and with their instructor, including open-ended questioning (Freedman, 1994), think-pair-share (Butler, Phillmann, & Smart, 2001), and group work or collaborative learning (Gorvine & Smith, 2014). These and similar strategies involve students working together to cooperatively discuss course content, debate new ideas, and develop solutions to problems. Active engagement is not only a valuable learning strategy; it may also help to predict students’ overall success and persistence in college (Astin, 1993).

Fredricks, Blumenfled, and Paris (2004) extended the conversation on engagement to the realm of cognition. Their discussion of cognitive engagement emphasises issues of motivation and self-regulated learning, which expands our typical understanding of engagement to include students’ engagement with the course material. This type of engagement is a helpful addition to our toolkit of teaching strategies, broadening the utility of engagement to include notions of participatory learning as meaningful interactions with peers as well as more experiential activities that encourage students to reflect and make novel connections for deeper learning. Teaching strategies that emphasize cognitive engagement may be best suited for situations where it might be more difficult to facilitate group work, particularly in larger classes or in lecture halls that aren’t always designed for effective group work. This does not, however, mean that group work is impossible or should never be tried in these circumstances. It does, however, offer an additional strategy for encouraging student engagement.  This may also be an applicable strategy for online or blended learning, where students may engage with each other, and the course material, while not being physically face to face.

Newmann, Wehlage, and Lamborn (1992) also discuss cognitive engagement as being linked to extrinsic, external (e.g. formal recognition or to avoid punishment) and intrinsic, internal (e.g. enjoyment or finding purpose and meaning in the activity) factors that motivate students to become and remain engaged in their learning. In particular, the authors identify a key strategy for engagement involving connecting course content to the ‘real world’. This process, often found in several variations of experiential education (Kolb, 1984), helps to ensure students see the value or meaning behind what they are learning beyond simply being assessed on their comprehension or recall.

As students will ultimately leave the classroom and move into fields that require the application of some or all of what they are learning in the classroom, explicitly offering opportunities for making connections to real world problems and experiences (often through a reflective process) is essential for student success. This also again firmly centres the student in the learning experience, where meaning is devised based on their future goals and current interests and developed by and with the students rather than merely communicated from the instructor.  Ultimately, active learning is student-centered in that it “has a quality of personal involvement – the whole person in both feeling and cognitive aspects being in the learning event” (Rogers, 1983, p. 20).

Opportunities for Reflection

Many active learning strategies and explicit instruction techniques rely heavily on reflection. Boud, Keogh, and Walker (1985) describe reflection as “an important human activity in which people recapture their experience, think about it, mull over it, and evaluate it. It is this working with experience that is important in learning” (p.43).

Kolb (1984) outlined a more structured approach to reflection in his experiential learning cycle (Figure 1), beginning with a concrete experience that students participate in and interpret through a lens of reflective observation. Once this initial information has been gathered, students move from a more reactive or strictly emotional lens to abstract conceptualization, where they often begin to make connections between their current experience, past learning, and future goals. The final stage, active experimentation, offers students the opportunity to test out new insights and knowledge, often by applying what they have learned in assignments, exams, or in newly offered experiences. This cycle can be facilitated by course instructors to create experiences that encourage deep reflection and making novel connections that centre on the student’s’ learning process and ultimate goals. This active engagement also helps students more explicitly discover insights into and connections between course content. Here again, opportunities for reflection help students to step outside of their own, often implicit, learning experience to discover new insights into their unique learning process and to actively demonstrate their developing competence (Power, 2012).

McLeod, S. (1970, January 01). Saul McLeod. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/learning-kolb.html

Student-centered learning is the act, and art, of providing opportunities for your students to explicitly engage in and reflect on their learning. These experiences support positive motivation and cognition in encouraging deep, critical thinking that maybe challenging to students for a variety of reasons. In order to best support the diversity of experiences and abilities in your classroom, your course design should also consider how you will ensure that these meaningful opportunities are accessible to everyone.

