Designing Courses for Significant Learning

The Designing Courses for Significant Learning (DCSL) model takes a similar approach to Backward Course Design, and assembles the components into a relational, integrated model.  To guide you through the process, it outlines the course design tasks in a systematic way.

Step 1.  Assess the Situational Factors.  Give careful consideration to what is already known about your specific teaching and learning situation like the context, the nature of the subject, and the characteristics of students and instructor.  

  • What are the special instructional challenges of this particular course?
  • What is expected of the course by students?  By the department, the institution, the profession, society at large?
  • How does this course fit into the larger curricular context?

Step 2.  Learning Goals.  This model encourages instructors to think expansively, beyond "understand and remember" kinds of learning and construct outcomes that include integration of content, application of concepts to the student and others, and development of intrinsic values for learning more about the subject. 

  • What do you want students to learn by the end of the course that will still be with them several years later?
  • What would you like the impact of this course to be on students, 2-3 years after the course is over?  
  • What would distinguish students who have taken this course from students who have not?

This model emphasizes critical thinking, learning how to creatively use knowledge from the course, learning to solve real-world problems, changing the way students think about themselves and others, and realizing the importance of life-long learning.

Step 3. Feedback & Assessment Procedures.  This framework shows instructors how to move beyond traditional evaluation practices (like multiple choice tests) to a more learner-centered approach of assessments.    

What will the students have to do, to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning goals (as identified in Step "2" above)?

Think about what you can do that will help students learn, as well as give you a basis for issuing a course grade.

To enhance the quality of student learning, this model introduces the concept of "Educative Assessment" in four interrelated components. 

  1. Forward-Looking Assessment is a way to assess student learning by creating a real-life context that incorporates exercises, questions, and/or problems that address course learning outcomes.  
  2. Be transparent with students about the criteria and standards that will be used to assess their work.
  3. Engage students in self-assessments so they can reflect on their performance.
  4. Provide students with high quality feedback. 

Step 4. Teaching & Learning Activities.  DCSL encourages instructors to go beyond traditional lecture and discussions by involving students in active learning.  Students learn more and retain their learning longer if they acquire it in an active rather than passive manner.

What would have to happen during the course for students to do well on the Feedback & Assessment activities?

Instructors are encouraged to find creative ways of involving students that will support your learning goals. Specifically, this model describes two activities to engage students in learning.  

Incorporate an experiential component by offering "rich learning experiences" so students achieve several kinds of significant learning simultaneously.

Provide students time and encouragement to reflect on the meaning of their learning experience.  Build into your course "In-depth Reflective Dialogue" opportunities for students to think and reflect on what they are learning, how they are learning, and the significance of what they are learning.

Step 5.  Check for Integration.  Makes sure the major components of the course (Steps 1-4) are integrated and aligned.  They all should reflect and support each other.  

After the initial design phase of DCSL, the next process is to assemble the components into a coherent whole including creating a course structure, developing an instructional strategy, sequencing learning activities, determining grading criteria, anticipating problems, constructing a syllabus, and assessing the efficacy of the course.  

Resources for DCSL:

Designing Courses for Significant Learning (D. Fink, 2003) is a great overview of Integrated Course Design.

Adapted from Fink, this table provides an overview for thinking about how to construct learning outcomes for significant learning: Constructing Significant Learning Outcomes.

We have compiled a list of course design resources, which includes books and resources for further reading.