When you are planning a road trip, you probably start with the places you want to end up and then plan your route, including overnight stops, food options, and perhaps a few scenic spots to rest along the way. A course map is kind of like planning a road trip, even with room for some unplanned stops. 

A course map is a visual representation of the ways in which your course instruction and assignments align with the learning objectives. Mapping your course allows you to identify where students are learning key concepts and skills, and to make decisions about formative and summative assessments. It can also help determine where to provide additional instruction or learning support. 

Using Backwards Design principles to create the course map, you can build more meaningful learning experiences, ensure that all learning outcomes are being addressed, and identify opportunities and troublesome spots to address before the course begins.

Backwards Design Basics

Backwards Design asks instructors to start with what they want students to know and be able to do (learning outcomes) and then design course assessments and learning experiences to help students achieve those outcomes.

Step 1: Identify what students should know and be able to do by the end of the course (Learning Outcomes).

Step 2: Determine the evidence you will use to measure how well students have learned. What do students need to do to demonstrate their learning? Design the assessments that will allow students both to practice and also to demonstrate to you their knowledge and skills. These could include papers, problem sets, examinations, and many other kinds of activities.

Step 3: Structure the course instruction to help students achieve the Learning Outcomes. What learning experiences will students engage in to help them practice and master the knowledge and skills needed to achieve the learning outcomes?

Mapping a Course

Course map template croppedUsing the course map template, list the primary course learning outcomes in the far left column. Then, work from left to right for each learning outcome. If you want to think about these concepts in a less linear way, feel free to use a Jamboard or even a pencil and paper and be creative! 

Download the Course Map Template

Column 1: Course Learning Outcomes

Ideally, a course will have 3-5 learning outcomes that communicate to students what they can expect to know or be able to do by the end of the course. Learning outcomes create a shared understanding about the purpose and expectations of the course, and guide the instructor’s decisions about course assignments and instruction. 

Column 2: Level of Course Outcome

At what level in the progression of learning is the course designed? Identifying the levels will help the instructor appropriately scaffold assignments and learning activities.

Introduce: Introduce basic knowledge, facts, or concepts.

Reinforce/Practice: Students have the opportunity to develop and strengthen their knowledge and skills. Students have a fuller understanding of the material but may need support in applying their knowledge or skills. 

Master/Become Proficient: Students are able to demonstrate integration of all knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to accomplish the outcomes. Students can apply their knowledge independently.

Column 3: Assessment 

What is the primary evidence that will be used to measure how well students have learned these outcomes? Formative Assessment is a low-stakes, “checking in” point to provide feedback that students can use for improving their learning strategies, correct misconceptions, and determine needs for additional instruction. Classroom Assessment Techniques are popular ways to engage students and check understanding. 

Summative assessment evaluates student learning and performance at the end of a unit or course. Summative assessments include exams, papers, projects, and performances. 

Column 4: Learning Experiences

For each outcome, identify 1-2 activities or learning experiences you might use to help students practice that outcome and let them receive some feedback. Examples include:

  • Doing homework problems
  • Responding to readings/videos
  • Completing a project in parts: proposal, outline, draft
  • Viewing or exploring models
  • Following guides or instructions
  • Working on problems/questions in class, checking answers
  • Discussing in class / case study
  • Partner or small group activities
  • Preparing for labs or review groups
  • Creating mind maps or visual models

Column 5: Ways of Learning

How will the course be built to provide for multiple ways of learning? Will it involve hands-on experiences, question-driven inquiry, problems or case studies, or group activities and team projects? For more information, refer to Davis & Arend, The Seven Ways of Learning.

Using the Map: Reflective Questions

  1. Do the learning outcomes align with the ways that we ask learners to demonstrate their learning? How well are those learning outcomes being assessed?
  2. Is the course designed to help students become more sophisticated thinkers and actors? Are assignments appropriately scaffolded to build knowledge and skills in increasingly complex ways?
  3. How will you know when students need additional supports for learning? What are some strategies to provide those supports or otherwise get them what they need?
  4. How do the “ways of learning” support student learning? Does the course rely on too much or too little of any of the seven ways of learning (e.g. mostly “acquiring knowledge” with little “exploring perspectives”)? Might there be an opportunity to incorporate a new one into the course?
  5. Does the course provide students with a variety of ways to demonstrate their learning?
  6. At what points in the course will you seek feedback from students and what will you want to know? Have you considered the role and value of student voice in the design of your course?


Creating and Using Learning Outcomes

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Learning Goals for All CU Boulder Baccalaureate Graduates

Scaffolding Student Learning: Tips for Getting Started

Writing Effective Learning Outcomes (Office of Data Analytics Assessment Group)

Fink, L.D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Meyers, N. M., & Nulty, D. D. (2009). How to use (five) curriculum design principles to align authentic learning environments, assessment, students’ approaches to thinking and learning outcomes. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(5), 565-577.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.