Models for Learner-Centered Design: Key Considerations

Designing your course may involve choosing a particular model to follow, or you may build your own template based on your unique students and individual context. Regardless of what model you choose, the two basic and most important features of a model for course design are how it organizes your course structure and sequence.


The structure of your course is both the foundation on which you design the learning experience and the multitude of materials (e.g. content, activities, assessments) that you use to build an enriching environment for your students. This concept of structure, however, goes beyond the more physical or tangible elements of your course to include important assumptions about student learning. At the heart of these course design models is an understanding of learning as meaning making (Bruner, 1990). Meaning making involves experiencing phenomena (events, activities, etc), interpreting these experiences based on prior knowledge, and reflecting on the experience and the insights we have gained from our interpretations. This reflective process lies at the heart of constructivism, a philosophy of learning, often credited to Jean Piaget (1967), that emphasizes knowledge as something that is constructed by the learner rather than transmitted by the instructor.

Biggs (1996) defined constructivist approaches to teaching as keeping the learner as the ultimate and central focus of the teaching experience:

… learners arrive at meaning by actively selecting, and cumulatively constructing, their own knowledge, through both individual and social activity. The learner brings an accumulation of assumptions, motives, intentions, and previous knowledge that envelopes every teaching/learning situation and determines the course and quality of the learning that may take place. The teacher may ignore or use this learner-structured framework, but the centrality of the learner is given (p. 348)

In moving from an instructor-centered approach, which relies heavily on imparting knowledge, to a learner-focused approach, which recognizes the agency of the student in the learning experience, your course structure must allow some level of flexibility. As the constructivist approach relies heavily on interpretation and a more individualistic understanding of course material, each student in your classroom will offer a uniquely-constructed perspective on the world. A well-designed course model will offer students the opportunity to negotiate and individually construct their understanding of your course content. For example, we typically refer to learning outcomes as expectations that our students will meet by the end of our course and that we will assess only upon completion of a course or course activity. However, considerations of your students’ current competencies and prior learning should inform the teaching strategies that make up the path(s) you create to move students toward these goals. Often populated by a variety of learning activities or teaching strategies, a structured approach to course design will anticipate detours from your desired path to meet the shifting needs of your students.


A flexible and well-structured course design model is only half of what makes a meaningful learning experience. The work of structuring a course also borrows from construction terminology in the use of scaffolding in our course design. Scaffolding your course design involves important considerations for how you will order or sequence course content and associated activities.

Bruner (1978) extended the notion of scaffolding in constructing buildings to inside the classroom, describing it as “the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some tasks so that the [student] can concentrate on the difficult skill [they are] in the process of acquiring” (p. 19). Scaffolding as an instructional strategy involves the intentional progression of learning activities designed to move students toward more complex and involved understandings of your course material. Simultaneously, a scaffolded course design also supports students in moving toward greater independence in their own learning process, most notably characterized by Vygotsky (1978) as teaching within a zone of proximal development or ZPD. A learner’s ZPD can be defined as the space between a student’s current level of competency and their potential level of development; a bridge between these spaces is spanned, in part, by guided, collaborative learning alongside an instructor or more advanced peers.

A key component of scaffolded instruction involves the level and type of support provided to students throughout their learning experience. Typically, greater support is provided at the start of the course or new unit where students may be most unfamiliar with the content. As the learning experience continues, the goal is to gradually reduce or replace instructor support with opportunities for students to independently and autonomously practice what they have learned. In this way, students may not only gain confidence in their newly acquired knowledge, but will begin to identify and further develop valuable insight into their own learning processes.

Sequencing in a course design model is an intentional and thoughtful process. It involves building opportunities for greater student support where needed, but also considers how and, more importantly, when to introduce important concepts that are necessary foundational building blocks for more complex student learning. Much like considerations for the structure of your course, sequencing must also offer some degree of flexibility. Sequencing is not always linear; some students may progress quickly forward through your design, while others may need to return to previous landmarks along your learning path to repeat or revisit key concepts. While meaningful progression is important, effective course design also considers the many and varied pathways that students will take toward your intended outcomes. You will learn more about how to sequence your course content and activities for meaningful learning in chapter 3.

