How this will help:

  • Define what is meant by alignment when describing course design.
  • Describe how well aligned courses support student learning.
  • Brainstorm possible assessments that align with your learning objectives.

The basics

When designing about the activities and assessments your students complete, both for practicing new skills and to demonstrate what they’ve learned, make sure that those activities map directly to your learning objectives. The verbs you used in your learning objectives are clues as to what kinds of assessments will tell you, and your learners, whether students have met those objectives.

When you worked on writing learning objectives for your course, you identified what your students would know, be able to do, and feel at the end of the course. This approach to course design, where you start by describing your learners at the end of the course and move back from there to design other course elements, is called backward design. The most popular approach to backward design was developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book, “Understanding by Design.” Another approach to backward design has been described by L. Dee Fink in “Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses.” Both of these approaches, as well as other backward design models, share three key elements, all of which need to be aligned with one another

  • Learner centered objectives for the learning experience
  • Assessments that demonstrate student learning, and 
  • Teaching strategies to prepare learners for their assessments.

What does alignment in a course look like? 

Backward design is often called a student-centric approach to course design, and one of the best ways to describe a well aligned course is to show what the learning experience looks like from the perspective of a learner. For this depiction, let’s call our learner “Jaime.”

On the first day of the course, Jaime receives a copy of the course syllabus that has clearly articulated learning objectives, which help Jaime picture where they are headed and what objectives they should shoot for. The learning objectives include verbs like, “define,”  “compare and contrast,” “develop a plan,” and “critique.” 

Of course, Jaime is very curious about what kinds of assignments and tests they will have to complete in the course. When they look at the assignment list, they discover that the course has a few quizzes, two relatively short essays, a major project where they have to develop a plan for how a professional might approach a relevant challenge from the field, and another assignment to critique the plans developed by their classmates.

As the semester progresses, Jaime gets the chance to practice some of the skills described in the learning objectives. They have the opportunity to write drafts of their essays and get feedback before submitting the final draft for a grade. The quizzes the professor gives focus on ensuring the students understand the foundational concepts of the course: defining key terms, matching traits of different theories to the appropriate theory. The big project for the course, developing a project plan, has been broken down into its component parts so that there is a scaffold for Jaime and their classmates to build up to such a high-level task.

In short, a well-aligned course gives learners:

  • A clear destination for their learning 
  • Opportunities to practice all of the skills they will have to demonstrate in high stakes assignments
  • Feedback during those practice opportunities so that they have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes prior to being assessed on their learning in a high stakes assignment

One tool that instructors can use to make sure their course is well-aligned is an alignment matrix. In an alignment matrix, the instructor lists each assignment and assessment that links to each learning objective. One example of a spreadsheet designed to help instructors structure their course design is the Fall Blueprint Planning Guide. The tab focused on Activities and Assessments is an alignment matrix that can help you put your course content, activities and assessments in context of both the course learning objectives and the point in the semester/course when students will be practicing and demonstrating skills and knowledge.

Practical tips

  • When writing your learning objectives, make sure to use active verbs. When you can clearly describe what students need to do to demonstrate their learning, you are more than half way to designing the aligned assessment(s).
  • Using a Bloom’s Taxonomy wheel (like this example from Dr. Ashley Tan) can help instructors generate ideas for different assignments based on the level of knowledge or skill the learning objective is aiming for.


Other Resources

Dee Fink & Associates – A Working, Self-Study Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning 


Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences, revised and updated: an integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2008). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.