Getting Started

Focus on what's important

When making big changes to a course, it can be difficult to know where to start. We recommend that you start at the end and work backward.

  • Instead of approaching your syllabus design with the question “What does my course have to cover?” ask, “What do I want my students to learn?”
  • List your answers to that question as your learning objectives. You can use the framing sentence: “At the end of this course, students will be able to…” followed by verbs that lend themselves to assessment. For example, instead of, “Students will understand XYZ,” use more specific verbs such as, “Students will be able to identify and describe XYZ.”
  • Then answer the question, “How will they learn it? (activities and content) followed by, “How will I (and they) know that they’ve learned it?” (assessments).
  • Feel free to download this worksheet (docx) to help you articulate the learning objectives and identify how your students will achieve them.
  • This 8-minute CTL video describes more about the practice of writing learning objectives and aligning every course activity to them.

More information about Backward Design can be found on this page in Begin at the End page.

Syllabus Template
The syllabus template is available on the CTL Syllabus page.
Aim for feasibility and sustainability

You and your students are likely to experience higher levels of stress during the pandemic than in a typical semester. Given this broader context, how can you create a flexible, sustainable, and compassionate course?

  • Use your learning objectives to pare down and decide what you can let go of. This is a good time to weed out everything except what is absolutely necessary to support your objectives.
  • Avoid the “class-and-a-half syndrome.” After the Spring semester many students reported that the workload increased in their remote classes and that it was sometimes overwhelming. For people new to teaching courses with online components, it’s difficult to ascertain how much work is “enough” and it’s easy and tempting to just add one more relevant article! But remember that online work often takes more time and when the “add-one-more-thing” practice is compounded over several courses, students can quickly feel like they are drowning.
  • Limit the number of different technology tools you use. Learning new tools, under pressure, may be fun for some people, but if you aren’t one of these people, feel free to stick with tools with which you’re familiar and comfortable. If it’s possible for you to do this, we recommend using a simple, even frugal, approach when choosing the tools you’ll employ.
  • Integrate compassion. From an article by Karen J. Head:

    Begin by asking how you can lower stress for everyone. Can you dispense with coursework that is really more about keeping students busy? Can you break complex concepts into smaller modules? Would daily updates be helpful, or would weekly digests be better? Do students need multiple ways to complete assignments? Can you be transparent about your own struggles so students trust that you’re all in this together? Are you being clear about when and how students can interact with you now that you aren’t on campus?
    Karen J. Head. “Let’s Add Compassion to Our Online Curriculum.
    Chronicle of Higher Education, 31 March 2020
Design for clarity

It’s hard to overemphasize how important it is for students to be able to enter their courses and easily see where they should go, what they should do, how they should do it, and by when they should do it!

Time that they spend trying to navigate a less-than-clear course lessens their time for learning.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Add a “Getting Started” page to the top of the course menu, (below the home link) to welcome students, introduce yourself, and provide some tips for what they should do next, e.g., Read the syllabus carefully and then click on the link to Course Materials to begin. (In fact, many online instructors rename Course Materials to something that conveys more active engagement such as Weekly Coursework. See Course Menu Management, UVM Knowledge Base)
  • Provide a tour of your Blackboard course using screencasting software. (See Screencast-O-Matic Quick Start, UVM Knowledge Base)
  • Establish a rhythm, for instance,
    • Set consistent weekday due dates for regular activities you’re assigning, such as discussion board posts (and consistent due dates for replies, as well).
    • Post a regular welcoming announcement (or quick screencast) at the beginning of every week. You can give a quick review of the previous week, drawing connections and orienting them to this week’s work. This is is one of the ways you can convey to students that you’re “present” in the course.
  • This 8-minute CTL video focuses on course information design and offers more ideas to make your course clear and easy to use.

More ideas for organizing a course that is clear to students can be found in
Build Your Course Select and Present Accessible Content

Prepare for disruption

The plans you make may differ depending on the modality you’re working with, but all faculty need to be thinking about how they will handle the possibilities of this pandemic, namely that some of your students (or you) may become quarantined or sick (or we again have an en masse return to remote teaching).

Here are some ways you can be ready for interruptions.

  • Be flexible around attendance and deadlines.
  • Allow a couple of assignments to be dropped (this can be managed in the Blackboard Grade Center).
  • Identify some resources such as videos from the web (or make your own) that you can use as substitutes in a pinch.
  • Normalize using Blackboard as much as you can, even in an in-person course. If you and your students are already accustomed to using Blackboard tools for communication, for turning in assignments, and for delivering grades, you’ll be in a better position to change to remote teaching if it is necessary again.

  • If a student misses a synchronous session, consider how they might access missed materials and activities. Options include video recordings of synchronous sessions made available for review on Blackboard, reviewing crowdsourced class notes from the session completed by students in attendance (or access to notes from an SAS notetaker, if they are available), completion of activities independently at a later date, or completion an alternative assignment.

References and Resources

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum

Course planning worksheet (docx)

Head. K.J. “Let’s Add Compassion to Our Online Curriculum.
Chronicle of Higher Education, 31 March 2020

8-minute CTL video about aligning courses to objectives

CTL Teaching with Blackboard