M8 - Planning and designing units


"Central to this process of course design, then, is an awareness of purpose. What do you want the students on the course to learn?" (Kahn, 2002, p. 92)

This module will introduce the concept of 'constructive alignment' (Biggs, 2003), where assessment tasks are aligned with the intended learning outcomes, and learning and teaching activities are designed to provide opportunities for students to meet these learning outcomes. Units need to be designed to take into account who your students are, and which courses they are studying. For example the backgrounds, needs and expectations of students who intend to major in mathematics will be different to those who are studying your unit as part of a nursing degree. This module addresses planning a unit, and explores a range of processes and approaches from which you as an educator are encouraged to fashion your own approach to unit planning.

Learning outcomes

At the end of this module you will be able to:

  • Develop a unit that incorporates purposeful student learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment tasks based on the integration of information pertaining to student background, course curricula, and the broader learning context.
  • Write a unit outline that reflects best practice in unit design.

Module structure

The module covers the following topics on unit planning and design:

As a background to this module, we will consider a unit outline written for a course on linear algebra and calculus, and then use this to promote a discussion of unit design principles.

Preparatory task: Download and read this sample unit outline:

Situating your unit: writing your unit description

An important preparatory step in unit design is to consider the unit as a whole, in particular the following questions:

  1. what will the unit be about (big ideas, not specific topics; if the unit is service taught, what is the stated purpose for studying the unit?)
  2. where does the unit fit with the remainder of the course (e.g. is it an introductory or an advanced unit?)
  3. who are the students (is this a unit that is being service taught, is it part of a mathematics major, are there students from different courses in the same unit?)
  4. what prior learning experiences have the students in the unit had (these might be prerequisites, or they might be learning outcomes assumed from earlier courses).

It is often helpful at this stage to start to write an introduction to the unit to situate it according to what you have determined above. This should tell anyone who is interested in the unit (potential students, academic staff, administrators) what the unit is about and why it should be studied (for example, it provides the foundation for later year units, it is required for accreditation etc.). Another way of thinking about this is as a rationale for studying the unit (some universities use this term) and the general educational aims that it intends to pursue. As you work on the unit design, you will also be able to add how the unit will be taught (for example, lectures supported by investigations).

Task 8.1 Considering unit descriptions

As you read the example unit outline, one of the first things you will notice is that the unit description (written here as the Aims and Rationale) succinctly describes the what, why and how described in the first section. Look at the example unit description statements below, and consider at least two of them in light of what we have discussed above, and what you would suggest should be added or changed:

  • This unit contains the basic concepts of calculus - functions, limits, continuity, differentiation and integration - in a variety of environments. Calculus is a powerful mathematical tool; not only is the underlying abstract theory worthy of study per se, it gives precise answers to real questions and problems.
  • This unit investigates various applications of mathematics. Topics covered will be chosen from mechanics, projectiles, circular motion and vectors, codes, fractals, chaos, knot theory, modelling and other related topics.
  • The unit covers a selection of topics, which form a base for further mathematics: matrices, polynomials, complex numbers and polar graphs. The underlying mathematical theory, which is studied first, is extended to problem solving
  • This unit introduces the management and interpretation of quantitative information. It is a ‘hands-on' course, developed using data which is drawn from disciplines of relevance to the students. Topics include: collecting, processing and presenting quantitative information; descriptive statistics for summarising data; data exploration techniques; the role of chance; sampling; commonly used statistical methods; interpreting statistical information; mathematical skills; the concept of modelling; and the use of computers and spreadsheets in mathematical and statistical applications.
  • The aim of the unit is to discuss some of the mathematical processes that underlie the science and technology specific to the computer age. This provides a treatment of discrete mathematics to support the programs of students taking a first course in computer science or planning to study such areas of advanced mathematics as linear algebra, abstract algebra and number theory, or operations research and probability. Discrete mathematical structures such as sets, relations, functions and Boolean algebras are discussed with many examples. The basic ideas of logic are introduced, which provide, among other things, the theoretical basis for much of computer science.

Task 8.2 Considering your own unit description

At this stage you may like to consider one of the units in which you teach. You can review the unit description in the same way that we have suggested above. You may also like to annotate the unit description document to explicitly address the questions (1.-4.) posted in "Situating your unit"..

