Curriculum/Curricular Alignment

two students working together in a classroom.

Curriculum is the set of knowledge, skills, behaviors, and dispositions to be learned. It is thoughtfully organized in a progression and shows linkages across prerequisites/foundational experiences. This set of intended outcomes is known as learning objectives.

There are learning objectives for courses, majors, programs, and courses of study. Beyond the boundaries of a single course, instructors should work with colleagues to insure alignment of the learning progression from one course to the next.

Within a course, provide opportunities for students to make personal connections to the objectives and to think critically about the application of content to the broader discipline and the world. Connections between learning objectives, assignments, assessments, activities, the discipline, and the world, are woven into the fabric of a course.

Course assessments should be varied and linked to learning objectives.

Department Alignment

Departmental curricular alignment, known as vertical alignment, is a key support for our learners. Ultimately, large scale alignment for a major, program, or course of study is done at the department level by collectively examining the terminus outcomes for seniors and identifying which courses support those competencies.

  • Academic Program Review and Planning and vertical alignment are often components of program review.
  • Determine your field's accountability to external professional organizations and their expectations.
  • Tools and strategies are available for mapping courses and outcomes. Tracking student competencies at the program level is possible through Canvas.
  • How do your courses fit into the larger scope of the major?
  • Are your course outcomes are aligned with the forward trajectory of the major.
  • What are the cross-cutting skills such as writing, soft skills, or technology use across and between courses?
  • Does your curriculum have gaps and/or redundancies?

Course Alignment

Course curriculum is the set of knowledge, skills, behaviors and dispositions intended as outcomes for the course. As you plan your course, be mindful of how it falls in the sequence for the major. Take time initially to compare your course learning objectives to the objectives for prerequisites and courses to follow yours.

  • Don't fall into the trap of believing you have to use a textbook as THE curriculum.
  • Textbooks should be a resource FOR your curriculum.
  • Intentionally create content that deliberately reflects the diversity of contributors to your field.
  • Consider the large issues in your field. What are the overarching essential questions? What are the meta considerations your students should be grappling with?
  • Backward design has 3 main components: (1) identify student learning objectives for the course (both at the end of the course and the progression through the course), (2) identify assessment evidence that will allow the instructor and student to gauge student mastery, and then (3) identify/develop course materials and class activities to support student learning.
  • Alignment allows you to highlight the connections between readings, activities and assignments with the course learning objectives.
  • Align the rigor of your class activities, discussions, simulations, performances, and quizzes with the rigor of assessments.

Online Alignment

While your primary teaching focus here at Colorado State University (CSU) may be in residential-instruction (RI) classrooms, there is a growing number of us who teach online, as well, or who will be expected to teach online at some point during our careers. While most of the information on teaching effectiveness pertains to both RI and online classrooms, following are a few key points for online courses.

Show alignment among your course objectives, learning objectives and assessments in your online course by using a numbering system.

  • Number your course objectives (1, 2, 3, etc.).
  • As you create your module objectives, number them, as well. In Module 1, you might have objectives 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4. In Module 2, you might have 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, and so on throughout each module in your course.
  • Tell students which course objective each module objective aligns with. For example, your Module 1 objectives might look something like:
    • 1.1 Compare and contrast xxxx (aligns with Course Objective 3).
    • 1.2 Describe xxxx (aligns with Course Objectives 1 and 2).
  • As you create your discussions and assignments in each module, tell students which module objectives each one aligns with. For example:
    • This discussion aligns with module objective 2.4.
    • This assignment aligns with module objectives 2.1 and 2.3.

Learning Objectives

Learning objectives are measurable statements that convey what students should know or be able to do. A learning objective should include how students will demonstrate mastery. As you develop learning objectives, consider cognitive complexity. Consider the level of rigor of student work you expect and how you can scaffold increasing complexity throughout the course. You might first expect recall and application and later in the course expect higher level analyses and the creation of new artifacts.

  • Consider student preparation. What assets do students bring to your course you can capitalize on? Where might there be gaps that can be filled by changing how you teach or by directing students to support services?
  • Bloom's Taxonomy includes Levels of complexity and measurable verbs for identifying Course Goals and Objectives.
  • Fink's Taxonomy which offer a framework to write learning objectives based on level of learning.
  • Each learning objective should map directly to a course level outcome.
  • Keep in mind how you will engage and motivate students (relevancy, applications to real world situations and discipline specific scenarios.
  • Provide frequent opportunities for students to make connections within the course, the broader discipline, and the world.
  • Design activities where students make connections between content and student learning outcomes.

Learning Objectives in Online Courses

While your primary teaching focus here at Colorado State University (CSU) may be in residential-instruction (RI) classrooms, there is a growing number of us who teach online, as well, or who will be expected to teach online at some point during our careers. While most of the information on teaching effectiveness pertains to both RI and online classrooms, following are a few key points for online courses.

