Backwards Design, Writing Learning Outcomes, and Creating Your Course Syllabus

In the following video from the CIRTL online course “Introduction to STEM Teaching”,  Dr. Stephanie Chasteen and others from University of Colorado Boulder provide their definitions of learning objectives/goals. They go on to discuss the differences between learning objectives and points on a syllabus. To view the full module with additional information about backwards design and writing learning objectives, click here.

Backwards Design – Starting with the End

Overview of Backwards Design

Imagine that your students run into each other three years after taking your course. What do you want them to remember most?

Backwards design (Wiggins, McTighe) is a framework for designing courses that starts with the intended outcomes and works backwards. Once broader course outcomes are identified the next step is to identify what evidence (in the form of assessments) would demonstrate that these course outcomes have been achieved. Once the assessments are determined, the third step is planning practice activities that will help students practice and receive feedback prior to the assessment. Finally, developing a course schedule and assigning readings and supportive materials/activities that are in alignment across the course. Through this process, the purpose and intended outcomes of the course as a whole are clearly communicated to the learner AND the purpose of each individual activity and assessment are also clear to the learner.

Here is an annotated bibliography of research in the impacts of backwards design.

Resources for Getting Started with Course Design

Fink, L. Dee “A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning: This workbook style guide will walk you through the different elements of backwards course design.

Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition (This book is available for loan from the CEILS library, HH 122)

Drawing on feedback from thousands of educators around the world who have used the UbD framework since its introduction in 1998, the authors have greatly revised and expanded their original work to guide educators across the K-16 spectrum in the design of curriculum, assessment, and instruction. With an improved UbD Template at its core, the book explains the rationale of backward design and explores in greater depth the meaning of such key ideas as essential questions and transfer tasks.

Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses 2nd Edition (This book is available for loan from the CEILS library, HH 122)

This edition addresses new research on how people learn, active learning, and student engagement; includes illustrative examples from online teaching; and reports on the effectiveness of Fink’s time-tested model. Fink also explores recent changes in higher education nationally and internationally and offers more proven strategies for dealing with student resistance to innovative teaching.

Tapping into the knowledge, tools, and strategies in Creating Significant Learning Experiences empowers educators to creatively design courses that will result in significant learning for their students.

Writing Course Outcomes (A WASC Accreditation Requirement!)

Writing Learning Outcomes

Is it a requirement to include learning outcomes in my syllabus?

TheWASC Senior College and University Commission outlines in their handbook for accreditation that learning outcomes are included in course syllabi:

Standard 2.4: The institution’s student learning outcomes and standards of performance are developed by faculty and widely shared among faculty, students, staff, and (where appropriate) external stakeholders. The institution’s faculty take collective responsibility for establishing appropriate standards of performance and demonstrating through assessment achievement of these standards.

GUIDELINE: Student learning outcomes are reflected in the course syllabi.

Why do I need learning outcomes for my course?

At the most basic level, learning outcomes let the students know why they are taking the course and what they are expected to learn. But learning outcomes are also an important step for an instructor as part of course design, because without clearly defined learning outcomes it is challenging to create a course that has strong and intentional alignment in what the students are learning, practicing, and being assessed on during the quarter.  The practice of developing and utilizing learning outcomes also allows faculty and instructors to evaluate potential strengths and weaknesses of a course – such as recognizing that the learning outcomes you have planned are in fact too rigorous to too basic for your students. Identifying which learning outcomes were achieved or not achieved by your students will provide insight into how you can adjust your teaching each quarter.  At a curricular planning level, developing clear learning outcomes across courses or major pathways provides for a more cohesive experience and ensures that students have equal prerequisite knowledge needed as they move through their undergraduate experience.

Where to start: look at the big picture first – where does your course live?

Where does your course fall in the curriculum of your department? Are there key skills or knowledge that students must learn in order to be prepared for the next course? If you are unsure of the answer to these questions, consulting with other faculty that teach the next course in the series or your department chair may be a good place to start.

Developing Course Outcomes with Bloom’s Taxonomy (can be used with Fink’s model below)

Bloom’s taxonomy is a framework that provides a language and method for developing learning outcomes that vary across different levels of cognitive development.  Skills like simple recall are called “lower order” cognitive skills and more complex skills like analysis and making predictions are “higher order”.  The following resource on Bloom’s Taxonomy can help you craft clear learning outcomes across the spectrum as well as evaluate any current learning outcomes you have already developed. This framework can also be used to help you evaluate the type of questions you create for an exam or other assignment.

Resource: Revised Bloom’s Handout from Iowa State University

Developing Course Outcomes – the Fink Model

This guide for course design from faculty developer Dee Fink will walk you through a process for developing learning outcomes that address different levels of cognitive thinking (in alignment with Bloom’s) but additionally some more humanistic learning outcomes. In his model, these latter outcomes are what make learning experiences “significant”, meaning that the learning will have a greater impact and persist longer because it includes an element of personalization and application to one’s own life.