The Importance of Constructive Alignment in Course Design

Alongside the preponderance of construction metaphors, the notion of learning as a journey also figures into our understanding of effective course design. If, like most instructors, you have an idea in mind of where you want your students to end up at the end of your course, constructive alignment is the tool by which you will design an easy to follow roadmap alongside clear directions for arriving at this final destination. More importantly, your roadmap will also contain very explicit landmarks to help ensure both you and your students do not deviate too far off course.

[Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.niu.edu/facdev/_pdf/icd/selfdirectedguide.pdf

Constructive alignment is a principle used to design courses that directly address and assess intended learning outcomes. Rather than relying on luck or guesswork, designing your course using this strategy ensures that your outcomes, activities, and assessments are aligned – each of these components are vital to student learning and are intimately connected in a well-structured learning environment. A visual representation of constructive alignment is provided in Figure 2.

The section below will highlight four key components to include in constructive alignment:


Selecting course content is often seen as one of the easier tasks in course design. Instructors are subject matter experts and bring with them to the classroom a wealth of knowledge. In your own course design process, it is valuable to consider this typically automatic process with some level of intentionality. What concepts from the topic you are teaching are essential for students to understand? Why might this be the case? Consider whether these core concepts are meaningful to you from your experience, and what this might mean in how you demonstrate these concepts to your students. Often, when we know a particular area quite deeply, we assume or forget what it was like to be newly introduced to these ideas. What made those learning experiences for you most memorable? How might you mirror some of those strategies or experiences with your students?

Learning Outcomes

A typical course design process may begin with an identification of some type of goal you have for the learning experience. These goals typically involve some notion of what will be taught, and what the desired end point of the course will achieve. For example, course learning goals may include aspirations that students will understand the content, or that the course will be engaging and interactive.

While these goals are certainly valid and important, they do little to help constructively align the course experience. In order to better construct experiences in which students will achieve your intended learning goals, and to effectively measure whether they have indeed met those desired objectives, constructive alignment centres the design of a course around learning outcomes.

Learning outcomes are expressions of what we hope students will do, think, or feel differently following their course experience. Rather than focusing on the instructor, outcomes are student-centered, highlighting what it will actually look like for students to demonstrate their learning. Outcomes must then be behaviour-based (identifying a behaviour that is observable given your learning environment and context) as well as measurable (this behaviour is something that can be assessed). For example, let’s look at the difference between a learning goal and a learning outcome.

Learning Goal: To teach the key principles of instructional design

Learning Outcome: Students will be able to correctly identify the 4 key principles of instructional design

The learning outcome uses particular language to highlight what it will look like for students to achieve the goal set out by the instructor. The term identify provides important information for how you might work to achieve this outcome with your students, and how you might assess their learning. In this case, if the outcome is for students to identify key principles of a particular concept, you may display this key principles on a slide such that students are able to see and begin to identify what they are. To assess their learning, you may ask students to repeat or reproduce these key principles as part of a test or exam. How might this learning experience and assessment strategy change if, for example, you were to ask students to describe or define these key principles. Would the same strategies be equally effective?

Bloom’s Taxonomy. (2018, April 11). Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://flic.kr/p/LQuqT2

Much of the language we use in learning outcomes is derived from Bloom’s Taxonomy (Figure 3). Developed by Dr. Benjamin Bloom in 1956, this taxonomy organizes and sequences learning from more foundational skills in remembering basic facts to more complex cognitive processes in evaluating knowledge or creating new, original work. This language is particularly useful in designing learning outcomes as the vocabulary the taxonomy uses indicates concrete and measurable terms. For example, it is much easier to consider how you might observe and assess how a student can differentiate between two concepts, or how they most effectively defend a position. By contrast, the notion of ‘understanding’, while perhaps nearly synonymous with learning, is not easily recognizable in regular student behaviour. What may pass for understanding, for example, may be simple memorization. Although this may be one of many goals for your students, conventional wisdom in the field demands far greater and more in depth processes for exploring course material.