  • In an online course, learning objectives inform students as to what they should be able to do once they have completed a module or topic.
    • Modules let you organize online course content by weeks and topics and allow you to lead students to where they should be focusing in the course. For example, for a 16-week semester, try sub-dividing your course into 16 topics, which will be your 16 modules. (Watch An Online Course Designed with Modules in Canvas video [:44].)
  • As you create your online modules, include your learning objectives at the beginning of each module. Let those learning objectives guide the content and assignments you include in each module. What content do you need to provide to students to ensure they can meet the objectives? How will you assess whether your students met your objectives?
  • Try to keep the number of objectives per module at five or fewer. Any more than five can become overwhelming to students and may be unreasonable as far as concepts we can expect them to grasp in one module.

Syllabus

Conveying the coherence of your course learning objectives, assessments, and lessons is done with a syllabus. The syllabus provides students with an opportunity to see how you envision learning happening.

  • Keep in mind that students often do not read a syllabus (or know HOW to read a syllabus).
  • Help students understand your syllabus and refer to it often throughout the semester. It should be a living document.
  • Think about the language you use in your syllabus. First generation students and those whose first language is not English may be confused by jargon.
  • Refer to the CSU Faculty Manual Section I: Academic and Legal Matters for more information on what needs to be in your syllabus.
  • What is the tone you want to set? Consider the language you use.
  • A learner-centered syllabus helps set the stage for a shared learning environment and shifts the responsibility for teaching to student learning.
  • You may find syllabi with graphics and graphic syllabi useful.
  • Best practice requires making your syllabus accessible to all learners. For resources and more information on acessibility and instructors' responsibility to provide accessible materials when students with documented disabilities need such materials, please CSU's Policy on Accessibility of Electronic Information and Technologies.
  • Please see this CSU-specific syllabus template for key categories, structural suggestions, and much of the CSU information you may wish to provide students in your syllabus.

The Syllabus in an Online Course

While your primary teaching focus here at Colorado State University (CSU) may be in residential-instruction (RI) classrooms, there is a growing number of us who teach online, as well, or who will be expected to teach online at some point during our careers. While most of the information on teaching effectiveness pertains to both RI and online classrooms, following are a few key points for online courses.

  • Typically, a syllabus for an online course is more detailed and explicit than one you might use in a traditional classroom and may contain some additional information (technology requirements, netiquette rules, information about how the course shell is set up, etc.).
  • A fully online course (or even an RI course that uses the learning management system (LMS)) also gives you the opportunity to incorporate your syllabus in ways that you might not in an RI class:
    • Send announcements for each module that connect what you'll do in that module to your objectives, instructions or other information on the syllabus.
    • Reference and link to your syllabus from other pages, assignments and discussions in the LMS.
    • Create a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page in the LMS so that students have that information handy.
    • If your syllabus is too long (hint-most are), consider pulling some of the information from the syllabus and placing it in a separate PDF on the Syllabus page in Canvas.
  • Review 3 In the Canvas Syllabus Tool, add a link to your Syllabus PDF file to set up your syllabus in Canvas.

Research and Resources

Departmental Curricular Alignment

Departmental curricular alignment, known as vertical alignment, is a key support for our learners. Ultimately, large scale alignment for a major, program, or course of study is done at the department level by collectively examining the terminus outcomes for seniors and identifying which courses support those competencies. Every department at the university participates in Academic Program Review and Planning and vertical alignment is often a component of program review. Similarly, many disciplines have accountability to external professional organizations. There is a recent increased emphasis by these organizations in expecting departments to show alignment of learning objectives, assessments, and student success. Tools and strategies are available for mapping courses and outcomes. Tracking student competencies at the program level is possible through Canvas.

At a more granular level, instructors need to know how their course(s) fit into the larger scope of the major and how their course outcomes are aligned with the forward trajectory of the major. Every instructor brings personal perspective and expertise to their courses and it is not expected that all sections of a single course are identical. Nor should the alignment work eliminate academic freedom; rather, alignment is intended to identify the learning progression so that students who enter our courses are prepared by prior courses and we prepare students for their next level courses.

Two other lenses in curriculum alignment include (a) looking at how students gain necessary competencies germane to employment and being an active citizen, and (b) identifying gaps and redundancies. Your department alignment should examine how cross-cutting skills such as writing, soft skills, or technology use are developed across and between courses. For example, students need support in early courses to be able to write extensive analytical essays in upper level courses or to complete complex projects as seniors. Another outcome of reviewing and analyzing the progression of content competencies from one course to the next is finding gaps (who is actually teaching that?) and redundancies. With the continual press on instructors and students for enough time, you might find redundant topics that are already taught in another course or identify topics that are currently on your syllabus but are not critical to the course learning outcomes. Sometimes we inherit these artifact topics when we are asked to teach a course that was turned over to us by someone else. Sometimes we realize that a curriculum refresh is necessary due to changes in the field. Removing topics that have become outdated, are suitable for another course, or are not fundamental to what students need to learn might buy you more time to focus on what is critical.