Stages in unit design

A sound planning process continues by developing a set of intended student learning outcomes, and then aligns learning experiences and assessment to achieve these outcomes. We can think of this planning process as comprising four basic steps:

  1. identifying the student learning outcomes
  2. developing indicators for student attainment of outcomes, including assessment items
  3. choosing the teaching methods
  4. choosing the specificcontent to build knowledge and skills.

John Biggs (2003) describes this process as 'constructive alignment' - where the desired (or intended) learning outcomes are determined from the outset, assessment is designed to allow the student to demonstrate achievement of the outcomes, and the teaching and learning activities that prepare the student to achieve these learning outcomes are systematically aligned. A comprehensive explanation of 'constructive alignment' can be found in Biggs (2003) or Biggs and Tang (2007), and these texts will be in most (if not all) university libraries.

Identifying student learning outcomes

Learning outcomes (in the unit planning context) are statements of what we want students to know/ understand/ value/ be able to do at the end of the unit. They should be closely related to the rationale you have given in your unit description. These statements are also sometimes called ‘intended learning outcomes’, to emphasise that we begin with them in mind. They can also be written at the class level (as we did in Module 4), or at the course level (mentioned below). A potential point of confusion is that we also use the phrase ‘learning outcomes’ in general conversation to mean something less technical, or something that we observe after the fact; in this module, we are using the phrase technically.

What factors influence your learning outcomes?

Your learning outcomes will be influenced by the unit-specific outcomes you want to achieve as well as the course outcomes you are working towards - in other words the unit specific outcomes will be related to where in the course your unit is situated (is it introductory - providing a foundation for further study, intermediate - building on what has gone before; or advanced?). Most universities also have a set of generic graduate attributes, or graduate capabilities, that need to be incorporated into courses. In planning a unit, you should consider which of these are, or can be, developed in the unit.

Some universities/departments/courses will have a curriculum map that summarises learning outcomes of all units and how they contribute to course level outcomes. The process of developing such a map is an excellent way of seeing how all the units fit together in a particular course as well as identifying overlap and areas that need to be covered.

Task 8.3 Downloading graduate attributes of your university

Search your university website and locate the Graduate attributes (or capabilities) for your university. In some universities graduate attributes will have been designed at a discipline level. If you are not sure about how graduate attributes are embedded at your university, speak to your Head of Department or a colleague to gain some insight.
You should also give some consideration to the prior knowledge and experience of your students to ensure that your unit learning outcomes are pitched at the right level.

Task 8.4 Downloading graduate attributes of your university

Annotate your own unit outline document to acknowledge the prior experiences of the students in the unit. (Note: if your chosen unit is service taught, you may need to speak with someone from the core program).

Figure 1 represents all these factors:

Figure 1. Factors influencing unit learning outcomes

How many learning outcomes should I have in a unit?

It is usual to have around four learning outcomes for a semester-long unit. This means the learning outcomes cannot describe detailed content in a unit and need to be ‘bigger picture'. For example, in the example unit outline one of the learning outcomes is:

  • Use mathematical concepts and techniques to manipulate and solve mathematical expressions involving functions of a single variable, their derivatives and integrals, matrices and vectors.

You should note that it doesn't specify particular mathematical concepts and techniques that will be taught and used, and is therefore more generalised. An important thing to remember when thinking about learning outcomes is that all learning outcomes need to be assessable - and should be assessed. If you have too many then this becomes unmanageable.

Writing unit learning outcomes

There is an art to writing unit learning outcomes so that they are clear and understandable. Remember, your unit planning document will be read by others, including students, prospective employers, course accreditors and university administrators. You should use clear language that is understandable and captures the significant results that will be consolidated in the unit. Learning outcomes should be written as action statements using verbs such as ‘demonstrate', ‘solve', ‘apply', ‘analyse'. Other components can be added to reflect the level of cognitive complexity and the context.

Figure 2. Representation of learning outcomes as action statements (Cordiner 2010)

Accessing sources of verbs can be useful for writing your learning outcomes. The University of Tasmania website has a number of useful documents: How to implement Criterion-Referenced Assessment (CRA): a brief guide from unit to course/degree (Cordiner, 2010); see also Tables 5.1 and 5.2 of Biggs and Tang (2007). The verbs you use are important as they can suggest a level of complexity. It may be useful to review the section on taxonomies of learning to ensure that your learning outcomes are not just asking students to recall knowledge (Module 2 outlines Bloom's and Anderson and Krathwohl's taxonomies; the use of appropriate verbs for mathematics was discussed in Module 3.)

