Lessons for Learning-Centered Course Design

A favorite joke in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) community is based on one of Bud Blake’s comic strips. Tiger, the titular character, is talking with a friend of his. “I taught [my dog] how to whistle,” the friend says. Tiger argues: “I don’t hear him whistling.” “I said I taught him,” the friend answers, “I didn’t say he learned it.”

The joke is often used to illustrate a distinction between teacher-centered and learning-centered pedagogy. In the former case, as Ken Bain (2004, 48) explains, “teaching is something that instructors do to students.” In a student- or learning-centered approach, however, “teaching is engaging students, engineering an environment in which they learn” (Bain 2004, 49).

More precise definitions of these terms are not always clear. When I first encountered the distinction between them, I was (like others) both wary of the buzzwords and puzzled by what seemed like a lack of specifics: what exactly does it mean to be a learning-centered facilitator or guide rather than a teacher-centered authority? What does my classroom look like when students are engaging in authentic learning experiences?

I share here two central lessons that have been helpful for me as I implement learning-centered approaches into my pedagogy. I focus on course design as the first step in the creation of an effective learning environment.


When I first started teaching, I tended to approach the design of a new course as a literature review: writing a syllabus primarily meant identifying the topics I needed to cover and deciding on the foundational readings I would assign. A more effective, learning-centered process, however, begins at the end of the course: Where do I want students to end up? What should they be able to do? What do they need to get there? How will we (the students and I) know if they’ve been successful?

Louise Lamphere Beryl discussed the principles of this approach, known as backward course design, in a previous Teaching Tools post. In what follows, I’d like to build on her post by offering some examples that illustrate how I have implemented the backward design process.

Where do I want students to end up? What should they be able to do?

The first step in learning-centered course design is to identify the ultimate goals of the course: what will students learn in this course? (and not “what will I teach?”) These goals are known as student learning outcomes (or SLOs). In my first attempts at writing SLOs, I was primarily focused on identifying the basic facts I wanted students to learn: “Students will know about example X” or “understand concept Y.” I would be remiss, however, if students left my class with only a list of memorized facts and concepts. Ultimately, I want students to be able to do something with that knowledge. A framework known as Bloom’s taxonomy helps me to think about these different levels of learning outcomes.

For example, I teach a large (300-student), upper-division course called “Race, Gender, and Science.” I have identified two central outcomes for the course, and I include a third outcome that comes from the university’s general education requirement. By the end of the course, students should be able to:

  • Critically evaluate claims about the biology of race, gender, and sexuality.
  • Analyze the significance of biological determinism in debates about social inequality.
  • Demonstrate an awareness and appreciation of ethnic/racial differences and inequities in the United States.

What do students need to get there?

The specific content and organization of the rest of the course emerge from these intended outcomes. My weekly topics, assigned readings, lecture plans, and class activities all focus on the foundational knowledge and skills that students will need to achieve these goals. For example, to be able to “analyze the significance of biological determinism in debates about social inequality,” students must first:

  • Define biological determinism. (Lectures and small group discussion sections present anthropological approaches to the concept.)
  • Understand how biological determinism has been and can be linked to debates about inequality. (Students read historical and contemporary case studies that illustrate this connection.)
  • Recognize biological determinism when they encounter it in their own lives. (Students write multiple short blog posts throughout the quarter, in which they identify examples.)
  • Evaluate the contexts in which biological determinism is invoked when they encounter it. (Students discuss this context in their blog posts.)

How will we (the students and I) know if they’ve been successful?

In the next step of backward design, course assessments (exams, papers, projects, etc.) are designed to both support students in the learning process and evaluate whether they have achieved the learning outcomes. For example, in my “Race, Gender, and Science” course:

  • Exams measure students’ ability to define terms, understand basic concepts, recognize relevant examples, and summarize case studies presented throughout the class.
  • Blog posts encourage students to identify examples of course concepts in the world around them and to connect these examples to course themes. By writing multiple posts, students are able to seek feedback and develop this skill over time.
  • The culminating project in the class, an op-ed essay, asks students to use the knowledge and skills gained through the class to construct their own argument and analysis.


Adopting a learning-centered pedagogy has also meant considering who my students are: Am I teaching a lower-division or upper-division course? Are the students anthropology majors, or is this course their first encounter with the discipline? Are they taking the course because they are interested in the topic, or to fulfill a requirement (or both)? What prior knowledge and skills am I assuming students have? Where are the students from, and what are their everyday lives like?

I have taught at large public research universities, smaller private institutions, and community colleges. Students everywhere arrive with a wide range of interests, educational experiences, and levels of commitment to the field of anthropology. Designing courses that meet multiple student needs is always a challenge.

Often, student interests inform the specific subject matter of my courses. In my “Race, Gender, and Science” class, for example, fewer than 10 percent of the enrolled students are anthropology majors. Most of the students are majoring in the biological or health sciences, and I have designed the class to engage with topics students learn about in their biology courses, especially genetics and pharmacology.

Audience can also inform the selection of course materials. In introductory courses, I am likely to include a variety of readings—news stories, op-ed piecess, memoirs, fiction, and poetry—as well as film and podcast assignments to supplement the anthropological literature.

Finally, knowing one’s students is essential when thinking about the type of support they may need to achieve the learning outcomes. In many classes, for example, reading and writing skills are essential. I have developed reading guides, scaffolded writing assignments, and other class activities that offer students an opportunity to develop these broader skills, in addition to more discipline-specific ones.

Backward course design and reflection on specific student audiences are the first steps in learning-centered course preparation. Stay tuned for a future post on turning this design process into a complete course syllabus.