Learning Activities

There are a myriad of ways in which instructors can guide students through their exploration of the course content. Learning is, by definition, an active practice but often this action is limited to internal cognitive processes. The learning activities you design and facilitate for your course help students to engage with the material in meaningful ways.

Principles of constructive alignment demand that your learning activities align, in part, with your learning outcomes. As discussed in the previous section, outcomes help to define what successful learning may look like. In order to arrive at a successful learning outcome, however, your learning activities need to align with what you hope to see your students achieve. For example, activities that allow students to practice debating and discussing relevant concepts may align well with an outcome that asks students to defend a particular position. These activities are often the landmarks or waypoints along the pathways you have constructed in your course design. This may then mean that there are multiple, scaffolded activities to help move students progressively toward a particular outcome rather than making a large leap from knowing nothing to complete, perfect achievement.


One of the simplest questions to ask yet hardest questions to answer in assessment is “What will this look like?”. In designing a well-aligned course experience, your activities must not only allow students to practice and experience the content you have set out to teach, but must also allow them to demonstrate some form of their learning. This does not mean that they must always or entirely demonstrate a complete understanding, but it does provide you with valuable data to determine how and if your students are approaching your desired outcomes. By asking what this learning might look like, we are setting the parameters of our assessments to include ways for students to demonstrate, through their behaviours, some level of knowledge acquisition, skill development, or attitudinal shift. This is particularly important in an online or blended environment where the same cues or behaviours we often rely on to demonstrate understanding are not always available.

Constructive alignment and its associated assessment activities also means that you are able to set fair, achievable, and measurable criteria for successful student learning. Learning is not a zero sum game. While your outcomes and content are important to students’ learning, your class is not the only learning experience your students will ever participate in. Consider how your course might prepare students for future learning, whether in the same program or later in life. This also means you must consider your available resources, particularly the time allotted to your course, both in the class as well as online and any work students are expected to do outside of regular class meetings. What outcomes are reasonable to expect given this fixed amount of time? Concurrently, students will also enter your course with some previous knowledge and experience, but are also at various places on their own learning journey. What level of learning is reasonable to expect for students who, for example, may be in their first year at the university? Would this be different from students in their last  year of a college program? Assessments embedded throughout the course rather than only at the end will help you to uncover some of this knowledge through repeated measures of students’ progression toward your intended outcomes.

Constructive alignment will always privilege the learning experience. Students may learn from or with you as an instructor, but often learn best through thinking, analyzing, interpreting, discussing, and reflecting. Your course design should provide opportunities for this to occur, but must also ensure students are able to begin to learn how to do this for themselves. In this case, what we know about students and how they best learn remains integral and essential to our course design. This learner-centered approach forms the basis of our next section.

Universal Instructional Design (UID)

Student-centered learning is the act, and art, of providing opportunities for your students to explicitly engage in and reflect on their learning. These experiences support positive motivation and cognition in encouraging deep, critical thinking that may be challenging to students for a variety of reasons. Rather than attempting to redesign course content or activities to ‘fit’ or overcome barriers to learning that are identified after the class has already begun, a more intentional and widely used approach involves considering the removal or mitigation of these barriers as embedded in the course design process. This model is often referred to as Universal Instructional Design or UID.

What is UID?