You also need to ensure that the learning outcomes can actually be assessed - that is, students need to be able to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning outcome in question. For example, here is a learning outcome which would be very difficult to assess:

  • appreciate the subtle beauty of abstract mathematical constructs.

This is an example of a learning outcome that addresses a generic skill from the related course curriculum map, within a particular unit (vector calculus):

  • communicate your understanding (of vector calculus) using both words and mathematical notation in a precise and succinct manner.

Some tips for writing learning outcomes which are not too content-driven, or too numerous: don’t begin with a week-by-week breakdown of topics from an existing unit in front of you (read it by all means, but then put it aside, and take a step back to look at the bigger picture); try not to use ‘know’ as the verb in your statement (or you may then start listing lots of specific content, without really capturing how students will operate on it).

Task 8.5 Reflection on learning outcomes of the exemplar unit

For the sample unit outline, reflect on the learning outcomes and post responses to the following questions on the discussion board

  • do they carry through the intent of the rationale and aims of the unit?
  • are they written broadly and not just as a list of content?
  • are they action statements?
  • are they assessable?

And, further, do they fully reflect the generic and mathematics-specific attributes such as the following:

  • the ability to collect, analyse and organise information and ideas, and to convey those ideas clearly and fluently
  • the ability to identify problems, create solutions, innovate and improve current practices
  • the ability to define and analyse problems
  • the ability to select and use the appropriate level, style and means of communication?

Task 8.6 (Optional) Reflection on learning outcomes of your own unit

You may like to repeat the above task using your own unit outline, and rewrite any learning outcomes that you have decided could be enhanced.

Developing assessment tasks

Ensuring you have ways in which you can ascertain whether or not students have attained the learning outcomes is central to the planning process. Choosing formal assessment tasks (both formative and summative) is therefore an important part of most unit planning. It is important that assessment is linked (i.e. aligned) to the learning outcomes, and that students have the opportunity to gain some feedback on their work before their assessment is finalised. It is good practice to have some low-stake assessment tasks of a formative nature early in the unit to allow students to gain the feedback necessary for improvement. (This is more formal than the in-class assessment described as formative in Module 6, though the same principles apply.) In all assessment items, care must be taken when choosing the individual questions or tasks for the item. To function as valuable formative assessment, they should provide insightful problems that allow students to increase both their knowledge and their skills. Formative feedback should also be provided, and this can be in the form of comments on the individual student's own work and/or exemplars of good practice.

In large classes or in online delivery, students often have limited access to teaching staff and limited opportunities to ask questions. It is important that students are provided with a good set of solutions to problems; in this way they can identify where they went wrong or get useful hints on how to proceed. You might like to give out skeleton solutions to start with, so they don't get the entire detail from the outset but do have hints which help them progress. Alternatively, if the work is being assessed, you might do an initial appraisal for each student - indicating possible alternative approaches or where the solutions could be improved - and then allow the student to resubmit. However, at some stage students should see an entire solution so they can check their work, and it should be presented as a complete, logical solution such as what you would expect them to present to you.

As discussed in Modules 6 and 7, formative assessment also allows you, the teacher, to gain important information about student understanding and use this to adjust your teaching or offer supplementary assistance.

When deciding upon assessment tasks, it is useful to complete a mapping of the assessment tasks against the learning outcomes to ensure they are sufficiently covered, and at least two assessment tasks should be set. Figure 3 below gives an example. It can be very helpful to include such a figure in your unit outline for the benefit of the students; your university may require such a mapping in the subject approval process.

Figure 3. Example of mapping assessment tasks against learning outcomes

In the case above, students have the opportunity to be formally assessed on each learning outcome at least twice. This may not always be possible, or desirable (remember students also get feedback on their learning in informal assessments). You will also note in the above example that students are able to get early feedback that is either low stakes (counting only 10% of the final mark), or purely formative (no contribution to the final mark).

Task 8.7 Consideration of exemplar assessment tasks

Consider the assessment as set out in the example unit below (as presented in 2010). (with thanks to Dr Tim Moroney, Queensland University of Technology).

