Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community


For many of us, the most difficult step in teaching a course is also the first step: preparing a course. At CTE, we believe that a successful course originates from effective course design, and we provide an introduction to the concept of backward design on this page. We also offer some practical solutions for the many questions that arise when constructing a syllabus (for information on the next stage of creating a syllabus—foregrounding inclusivity—please follow this link). Finally, we understand how stressful the first day of class can be for both yourself and your students, which is why we provide a general overview for how to approach this crucial early encounter with your students.

Course Design

Course design involves the planning of curriculum, assessments, and opportunities for learning which attempt to meet the goals of the course and evaluate whether those goals are indeed being met. The designing of a course can be adeptly performed through the use of backward design, which is based on the principle of working first from the material and concepts you want students to master. Once you determine these concepts, or learning goals, you can plan how you will assess whether this learning has occurred. This information thus guides which resources and methods of teaching are employed in order to enact learning of course material. For a further breakdown of the course design process, watch this Two-Minute Mentor video with Crystal Lumpkins, of the KU School of Journalism, and former CTE Director Dan Bernstein. 

Backward design is related to creating a course map (or course mapping), which conceives of the instructor as a mapmaker, someone who targets a destination and designs the most effective means for students to reach that destination. With such a map as the guide to the course, students and instructors are less likely to get lost along the way toward teaching and learning goals. We encourage you to follow the steps below to begin enacting backward design and map your next course.

Four questions from Wiggins & McTighe (1998) are suggested as a guide for condensing the course’s material into a few key topics:

  1. To what extent does the idea, topic, or process represent a “big idea” having enduring value beyond the classroom?
  2. To what extent does the idea, topic, or process reside at the heart of the discipline?
  3. To what extent does the idea, topic, or process require uncoverage?
  4. To what extent does the idea, topic, or process offer potential for engaging students?

Also consider the goals and characteristics of your future students. Some reasons that students may be taking your course include: to develop a philosophy of life, to learn to interpret numerical data, to understand scientific principles or concepts, to learn to effectively communicate, to learn to organize ideas, or to understand how researchers gain knowledge. As the instructor, you can use this information, along with your own goals for the course, to guide your course structure and teaching pace.

After having determined which material will guide the course design, the next step in backwards design is to establish the criteria you will employ to evidence student learning. Instead of using a lone cumulative exam to assess learning, backwards design is guided by the concept that understanding increases across time while students process, reassess, and connect information.

Therefore, assessments to measure this increasing level of understanding should be conducted throughout the semester, using a variety of methodologies such as discussions, tests and quizzes, projects, and assessments in which students analyze their own level of understanding. We encourage you to watch this Two-Minute Mentor video on "Iterative Assignments" for more ideas on how to scaffold student development throughout the semester.

Once key concepts and assessment criteria have been decided upon, you can then focus on which teaching methodologies and activities you will use to help students reach these course goals. In this manner, teaching is driven by the concepts that are crucial to the course, rather than the course being driven by the teaching methodology itself.

If you’re interested in learning more about effective course design, look into CTE’s Best Practices Institute.

Building a Syllabus

When building a syllabus, start with the basic information of the course, including the year and semester of the course, the course title and number, number of credits, and the meeting time/place. Provide your name, office address (and a map if it’s hard to find), and your contact information. Indicate whether students need to make appointments or may just stop in. If you list a home number, be specific about any restrictions for its use. Next, clarify what prerequisites, knowledge, skills, or experience you expect students to have or courses they should have completed. Suggest ways they might refresh skills if they’re uncertain about their readiness, and give them a sense of how much preparation and work the course will take.

When discussing the course, outline the course purpose(s); what is the course about and why would students want to learn the material? Outline the three to five general goals or objectives for the course, and explain why you’ve arranged topics in a given order and the logic of themes or concepts you’ve selected. When discussing the course format and activities, tell students whether the class involves fieldwork, research projects, lectures, and/or discussion, and indicate which activities are optional, if any.

In regard to the textbooks and readings, include information about why the readings were selected. Show the relationship between the readings and the course objectives. Let students know whether they are required to read before class meetings. Also, include details about any additional materials or equipment that will be needed. Here’s a list of fundamental information for you to include in your syllabus:

Specify the nature and format of the assignments, and their deadlines.
Give the exam dates and indicate the nature of the tests (essay, short-answer, take-home, other). Explain how the assignments relate to the course objectives.
Describe the grading procedures, including the components of the final grade and weights for each component.
Explain whether you will grade on a curve or use an absolute scale, if you accept extra credit work, and if any of the grades can be dropped.
Explain any other course requirements, such as study groups or office hour attendance.
Clearly state your policies regarding class attendance, late work, missing homework, tests or exams, makeups, extra credit, requesting extensions, reporting illnesses, cheating and plagiarism.
You might also list acceptable and unacceptable classroom behavior.
Let students know that if they need an accommodation for any type of disability, they should meet with you to discuss what modifications are necessary.

In addition to this information, include a course calendar with the sequence of course topics, readings, and assignments. Exam dates should be firmly fixed, while dates for topics and activities may be tentative. Also list on the course calendar the last day students can withdraw without penalty.

Keep in mind that a syllabus is a written contract between you and your students. End with a caveat to protect yourself if changes must be made once the course begins; e.g., “The schedule and procedures in this course are subject to change in the event of extenuating circumstances.”