Universal Instructional Design involves considering the potential needs of your learners up front as an intentional part of your course design, rather than reactively adjusting or modifying your content based on student needs that may only arise or be identified once the course has already begun. The process of UID ultimately involves identifying and eliminating unnecessary barriers to teaching and learning. The UID philosophy comes from principles in architecture, where consideration is given to whether it is better, aesthetically and practically, to retrofit a building with a ramp only when its inhabitants begin to have difficulty climbing the stairs, or to make the ramp and other accessible entrance features part of the original building design. The goal here is to consider how to best support students in moving along the learning pathway you have created. The expectation remains that your students will work to achieve the outcomes you have set for your course, but there is an explicit and practiced recognition that this pathway may contain obstacles for student learning, some of which are well within the instructor’s control. In essence, UID is an up front investment in your students’ success.

(n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2018, from http://ged578.pbworks.com/f/1242438785/uid.jpg

Principles of Universal Instructional Design

In keeping with UID’s learn-centered approach, principles of universal instructional design also emphasize principles of good teaching. In particular, these principles consider how instructors design courses using the foundational insight that while students are meant to be challenged in their learning, they must also be supported throughout the experience. Good teaching, then, first considers not what instructors will do, but what students will gain. In doing so, universal instructional design centres the learning experience on the learning itself – what students will learn and how they will best acquire that knowledge or develop those skills.

The seven principles of universal instructional design (Figure 4) provide guidelines for both instructional materials and learning environments that will meet the needs of a wide variety of learners.

Instructional Materials

Instructional materials and activities should be:

Accessible and Fair

  • Materials should be both useful and accessible to students with a variety of abilities. A classroom of diverse, different abilities demands a variety of ways to present information that are accessible to various developed strategies for taking in and processing information.


  • This principle mirrors notions of multimodal teaching. Materials should be flexible in their use in and outside the classroom. Students should also have flexible options in how they participate in learning activities and in how they demonstrate their newly acquired knowledge and skills.

Straightforward and Consistent

  • While pathways to learning benefit from flexible and diverse options, universal instructional design also considers the importance of consistent formatting across multiple mediums. For example, the way in which you organize course materials should be consistent across lecture slides and your learning management system (LMS) or platform. Consider how and if your instructions for completing an assignment are consistent both in structure and in layout (e.g. in written materials and online).


  • All course content should be accompanied by transparent expectations. How will students know what success looks like or means to you? How will they know what it means to achieve a good grade in your course and on each of your assignments? Instructions should be clear and easy to understand – you may have your own roadmap in mind but students will need the tools to successfully navigate your course and its expectations.

Learning Environments

Learning environments should:

Be Supportive

  • The learning environment should be a welcoming and comfortable space for students. This does not lessen the need for academic rigour and intellectual challenge, but rather advocates for the important role of the instructor in encouraging students to lean into rather than avoid an intellectual challenge. Supportive learning environments also offer students formative, ongoing, and meaningful feedback to help guide their unique learning experience. A collaborative and collegial learning environment is an important cornerstone of both the physical and digital classroom.

Minimize Unnecessary Physical Effort

  • Instructional activities should be able to be completed with reasonable physical effort. Borrowing from the concept of universal design in the physical world, this principle ensures that there are minimal unnecessary physical barriers that may impede students’ learning. For example, no matter how well-designed your lesson may be, it will be of no use to a student who uses a mobility device and who cannot climb the stairs to enter your classroom.

Accommodate Students and Multiple Teaching Methods

  • The learning environment must also be able to accommodate the activities you plan on facilitating, and the students who will be participating in your learning experience. If you are engaging in active learning, for example, will the layout of the classroom allow students to work comfortably and productively in groups? Are there adequate resources available for you to draw or write as a means to explain key concepts? How might a student with a physical disability navigate the rows of desks and chairs? If good teaching involves multimodal learning, an effective learning environment is able to adequately support these diverse instructional strategies.
(n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2018, from http://www.cricouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/learner-diagram.jpg

Chapter Summary

We began this chapter with the assertion that a well-structured course pays particular attention to structure and sequence; how content and learning activities are organized to offer deep and meaningful learning for students. In particular, an effectively designed course model includes opportunities for:

  • Explicit Instruction
  • Active Engagement
  • Reflection

We also emphasized the importance of considering principles of Universal Instructional Design to ensure that a diversity in student abilities is an upfront consideration in course design rather than an add on after the fact.

