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Building Your Course Around Design Principles

February 15, 2021 • Mark Hofer

When you’re designing a new course or doing a major syllabus revision, where do you typically start? If you’re like me (and probably most instructors), you begin with the content. What are the key concepts, ideas, and understandings that I want students to take away from my course? Then, lay them out on the calendar and identify readings, activities, and assessments. 

While all of these steps are important, I’m beginning to realize there’s a component missing when I plan in this way – the students. For every course I teach, I have an implicit set of learning goals for the students that goes beyond the course content. For example, when I teach courses in William & Mary’s teacher education program, I want students to develop dispositions that will prepare them to work with the complex context of K-12 schools. I may want them to work in collaborative groups since this is how departments operation in middle and high schools. 

These implicit goals are different for each context in which I teach. They largely operate in the back of my mind as I plan. Hopefully, this means I will remember to include them; however, I probably miss opportunities in some cases.

For this semester, I tried something different. I wrote out a set of five design principles for the doctoral level course I’m teaching called Leveraging Technology for Learning. The students enrolled in the course will have aspirations to become faculty members or perhaps work in educational leadership positions at the school division, state, or national level. The design principles I created for the course reflect the nature of the students as graduate students and experienced educators and the implicit learning goals I have for them.

Here are a few of the design principles I’ve developed to structure my planning:

• Students bring a wealth of knowledge and experience with them. So, the course should provide students opportunities to contribute to the learning community.

• Choice and autonomy increase engagement and meaning for students. 

• Providing opportunities for students to connect theory with practice deepens learning.

Once I developed the design principles, I jotted down what this might look like in my course. For example, for the choice and autonomy principle, I noted that students could choose from a variety of reading for each course topic and have flexibility in the format and design of their final project. Then, as I planned out the course assignments and schedule, I would refer back to the list of design principles and examples to ensure they were strategically and meaningfully embedded in the design of the course.

What would your design principles be? How might they inform your course design? How might they engage students more deeply in their learning?

© 2021 Mark Hofer. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.

Meet the Author

Mark Hofer is the Director of the W&M Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation. Mark has also continued his appointment as a professor in the School of Education where he teaches courses on educational technology, curriculum and learning design, and innovation.