Course Curriculum and Alignment

Course curriculum is the set of knowledge, skills, behaviors and dispositions intended as outcomes for the course. As you plan your course, be mindful of how it falls in the sequence of courses for the major. Take time initially to compare your course learning objectives to the objectives for prerequisites and courses to follow yours. Don't fall into the trap of believing you have to use a textbook as THE curriculum. Textbooks are written to satisfy broad audiences and are not intended to be the defining arbiter of what you should teach. Textbooks should be a resource FOR your curriculum.

Intentionally create content that deliberately reflects the diversity of contributors to your field. Consider the large issues in your field. What are the overarching essential questions? What are the meta considerations your students should be grappling with? For example, in a history course, how are the stories of individual people and groups represented? How might power and identity be used as fundamental lenses to specific historical events? With large themes and essential representations, you are then ready to begin course design and alignment.

Course design and alignment is known as backwards design. It has similarities to vertical alignment but is at the course level. To use backwards design, instructors (1) identify student learning objectives for the course (both at the end of the course and the progression through the course), (2) identify assessment evidence that will allow the instructor and student to gauge student mastery, and then (3) identify/develop course materials and class activities to support student learning. We start with the end in mind and work backward to the individual lesson design knowing that there is a logical connection from the beginning of the semester to the end but, it is all driven by the end-of-course outcomes. Alignment is based on careful planning and allows you, throughout the semester as you teach, to highlight the connections between readings, activities and assignments with the course learning objectives. This coherence sets students up for greater likelihood for success and can ensure that students can see the relevancy of their work. Align the rigor of your class activities, discussions, simulations, performances, and quizzes with the rigor of assessments; this will provide insight as to how to prepare for upcoming assessments.

Learning Objectives

Learning objectives are measurable statements that convey what students should know or be able to do. A learning objective should include how students will demonstrate mastery. For example, "You will identify and describe factors that impact the long term viability of an ecosystem and you will convey those factors with a 1 minute, student-generated video." As you develop learning objectives, consider cognitive complexity. A more complex learning objective for our example might be "You will summarize and analyze the factors (and their interactions) that impact the long term viability of an ecosystem; you will submit a written 5 page report to inform the reader". Consider the level of rigor of student work you expect and how you can scaffold increasing complexity throughout the course. You might first expect recall and application and later in the course expect higher level analyses and the creation of new artifacts. Of course, learning objectives also require you to consider student preparation. What assets do students bring to your course you can capitalize on? Where might there be gaps that can be filled by changing how you teach or by directing students to support services?

Levels of complexity and measurable verbs are available in Bloom's Taxonomy . An alternate that some faculty use is Fink's Taxonomy which offers a framework to write learning objectives based on level of learning. Each learning objective should map directly to a course level outcome. In addition to cognitive complexity, pacing of lessons, variety of lessons and alignment of assessments with objectives, keep in mind how you will engage and motivate students. Engage students with applications to real world situations and discipline specific scenarios. Provide frequent opportunities for students to make connections within the course, the broader discipline, and the world. Design activities where students make connections between content and student learning outcomes. Provide students with some measure of choice in demonstrating mastery.

Syllabus

Conveying the coherence of your course learning objectives, assessments, and lessons is done with a syllabus. The syllabus provides students with an opportunity to see how you envision learning happening. In past years, the syllabus has become more of a contract among students and faculty and these documents can be upwards of over 20 pages. Keep in mind that students are often unfamiliar with contracts and often do not read a syllabus (or know HOW to read a syllabus). Plan for this inevitability; help students understand your syllabus and refer to it often throughout the semester. It should be a living document. Think about the language you use in your syllabus. First generation students and those whose first language is not English may be confused by jargon.

How might you streamline your syllabus so it's more user friendly? You might consider using Canvas to house important information such as texts, office hours, student services, student resources on and off campus, student rights and responsibilities, and your contact information. Your syllabus then would primarily focus on learning outcomes, assessments, lessons, classroom culture, academic integrity, and required notifications. Refer to the CSU Faculty Manual Section I: Academic and Legal Matters for more information on what needs to be in your syllabus.

Consider your syllabus and what you want it to convey. What is the tone you want to set? A learner-centered syllabus helps set the stage for a shared learning environment and shifts the responsibility for teaching to student learning. A learner-centered syllabus is one that incorporates clear statements of goals and student outcomes and provides an opportunity to set expectations for students at the start of the course. When the syllabus is more learner centered, it can be used as a student reflection tool.

There are a variety of ways to convey information to students in a syllabus. You might include a visual map and link content to assignments and learning objectives. Colleagues on campus and in other institutions are using syllabi with graphics and graphic syllabi. Keep in mind that your syllabus needs to be accessible for all learners, that is a requirement.


Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad R. (2016), The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L. D. (2013) Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005), Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA; Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.