Resources for Developing Learning Outcomes

Fink, L. Dee “A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning: This workbook style guide will walk you through the different elements of backwards course design including writing learning outcomes.

A Model of Learning Objectives based on A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: This resource on Bloom’s taxonomy provides language and framework for developing learning outcomes across varying levels of cognitive development – from “lower order” to “higher order”.

“A Primer on Writing Effective Learning-Centered Course Goals” – by Bob Noyd, Air Force Academy: When the Air Force Academy decided to move all courses toward being more learning-centered, they realized their faculty would need to write good learning goals for their courses.  Bob Noyd put this document together to help them do that.  Note:  This also contains a list of verbs associated with each of the 6 kinds of learning in Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, on p. 4.

Creating Your Course Syllabus

Constructing Your Syllabus: Templates & Tools

CEILS Syllabus Template

Comprehensive CEILS Syllabus Template (includes example language for each section): Still in development, but here is a draft. This is a Google Document which you can copy into your own Google Drive and edit as needed.

Simplified CEILS Syllabus Template (headers and instructions for each section, minimal sample language).  This is a Word document.

Additional Resources:

Resource on Syllabus Constructions (includes sample statements you can review for ideas on language):
Riviere, J., Picard, D. R., & Coble, R. (2016) Syllabus Design Guide. Retrieved 1/26/2017 from

Parts of a Syllabus

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to designing a syllabus. The structure of a course syllabus will differ depending on instructor, course topic, department guidelines, and institutional guidelines. However, there are ways to structure a syllabus that are more effective than others.

What is the purpose of a syllabus?

This is a good place to start when designing your syllabus. Consider the following:

  • What is particularly exciting, valuable, and relevant about your course in the context of the student’s life, community, and the world at large?
  • What would students need to know in order to evaluate whether or not to take this course?
  • How will the tone and language invite and welcome students to the course?
  • What will the syllabus say about what you, as the instructor, value about the course?
  • What doe students need to do in order to be successful in the course (how is success defined and measured)?
  • What can students expect from you, as the instructor, to help them be successful in the course?
  • Is there anything students need to do in advance of the first day (purchase a clicker, textbook, take a pre-course survey, etc.)?
  • What other logistics do students need to know about how to communicate with you, where to go for help, location of class meetings, etc.?
  • How will the document be organized in a way that is clear and not confusing to review

Parts of a Syllabus

At minimum, your syllabus should include:

  • Title of course and meeting times
  • Instructor and TA contact information
  • Prerequisites if required
  • Materials needed and any additional fees
  • Course introduction
  • Learning outcomes for the course
  • How learning will be assessed (grading plan)
  • Basic course schedule

It would also be helpful and recommended to include:

  • Strategies for students to be successful in the course
  • What students can expect from you as the instructor
  • More robust course schedule – could include learning objectives for each week, more detail about the questions that will be evaluated each session, prompts for reading materials, description of in-class activities
  • Description, instructions, and grading criteria for course assessments
  • Student resources available on campus for support – related to the course or not
  • A defined strategy for how students can provide you feedback during the quarter on their experience in the course
  • A statement from you on your commitment to inclusive teaching practices and classroom environments

Note: You can see examples of statements and language on the following pages.


A great tool to help you plan your course and design your syllabus is:

Measuring the Promise: A Valid and Reliable Syllabus Rubric by Michael Palmer, Dorothe Bach, & Adriana Streifer at the University of Virginia Teaching Resource Center.

This resources provides detailed information about how to craft a syllabus (or evaluate an existing syllabus) across multiple components including learning goals, assessment activities, schedule, and classroom environment.

Creating a Learner Centered Syllabus (Tone and Language)

In addition to developing the content of your syllabus, it is critical to consider the tone and language. Here are a few tips:

  • The primary audience is the student, so avoid the third person. Instead of saying “students will…” use direct language “you will…” when referring to students or “I will” when referring to yourself.
  • Phrase policies in a strengths-based manner rather than framing policies in the context of penalizing students. For example “You will receive full credit for assignments  when completed on time. In instances where an assignment is submitted late, you will only receive partial credit of up to 90% of the total” rather than “For each day late I will deduct 10 percent of the grade”.
  • While the syllabus does contain important information about your expectations students, it should not read like a rule-book. For example, instead of a “course policies” section, you could call it “How to be Successful in this Course”.
  • Have someone review your syllabus with this context in mind and give you feedback on the overall tone.


The following resource by Michael Palmer, Lindsay B. Wheeler, and Itiya Aneece provides several contrasting examples between more learner-centered language and more content-centered language, which influence the tone of the document and students perception of the course and instructor:

Does the Document Matter? The Evolving Role of Syllabi in Higher Education

Resources for Syllabus Design

The following resources provide a helpful framework for developing and evaluating your course syllabus:

Measuring the Promise: A Valid and Reliable Syllabus Rubric

Does the Document Matter? The Evolving Role of Syllabi in Higher Education

Sample Syllabus

Here is a sample syllabus from Dominique Ingato, a UCSD graduate student and instructor at Cypress College.

More examples coming soon!