Unit: Computational Mathematics

Many real world problems are not solvable analytically, meaning that it is necessary to develop computational methods that can be used to solve these problems. Additionally, to be able to apply these methods to large problems, they must be implemented as algorithms in a computer language such as MATLAB. This unit addresses both the theoretical development of computational methods and their implementation in MATLAB.

The aim of this unit is to provide you with the introductory concepts, computational techniques and programming skills that will allow you to solve many real world problems. It is also designed to prepare you for study in the advanced units in computational mathematics.

Learning Outcomes
On successful completion of this unit you should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate a sound understanding of the basic concepts, knowledge and skills underlying computational mathematics by applying the concepts, knowledge and skills to specific problem types.
  2. Apply programming skills to implement algorithms in MATLAB.
  3. Engage critical and analytical thinking skills.

The assessment is designed to allow you to demonstrate your ability in each of the content areas, and to give you continual feedback on your progress. Formative feedback will be provided for the in-semester assessment items by way of student perusal of the marked assessment piece and informal interview as required. Summative feedback will be provided throughout the semester with progressive posting of results via Blackboard.

Assessment name: Problem Solving Task
Description: There will be five individual problem solving exercises, equally weighted. They will consist of problems similar to those demonstrated in lectures.
Relates to objectives: 1 and 3.
Weight: 25%
Due date: Throughout Semester

Assessment name: Problem Solving Task
Description: There will be five programming-based problem solving exercises, equally weighted. They will consist of small programming problems similar to those demonstrated in practicals. You will be permitted to work in small groups.
Relates to objectives: 2 and 3.
Weight: 15%
Due date: Throughout Semester

Assessment name: Examination (progressive)
Description: The mid semester exam is a progressive examination that will assess you on your knowledge and ability in the first three sections of lecture content. Relates to objectives: 1 and 3.
Weight: 20%
Due date: Throughout Semester

Assessment name: Examination
Description: The final examination will assess you on your knowledge and ability in all sections of lecture content.
Relates to objectives: 1 and 3.
Weight: 40%
Due date: Exam Period

Reflect on this assessment regime:

  • How do the assessment tasks map against the learning outcomes?
  • Do students have the opportunity to get feedback on each of the learning outcomes?
  • What do you notice about the weightings of the relative assessment tasks - how would this be beneficial to students?

Now look at the assessment tasks on either the exemplar unit outline or your own unit outline:

  • What do you think is the purpose of each of these assessment tasks?
  • How do they cover the assessment criteria?
  • Where are the opportunities for formative assessment, and how might you manage this if this was your class (taking into account the need to balance the marking load in the unit without compromising feedback to students)?
  • What can be done to make sure that the students find the assessment engaging?
  • Is there a need to enhance or alter the tasks?

Further development of design and implementation of assessment tasks is covered in Module 6 (with relation to formative assessment) and Module 10 (with relation to summative assessment).

As a final word, it is also important to consider how your assessment dovetails with other assessment tasks in the student's course. This is not easy, and does require some co-ordination between teaching staff (noting that this may involve colleagues from outside your own school/department). You should try to achieve a balance of different types of assessment tasks in a course (that reflect the unit- and course-level learning outcomes). Where possible, assessment in your unit should be organised so that it is not unduly burdensome on the student and, in particular, is staggered with respect to the assessments in other units that the student is taking.

Choosing the learning experiences and teaching approaches

How do we plan for learning experiences that will allow the student to be able to meet the learning outcomes? This is the final part of constructive alignment.

The verbs included in your learning outcomes will flag the types of learning activities that are best suited to preparing your students to attain these. For example, if you have a learning outcome that involves the use of software such as MATLAB, then opportunities for students to be taught how to use the program and to engage with, and receive feedback on their use of, the program are essential.

Structuring the sequence of activities is also important. Where students are required to grasp a threshold concept, remember that it may take some time for students to explore the new material - and they should be given multiple opportunities to engage with the new idea/s. It is often helpful to introduce such concepts in several different ways over the period of the semester - and be explicit to students about the connections you are trying to make. This approach is also useful when considering students in service-taught units. Not all students will be confident, or at the same level of competence, in mathematics. In these units some early activities may need to be primarily concerned with building confidence.

When you first began to plan your unit, you will have noted the expected diversity of prior experience of the enrolled students (see Task 8.4, above). This diversity may mean that you need to schedule some optional activities for those students who require some additional assistance, or those who would benefit from some extension activities. Early planning can situate these supplementary activities in the optimum place in the unit schedule.

