Course and Activity Design

Backward design

Backward design is particularly well suited to design course-based research experiences for students by focusing on the goal (learning) rather than the process (teaching). By starting with the end goal, i.e. what we want students to learn or achieve, we can design an experience as a sequence of activities and assessments that are driven by the desired outcome(s). Backward design begins with the objectives (desired outcomes) and then proceeds backward to create activities designed to achieve the desired outcomes.

Key components of course-based undergraduate research

Checklist and Timeline for course design


Template for Design of a Course



Step 1: Identify learning goals


  • match goals with student population - freshmen vs. seniors; graduates vs. undergraduates
  • take into consideration students’ interests and the role of the course: introductory vs. advanced undergraduate; general education vs. required for major


  • identify learning goals that are too vague or broad



Step 2: Context

  • level of class (intro, advanced undergraduate, graduate)
  • type of students (undergraduates, graduates, majors, non-majors)
  • in-class activity, lab activity or homework
  • team assignments (TBL?)
  • approximate duration



Step 3: Description and teaching materials:

  • handouts for students
  • sources of data or data sheets
  • instructor materials



  • Complete the activity yourself to figure out possible issues with data access, formatting, downloads, parameters etc.
  • Overestimate how much you think the activity will take: it will take longer than you expect so factor possible delays, time for Q/A etc.
  • Keep detailed notes of the steps that you used to access/download the data: they will be useful the next time you assign the activity or to answer student questions


  • Assume that your students will be able to competently use spreadsheets or data browsers: provide them with simple tutorials just in case
  • Expect source of data to remain available year after year; some will, but not all of them. Keep this in mind when you choose your source of data


Choosing a data set



Step 4: Teaching notes and tips


  • Try out the activity with one or two students and get detailed feedback
  • Provide a framework for students’ research, e.g. water quality and stream discharge in Ames, and assign students specific parameters (e.g., pH, chlorine, nitrates)
  • Define deadlines and project outline at the onset of the semester


  • Skip this step
  • Let the students pick a research question that will lead to random data collection
  • Come up with deadlines during the activity; this will lead to student frustration and possible delays



Step 5: Assessment


  • Plan to assess how well the activity has achieved the learning goals
  • Ask students for feedback: a plus/delta activity is a simple way to learn what worked and what can be improved
  • Consider sharing the activity and its outcomes in a discipline-specific publication, in an education journal, at a specialized conference, or in a collection of web-based activities like


  • Skip this step: you need to know how effective the activity is


More information on assessment



Step 6: Sustainability 

Issues to consider when designing a research activity and its long-term sustainability are both local and remote. Local issues to consider are:

Peer mentors/teaching assistant(s): how are they going to be supported?

Program curriculum: how does this course fit with the curriculum? Is it part of accreditation requirements? How is the course identified as providing students with a high-impact activity?

Faculty support: is course part of academic teaching load, or taught as an overload? Does it count as departmental service? How is this course considered for promotion and tenure?

Remote issues to consider are:

Availability of dataset: are students using data in a static dataset (either downloaded from a site or generated by faculty member) or accessing a dynamic dataset hosted on a website? Government-supported sites (e.g., NOAA, NASA) tend to be more reliable sources of data than data generated for a specific project and that may become obsolete or disappear (e.g., IOWATER data on Iowa DNR website).

Attribution of data: can data be downloaded freely? How will students reference datasets? Will students add their data to a dataset?


More information on sustainability



Step 7: References and Resources

Tutorial on Undergraduate research in introductory geosciences with examples 

What is undergraduate research? 

Summary from 2014 workshop on Undergraduate research: engaging students in the first two years

Assessment of Undergraduate Research, by J. Singer 

Example Template: Climate variability in the equatorial Pacific



More Resources on Course Design

CELT: Introduction to Course Design

Tutorial on course design from the Science Education Research Center

Understanding By Design

Designing Courses Backward