Blog Archive

The Promise of Your Course

Many educators feel that a key to effective and efficient course design is to develop and understand the PROMISE of your course. Why should a student take this course? What will they “get out” of it? Will they gain a more critical or informed way of appreciating the world? A set of skills applicable to their future career? Mastery of a set of concepts that are foundational for more advanced learning?


Students appreciate knowing why they are being asked to learn something. According to Mary Clement’s recent article Three Steps to Better Course Evaluations, “I recommend making invisible expectations explicit. I regularly start class by saying, ‘We are learning this because …’ When students understand why and how the material is relevant to them, they find more motivation to study and end up rating the course more highly.”

If the promise of a course is not clear, it’s often more difficult to articulate learning outcomes that are based on student learning rather than content areas.

For many years, courses were designed based on content areas, by listing the topic areas to be “covered” and breaking that down by the number of class meetings. Today, learning is understood as a much more complex process, and much of the content that used to be available only in the college classroom is now widely available online for free. The classroom is no longer the place to dispense information, but rather the place to help students learn how to use, apply, and understand information.

Today, course design is instead achieved by focusing on student learning goals–what college instructors want their students to learn, to know, and to be able to do by the end of the course. Instructors are asked to focus their course design efforts on what the students are doing in class as much, if not more so, than on what the instructor is doing.

Writing Learning Outcomes

Once the promise of a course is understood and articulated, it is easier to talk about the student learning goals, which are typically written out in the form of learning outcomes.

The task of writing learning outcomes often causes confusion and frustration among faculty members. It can be difficult to articulate in just a few statements all the complex learning that we want to occur in our courses. It is easy to get caught up in the distinctions between terms such as objectives, goals, measurable learning outcomes, or terminal course objectives. However, the bottom line is that it is useful for both instructors and students when the general desired outcomes of a course are stated and shared. Here are some tips and resources about writing learning outcomes.

  • Start with the end in mind. What are the main goals of your course for students? What is it that students should be expected to do, or to know, or to apply, by the end of your course? What are those main concepts you want students to retain years after taking your course?
  • Ultimately, try to write the objectives from the student’s perspective and tie them in to the promise of your course. Rather than just focusing on the content areas, what do you want the students to be able to do, to understand, or to know, and why is it important that they do so?
  • Most courses outcomes consist of a mix of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Think about not only what knowledge students should gain, but what skills they will be developing (critical thinking skills, creative thinking skills, application skills, psychomotor skills, etc.) and what attitudes they might be changing.
  • Clear learning outcomes help you align your content, assignments, and grading practices and help you focus on the essential components of the course, rather than trying to fit everything in.
  • Connect your course outcomes with your programs’ outcomes, with your Graduate degree outcomes, or with the University of Denver Undergraduate Student Outcomes.

Learning Outcome Examples

(Adapted from Walvoord and Anderson, Effective Grading, 1998)

  • Western Civilization I…describe basic historical events and people, argue like a historian does by using historical data as evidence for a position
  • Economics…use economic theory to explain government policies and their effects
  • Physics…explain physical concepts in your own words
  • Speech Pathology…synthesize information from various sources to arrive at intervention tactics for the client

MATC 1200: Calculus for Business and Social Sciences
Generously shared by Deb Carney, Dept of Mathematics

Students should be able to:

  • Relate the concept of the limit to the definition of the derivative
  • Describe the concept of the derivative as an instantaneous rate of change
  • Apply the concepts of the limit and the derivative to solve calculus problems
  • Interpret real-world situations in terms of related calculus concepts
  • Use and apply mathematical models including logarithmic and exponential functions

Additional Resources

Many instructors find the resources below to be helpful when writing learning outcomes.

The main idea is that most courses should focus on more than just knowledge/remembering outcomes and strive to develop more complex thinking skills among students.


Learn More

Contact the OTL if you would like someone to review and assist you in writing course learning outcomes.


A well prepared course syllabus shows students that you take your courses and your teaching seriously. The syllabus is an essential communication tool between you and your students. It helps clarify course assignments and expectations. Additionally, the process of creating a course syllabus helps you organize your content and formulate the essential learning goals of the course.


Below are some general guidelines to keep in mind when developing your syllabus.

  • Gain student buy-in. Students are curious individuals who want to learn, but the value of your course may need to be spelled out for them. What are the exciting questions you will explore? What ideas, perspectives, or knowledge will they gain? What practical or life-long skills will the students gain? Think about the benefits of your course from the student’s perspective include this in your syllabus.
  • Articulate learning outcomes. Create 3-6 general course objectives or outcomes. Think about the essential concepts, knowledge, and disciplinary ways of thinking that your students should learn by the end of the quarter (and that you would be embarrassed if they did not!).
  • Use your main learning outcomes to structure the course. Try not to get caught up in the “coverage problem” of listing topics and trying to get through as much material as possible. Remember depth over breadth is almost always better for student learning. Rather, keep your focus on the essential course outcomes and the different ways students can achieve them.
  • Describe your assignments in detail. List the purpose and expectations of your assignments as well as the logistics of when, where, and how they are due. The more detail you provide, the less time you will spend answering these questions in class. Keep track of students’ questions throughout the year and incorporate them into next year’s syllabus.
  • Don’t expect your students to know your expectations or preferences. Tell them and refer back to the syllabus throughout the quarter.
  • Make sure they read the syllabus. Many students are used to being read the syllabus on the first day of class, so they don’t bother to read it themselves. Some faculty members only answer questions from those who have read the syllabus, or give a short syllabus quiz reinforcing the important details the first week of class.
  • Set guidelines and expectations for due dates and classroom behavior, but avoid making the document too authoritative. If you want to encourage students to think creatively and freely in your course, you do not want to start off with a dictatorial and condescending syllabus.
  • Talk with other faculty members in your department about expected student workloads, sequencing of courses, faculty expectations, and students’ general entry-level knowledge.
  • Post your syllabus on Blackboard or Canvas. DU is a laptop university and students expect to find syllabi and course materials online. If you post your syllabus, do not make changes once the course starts without notifying students.
  • Share your passion. Although your syllabus should be descriptive and informative, it does not have to be a dry and daunting document. Be sure to convey your enthusiasm about your field and pique students’ interest in your course.

In general, a good syllabus provides a comprehensive overview of the course and provides students with the guidelines they need to be successful.

Sample Policies to Include in Your Syllabus

Below are links to some sample language and policies you may use in your own syllabi.

Additional Resources

Learn More

You can schedule a teaching consultation anytime if you would like support developing your syllabi.

Recent Blog Posts


© 2014 University of Denver - Office of Teaching & Learning