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Course Design Theories

Learn more about outcome driven course design.

Understanding how people learn informs how learning activities are designed. It is important to move beyond deciding what content will be included, to consciously design opportunities for students to construct knowledge, practise skills, and take an active role in their learning. In other words, we must consider what will be learned and how not just what will be taught.

Learning theories provide the foundation for the selection of instructional strategies and allow for reliable prediction of their effectiveness. To achieve effective learning outcomes, the science of instruction and instructional design models are used to guide the development of instructional design strategies that elicit appropriate cognitive processes. You can read more about the application of learning theories in the article by Khalil et al (2016) in the See Also section.

The analyse, design, develop, implement and evaluate (ADDIE) model provides a generic approach for the Analysis of learning needs, the Design and Development of the training programme, its Implementation, and Evaluation. An example of its application is described by Woo (2018) to design a precision medicine course in the See Also section.

Kern’s model is based on the “Six step approach” and was originally developed for medical curricula. The model specifically articulates an integrated and circular model starting with problem identification and understanding needs. The next stage is defining goals and objectives, educational strategies, implementation, and evaluation.

Nicholl’s model describes how the five stages of curriculum design focus on defining learning outcomes, learning experiences, content development, assessment, and evaluation and draws upon dependencies of each stage. The model provides questions that should be asked and where questions have not been satisfied, that phase or previous phases or the learning outcomes should be revisited. Once they have been satisfied, this feeds forward into the next phase(s). This model is described in Tractenberg, et al., (2020) in the See Also section.

A common approach and particularly pertinent to this course is known as “backward” design. This means starting with your training goals and working backward to decide how best to achieve them. In this course we applied the backward design approach, firstly focusing on outcomes of Week 3 on how to demonstrate that the skills have been achieved. In a backward design approach, the content and activities were then developed.

backward design diagram: three boxes linked by arrows. 1. Identify desired result (Goals, aims and LOs). 2. Determine acceptable evidence (Design assessment tasks). 3. Plan training strategies and learning experiences (Learning design)

First, you need to break down your goals into specific Learning Outcomes (LOs). Learning Outcomes define the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that learners should be able to demonstrate after instruction, the tangible evidence that the teaching goals have been achieved. In the next step of this course, you will learn how to write effective learning outcomes. The key point is to decide what you want your learners to be able to do, to fulfill the aims and goals of your training.

As you are formulating your Learning Outcomes, consider how exactly you will measure or assess whether the outcomes have been achieved, and how learners will demonstrate that they have new knowledge and skills. This could be through some kind of testing, but it doesn’t have to be. In many cases, the outcomes can be demonstrated by learners in different ways.

For example, if your goal is for trainees to communicate science effectively, a Learning Outcome might be that by the time they finish the course, they can give a short scientific talk appropriate for a conference in your field. They could demonstrate this by giving a talk to the rest of the class, and this would probably be more meaningful than making them pass a written test on the skills involved in giving presentations!

Once you have decided the Learning Outcomes and how they will be demonstrated, you can design the learning activities which will enable students to acquire, practise and apply the knowledge and skills needed to be able to do what you have defined. Importantly, this will include finding out what the students already know and giving them the opportunity to build on that. The activities you design will enable the students to learn the subject content to be able to achieve the Learning Outcomes.

Although this design process is described as being “backward” it is really an iterative process. You may find that you revise your Learning Outcomes as you consider the practicalities of assessment or of designing learning activities. As you design particular elements of training, you will refer back to your Learning Outcomes to make sure that everything is aligned: the Learning Outcomes support the goals, the assessments allow the Learning Outcomes to be demonstrated, the learning activities allow students to practise the skills defined by the Learning Outcomes.

In summary, focusing on learner needs and using backward design or outcome-based design

  1. identify desired results,
  2. determine what is the evidence of understanding or how will you know that learners have achieved the desired outcome
  3. plan the learning based on the knowledge required about key concepts, skills, and strategies required to perform the work and
  4. design the activities that will achieve the required outcome.

A document you may find helpful is Via et al (2020): Course design: Considerations for trainers – a Professional Guide

Discussion point:

What design theories have you applied before? Which ones do you think would be most useful to you in future course design?

© Wellcome Connecting Science
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