Finally, your syllabus can also include information about course and university policies, including:

Please see examples one and two for undergraduate course syllabi.

First Day of Class

We all have experienced some anxiety about the first meeting of a class. Some faculty avoid “first day anxiety” by handing out a syllabus, giving an assignment, and dismissing the class. This only postpones the inevitable. It also gives students the sense that class time is not very important. Most of all, it fails to take advantage of the opportunity to use the heightened excitement and anticipation that students bring to the first day, as well as the chance to direct that excitement toward enthusiasm for the class. Instead, use the first day of class to introduce students to the course themes and material, and to start building an engaging and inclusive climate for learning. 

On the first day, make sure that you arrive at the classroom early to ensure that the equipment is working properly and to engage in small talk with students. Greet students at the door as they enter the class. When students enter your classroom, they have any number of things on their mind. To help them focus, many teachers use a hook, or a three- to five-minute activity to engage students at the beginning of class (some instructors use hooks at the start of every class throughout the semester). Ideas for hooks include playing music and asking students to think about how the lyrics relate to a class topic, presenting a question to the class to begin discussion, giving a brief demonstration of a principle you will be discussing that day, or projecting a photograph, cartoon, drawing, or chart related to the day’s topic.

Some other recommendations for the first meetings of a course include making sure you start class on time and take attendance. Make note of any absences, and follow up with these students after class by contacting them via e-mail. 

Additional suggestions for first day activities include: 

Icebreaker Activities. Have students respond to "getting to know you questions" that go beyond the type of demographic information common to roll calls (name, home town, major, year in school, campus affiliations, etc.), which can lead students to form impressions based on stereotypes or inherent biases.  The best questions will encourage a deeper dive by adding “and why” to get to the story below. Students could interview each other (and then introduce each other to the rest of the class or to a larger group), or could respond individually in writing during class or in a discussion board before the course begins. Or consider introducing a class question of the week/day that you continue throughout the semester. Choose something that everyone will be able to answer, either related to class (e.g., what is something you learned from someone else today or what most surprised you from class/the readings this week) or unrelated (e.g., what is your favorite place you have ever visited). 

Discuss and Set Expectations. In addition to sharing your expectations of students and what you hope they will learn, ask students to share their own expectations for the course, as well as what they hope to learn this semester. Students could do this individually in writing, or as part of a collaborative, rapport-building activity by making it a small group or full class brainstorming activity (e.g., in groups, students identify expectations for themselves, for each other, and for the instructor; and use those to develop a collective set of expectations). Consider revisiting the expectations a few times across the semester, to provide opportunities to update them in response to emergent issues and to remind students of community agreements.   

Assess students’ previous knowledge or beliefs relevant to the course. You could do this by: (a) distributing a pre-test over the material you plan on covering that semester, and provide feedback on their responses as soon as possible; (b) asking students to do some informal writing about a theme that is foundational to the course; or (c) using a polling platform or clickers to elicit relevant knowledge, attitudes and beliefs, and using that to launch a discussion of course themes or content. 

In addition, start to learn students’ names. To this end, there are several methods you can use to help learn the names of your students quickly:

Have students give their name before they speak in class.
Try to memorize a row of students every class period.
Have students make name plates with 5” x 8” index cards. Ask students to fold the cards in half and write their names on them in large print. You can collect these name plates and hand them out at the start of every class, which will also serve as a means of taking attendance without using extra class time.
Use students’ names as often as possible.
If you’re teaching a large class, divide the entire group into smaller working groups. Give each group a short project, and learn the names of everyone in a particular group. Do this several times throughout the semester to learn each student’s name.
Ask the students to provide index cards with their name, a photo, and an interesting fact about themselves. You can use these to study their names in between class meetings. Or ask students to create and post an introduction video, sharing a few things they want their classmates to know about them and their hopes for the class.  
Be honest with the students and patient with yourself. Your students have to remember the names of only four or five teachers every semester, while you have many more names of students to learn. Even if you call a student by the wrong name, the class will appreciate your efforts to acknowledge them on a personal level.

Each day, provide the structure for the day’s material using an outline on the chalkboard, overhead, or PowerPoint slide. This will help students see where the lecture is going, as well as aid the organization of their notes. Use multiple types of media for the presentation of the material, including overheads, films, audiotape, and models or demonstrations.

To aid student participation early in the semester, have students write questions on index cards to be collected and answered during the next class period or post questions in an online discussion forum. Finally, gather student feedback regarding the beginning of the course. Ask the students to provide suggestions regarding ways to improve your teaching and their learning.


  • Appleby, Drew C. “How to improve your teaching with the course syllabus.” APS Observer, May/June 1994.
  • Davis, Barbara Gross. Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Jossey–Bass, 1993.
  • “Syllabus Checklist.” (2002). Teaching Matters, 6 (1), 8. This material is drawn from Eddy, Judy. (2001). Creating a Syllabus. Handout.
  • Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Merrill Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Join us at the Teaching Summit

KU's annual Teaching Summit will be held on Aug. 18 from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

This year's theme is What Next? Envisioning Teaching and Learning for the Next 25 Years. The Center for Teaching Excellence will celebrate its 25th birthday this fall, and the Summit theme reflects that special milestone.

Dr. Michael Dennin of the University of California, Irvine, will present the keynote, which will focus on how higher education can open new paths to success for students by building on strengths and breaking down barriers.