(OMSW) The Course Design Process

Introduction: The Course Design Process

When working with the IDEA Team on course design, there are several principles and steps that are important for you to be familiar with. In this section, we lay these out so that you can be best prepared for meeting with an instructional designer and/or other stakeholders to begin the processes of course design and development.

Photo by Matthew D'Agostino, University of Maryland Baltimore

Backward Design

Creating a hybrid or online course (or even an in-person course) benefits greatly from going through what's colloquially referred to as a course design process.

A commonly used model for course design, Backward Design (proposed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design) is a process or framework that helps focus a course or curriculum on what learners will achieve.

In contrast to beginning course (or curriculum) design by determining what content will be taught (which can lead to the available learning resources dictating everything about the course and the learning that occurs), the first step in Backward Design is determining goals or outcomes. The second step is determining what assessments will measure those outcomes. Finally, the third step is identifying activities (and the corresponding resources) that lead learners toward being successful at the assessments/outcomes.

These steps can also be thought through via questions:

  1. What should learners be able to achieve in the future by taking this course?

  2. What evidence will show that learners can achieve these things?

  3. What will best help learners to achieve these things?

Another good way to think of Backward Design is that the design process occurs in the reverse order of the teaching and learning process. You start with the end in mind and work backwards.

Here's a graphic that shows this process.

Source: IDEA Team, University of Maryland School of Social Work

Although Backward Design is not the only course design process that may be used when creating a course, note that the IDEA Team uses Backward Design when helping to plan and develop a course using either the SSW Course Planning Document (for MSW courses) or OMSW Course Planning Document. These documents help ensure a crucial course design principle known as alignment.


Alignment is a critical element of Backward Design.

Alignment indicates that all course componentsassessments, activities, instructional resources and materials, and even course technologieswork together to ensure that students achieve the desired learning outcomes.

It also helps faculty to streamline a course and get rid of (or identify as optional) anything that could be thought of by learners as 'fluff' or 'busy-work,' and/or any elements that may detract from achieving the learning outcomes.

How to Align a Course While Using Backward Design

The SSW and OMSW Course Planning Documents linked in the "Backward Design" section help make sure that all elements in a course are aligned, via an easy system of noting how course-level and module-level outcomes are connected to the other elements.

In this example from Dr. Megan Meyer's Course Planning Document for SOWK 631 Social Work Practice with Communities & Organizations, which used the Backward Design process for its development, the course-level learning outcomes are identified on the first page of the document.

Meyer SOWK 631 Outcomes.docx

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These course-level outcomes are then broken down into module-level (or 'week'-level) learning outcomes to be met throughout the term. Using a chart that aligns the elements of the course, the module-level outcomes and course-level outcomes are mapped to one another.

It's important to note here that in a course that is fully aligned, every module-level outcome in the course will correspond to at least one course-level outcome, and vice versa.

For example, if a course-level outcome does not correspond to one or more module-level outcomes in the course, it means that that course-level outcome is not being measured or achieved. If it is not a crucial outcome, it can be deleted; if it is a crucial outcome, you would need to determine where in your course it would be appropriate to add one or more corresponding module-level outcomes that will help learners to meet the course-level outcome.

If a module-level outcome does not correspond to a course-level outcome, at this stage, you can do one of these three things:

  • delete the module-level outcome;

  • identify how to broaden a course-level outcome to include it;

  • or, alternately, add a corresponding course-level outcome.

As for our example, you can see here for Week 1 of Dr. Meyer's course how the module-level learning outcomes in column two correspond to specific course-level outcomes noted in column three.

Meyer SOWK 631 Chart Columns 1-3.docx

Once module-level outcomes are identified and mapped to course-level outcomes (completing step one of the Backward Design process), the next step is deciding on assessments that will measure and align to the outcomes. There's a caveat to this, which is that throughout the weeks of a course, you may be scaffolding learning by building toward specific, culminating summative assessments; therefore, each week may have a mixture of formative and/or summative assessments (or activities that can serve as or scaffold to assessments) which your learning outcomes are indicating. (For more on formative and summative assessment, feel free to read this guide from the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Northern Illinois University: Formative and Summative Assessment.)

