Approach to Planning Content

Covering content or uncovering understanding?

Wiggins and McTighe (2005) propose that covering content is not the same as teaching for understanding, but in practice determining how much content is necessary to build a deep understanding of course materials is not an easy proposition.  Here is an approach to help in determining how to achieve that balance.

Begin by identifying the course learning outcomes (CLOs)

There is a difference between covering all of the material that pertains to your course topic and meeting the course learning outcomes. Different instructors approach the same course in different ways, there is rarely a set way to do this. Many of us think about courses in terms of content, but rather than aiming to cover all possible material think about what it is that you want the students to be able to do by the end of the course.

CLOs are the top level outcomes for your course and usually can be articulated in 4 to 6 statements. Here is one example for Introduction to Canadian French:

  • By the end of this course students will be able to compare and contrast the linguistic systems of Parisian and Québec French.

Map the CLOs to the assessment strategy for your course

How do you know if students have achieved the learning outcomes? Establishing good alignment between your assessment tasks and the course learning outcomes will help you in determining whether students have reached the learning goals you set out for them. Please follow this link for an Course Map pertaining to Introduction to Canadian French.

When need be, let go of some content

For the first half of the semester, the course director had planned to cover the phonetic systems of Québec and Parisian French, including vowels, consonants, and sound combinations. Closer to mid-term, she realized that she did not have time to cover sound combinations. She decided to mention salient examples of combinatory phonetics when students listened to speech samples in class, but her mid-term exam included a scenario which only required students to compare and contrast the two systems based on vowels and consonants. By doing do, the course director introduced students to the phenomenon they could encounter in real life, yet focused on the most important items to teach for deep understanding. She had to compromise somewhat on content, but attained the course learning outcomes, namely, to compare and contrast the linguistic systems of Parisian and Québec French.

In this example, the course director dropped, as opposed to postponing after the mid-term, the content on combinatory phonetics. The reason for her choice goes back to her course map. The plan for the second half of the semester was to focus on morphosyntax, not only a central dimension of language but also an essential topic to reach this course learning outcome:

  • Students can defend the view that although French language varieties are not socially neutral, they are intrinsically equal.

While phonetic traits can help make that argument, morphosyntactic features of language can show the internal consistency of language in convincing terms. It is with morphosyntactic features that Labov (1972), for example, proved that African-American English was not a mass of errors as commonly believed at the time but indeed a logical set of rules in its own rights. Hence it was important for the course director to move on to morphosyntax immediately after mid term.

The never-ending story: Course planning as an iterative process

Whether you plan your content ahead of time or find yourself needing to cut back on the amount of coverage because of time constraints or more difficult than anticipated threshold concepts, having clearly defined course learning outcomes enables you to make critical decisions about how much content is needed for students to reach a deep understanding of the core concepts. Course planning is often an iterative process with no set amount of content; what may have worked one semester may need revisions with a different group of students next term. In any case, it is good practice to figure out what is essential to know vs. good to know when planning content, and consider dropping some of the good to know if more time is needed to uncover understanding.


Labov, W. (1972). Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Asdc.