Using a model for course design is a valuable tool, but must be balanced with an understanding of the unique context you will be teaching in and the unique diversity of students you will have in your classroom. It is often a delicate balance to provide sufficient structure that will guide both you and your students toward your goals while also creating spaces for exploration and discovery.

The most effective instructors embrace structure but do not rely on it; their course design process uses models as scaffolding and then fills in the unique features of their class with content and activities that will encourage student success. As Biggs and Tang (2011) so aptly note

Effective learning changes the way we see the world. The acquisition of new information in itself does not bring about such a change, but the way we structure that information and think about it does. Thus, education is about conceptual change, not just the acquisition of knowledge (p. 23).

Consider your course design model as a means to align your goals with your outcomes, connecting the dots between what students will learn, how they will learn it, and when you and your students will know if, and how, they are successful.

Additional Resources

Universal Instructional Design – University of Guelph

  • The University of Guelph has created several valuable resources discussing Universal Instructional Design, including strategies and guides for implementing UID in your classroom.

Kolb’s Learning Cycle – Model for Structuring Reflection

  • This resource provides a more detailed overview of Kolb’s cycle of experiential learning. There are also several examples of models that can be used to structure a reflective component of a course or class exercise.

Why Should Assessments, Learning Objectives, and Instructional Strategies be Aligned? – Carnegie Mellon

  • As a basic introduction to alignment, this resource discusses how to align your course objectives (written here as learning objectives) with assessment activities. Examples and guiding questions will offer valuable insight into how your chosen assessment strategies may best support and guide the learning experience.

Bloom’s Taxonomy – Vanderbilt University

  • Vanderbilt University has created a detailed overview of Bloom’s Taxonomy, highlighting key categories of cognitive processes for both the original and newly revised model.

Explicit Instruction

  • While a resources based in math education, this page provides a valuable overview of explicit instruction, including steps that can be followed to teach a class or lesson using this model.

Active Learning

  • Cornell University has created a site that discusses active learning from a research-based perspective. This site also includes some overarching strategies for incorporating active learning into your classroom.

Promoting Active Learning

  • The Stanford Teaching Commons promotes active learning through a discussion of key skills and competencies that can be developed using this teaching strategy. Several of these competencies are discussed, alongside examples for how to generate this type of learning in the classroom.

Reflective Questions and Tasks

Using the questions in the table below, consider how your course content, outcomes, activities, and assessment plan might align. You can use this table to plan each section, topic, or lesson, answering the same questions, often in the same order, to ensure a well-aligned course structure.

Topic Outcomes Activities Assessment
What is one key topic you will be teaching? How might your students demonstrate their understanding of this topic? What activities and/or experiences will you facilitate to help your students achieve your outcomes? How will you measure or observe whether your students are successfully achieving your outcomes?

In planning your course, you may also want to consider the following questions to add depth to your learner-centered course structure:

  • What assumptions are you making about your students? What can you (reasonably) expect them to do and achieve in your course?
  • What knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes are you hoping to develop with your students in this course? These will form the basis of your learning outcomes.
  • Are your learning outcomes at an appropriate level of sophistication for your students? Consider, for example, their year of study, any required prerequisite courses they may have taken, and any prior experience with the material.
  • Who might be able to provide you with feedback on your course design? Consider a colleague or administrator in your local teaching and learning centre.
  • What active learning strategies will you incorporate into your lessons? How will students engage with you as the instructor, their classmates, and the course material?
  • How and when will students have the opportunity to reflect on their learning? How and when might students demonstrate their new insights?
  • Where and how will you make your assessment criteria explicitly visible to your students? Consider how your students will know what they will need to do to be successful in your course.
  • How and where will students have the opportunity to provide you with feedback on their learning experience in the course? How and when will you incorporate this feedback into your teaching?


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