Note that in Dr. Meyer's course, students are demonstrating proficiency at the week-level learning outcomes through a quiz, journaling, and an exercise, as indicated in column four. These each may be graded or ungraded (also known as "high stakes" or "low stakes"); in this specific course, they could even be considered activities that eventually lead to a formative and/or summative assessment. (This is one of the reasons why we have asked that the assessments and activities be placed into one column in this documentthey are very closely related!)

Meyer SOWK 631 Chart Columns 1-4.docx

Perhaps here, it's good to mention that even though your learning outcomes should always be measurable and aligned with a formative or summative assessment (or an activity that scaffolds to an assessment), they don't always need to be tied to a grade. (That's not to say that it isn't beneficial to tie learning outcomes to a gradeas it certainly is! Doing so can increase student participation and ensure completion of assessments.)

Now, once you have identified assessments to be used, you should decide on activities that support student learning in alignment with the learning outcomes.

Consider what activities you might add to the fourth column of Dr. Meyer's Course Planning Document if the items there currently were used as assessments. What activities (group and/or individual) might help students begin to develop the skills needed to meet the learning outcomes? Please type your email address and one idea into this text box, and include the module-level learning outcome(s) your idea corresponds to. When you click Submit, you may submit additional ideas by clicking "Submit another idea." You can see the activity ideas others have thought of and compare them to yours by clicking "See prior responses."

Thank you! Your ideas will help others to think about how activities and assessments relate to one another.

Part of deciding on activities that support student learning toward meeting outcomes is to identify the learning resources that help with this. In the fifth column of Dr. Meyer's Course Planning Document, she has identified one main learning resource for the first week. Learning resources can be tricky as far as alignment: this is often the place where you might find that learning resources you've relied on in the past don't always match up to learning outcomes.

Meyer SOWK 631 Chart Columns 1-5.docx

How do you figure out whether learning resources are well-aligned? You can turn to one of Malcolm Knowles' principles of andragogy. Because adults need to see relevance in learning tasks and immediate application of their learning, they want to know why they are doing something. If you think about how each learning resource will help students with what they are to achieve, and explain it to them, you can easily align the learning resources with the outcomes. For example, use language that explains what students will "consider," "pay attention to," "reflect on," or "synthesize" when they are engaging with the resources, and always ask yourself whether doing these things will help students successfully complete an activity and/or assignment in order to achieve the corresponding learning outcome(s).

Another aspect of aligning the elements of a course that is not a specific step in Backward Design, but that's still crucial for alignment, is to consider the alignment of technologies that are used.

These technologies (including types of media) should be noted in your Course Planning Document with the respective elements that they'll be used with. In Dr. Meyer's Course Planning Document, for example, it's specified in the Assessments/Activities column that a Poll Everywhere quiz is used, and in the Learning Resources column that the quiz is included in a VoiceThread lecture.

This three-minute video about alignment and backward design provides a great overview about this whole process, and is particularly helpful for considering two things: what makes an assessment or activity be aligned with a learning outcome, and what makes a technology aligned with a learning outcome.

Before we leave the topic of alignment, this article from the March 2022 issue of our eZine, Now That's a Great IDEA, delves into alignment in relation to learning resources and also highlights additional concerns to think about when planning what learning resources to use in a course. While reading the article, reflect on how you may have experienced some of the challenges it discusses and think about how the related concerns of the number of learning resources used, how learning resources are scaffolded, and building in accountability for engaging with learning resources can help you with aligning these in your course. (See what we did there?)

Using Readings - and Other Learning Resources - in the Social Work Classroom

You can also view this document from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for Teaching and Learning for additional examples of alignment (Note that though there are a few differences between this and the SSW/OMSW Course Planning Document(s), the basic principles are the same): Course Alignment Matrix (.pdf format) OR doc format