Ensuring you have context-specific examples or activities is also important, particularly in service-taught units. Working with a colleague from the partner discipline can be helpful. For example if you are teaching statistics to agricultural science students, some case studies could be chosen to be considered in your classes, and discussed in another unit of study, thus giving them direct and obvious relevance to the students' course.

Choosing teaching and learning activities has been covered in other modules and will not be repeated here. However, in designing, or reviewing your unit, these modules will be a useful reference.

Task 8.8 Reflection on assessment tasks in exemplar, or your own, unit

Return now to the example unit. If this was your unit, what sorts of teaching and learning activities would you use to allow students to develop these learning outcomes?

Choosing the content to build knowledge and skills

Once you have identified the learning outcomes (‘bigger picture'), the types of assessment, and the types of teaching and learning activities you will use the next stage is fleshing out the content. Of course, you will have had some idea of content in the previous stages, but determining the specific content is now necessary.

So , what is the important content? It may be helpful to make a list of what you think you would like to cover - there may be previous unit outlines that you can refer to, and you may also like to look at outlines of similar units (see section below). If you are service teaching, it may be helpful to engage with colleagues from these courses to get an idea of expectations and possible content to include. As it can be difficult to engage students who are studying a quantitative unit within another course (such as nursing), the use of content that is specific to these students and relevant to the remainder of their course is essential (see Module 5 for more on teaching in service units).

Textbooks can also be helpful. Textbook companies are able to send you desk copies of texts that you may prescribe for students - these are often free of charge.

When deciding upon content, it is very important to ensure that you are not including too much content that will take away from some of the bigger picture learning outcomes. Be ruthless - some content may be better delivered elsewhere, or more suited as an extension activity for more able students.

Once you have decided on exact content, you may have identified some content (concepts and skills) that you are assuming has already been covered by students (prior knowledge). It is a good idea to make this explicit to students (perhaps in the unit outline), so that any student who is not confident or would like to be refreshed on this material, has the opportunity to prepare. Finding some resources or references to assist students to review this material early in the semester may be very helpful for them.

Keeping in mind the inter-relatedness of many courses and the course approval requirements of universities, you may not be able to change the content of a unit solely at your discretion. New units do need to be approved through such a process, and re-developed units need to take into account how they contribute to the overall course, program or major. Curriculum mapping can be of great assistance here, but if there isn't any curriculum mapping, then speaking to colleagues that teach in units that lead into, follow on, or are usually studied concurrently with yours is helpful. Remember, too, the sensitivities of service teaching described in Module 5.


As a unit co-ordinator it is often helpful to 'benchmark' or compare your unit against similar units from other universities. You can make comparisons of learning outcomes, content, assessment tasks and, in some cases, learning and teaching activities. Whilst it is very helpful to invite peer review of your unit outline, consulting published unit descriptions can be of assistance without formal peer review and/or can be a good way of finding out who is teaching similar units, and therefore who you might liaise with for a formal review.

The websites below are good starting points:

Summary - finalising your outline

Your unit outline is a summary of your unit design, and should clearly reflect constructive alignment principles. Although different universities expect different levels of detail on the actual documents, there are examples where the depth of included information is a very useful guide for planning (see examples from LaTrobe University and the University of Tasmania in the Further Reading list) and will help reduce your planning time once semester has started.

It is also very important to remember that the unit outline is essentially a ‘legal document' or contract between you and the students. Therefore, it is very difficult to change significant aspects of this, such as assessment tasks or weighting, once it has been distributed. In some universities Heads of school/department/program will sign off on all unit outlines. However, if this does not happen, and you are writing a unit outline for the first time (even adapting an outline used by another), it may be wise to get an experienced colleague to have a look at the document.

Review and conclusion

This module has taken you through the steps of designing a unit of study using constructive alignment principles. You will have seen how the work you have done in previous modules, particularly your knowledge of how students learn influences the way you plan a unit of work. The next module will assist you in developing skills and action plans to effectively manage the teaching of units.

Relation to Assessment task 3

In Assessment task three, one option is to design a unit, and this module relates directly (i.e. is constructively aligned(!)) to that task.

If you are considering the summative assessment task option, you should read ahead to Module 10.

For full details of the options in assessment task 3, the submission date and the marking rubric, please consult the unit outline.


Further reading

Updated: 10 Apr 2013