Learn the key principles and steps for curriculum design, and guidance for a constructive, measurable and deliverable curriculum.

What’s here

When it comes to curriculum design, whether it’s planning courses, modules, teaching sessions, or assessments, it can be difficult to know where to start.

To complement guidance offered at school level, and the guidance on the University’s policies and processes provided by AQP, the following resource will support you when designing new courses or reviewing existing ones. These resources will be particularly helpful as you work your way through the University’s course validation process.

Contact us if you can’t find what you’re looking for or would like to explore how your Academic Developer can support you, or your School, with curriculum design.


Why does curriculum design matter?

Curriculum design matters because it:

  • allows you to ensure inclusion at the point of design
  • helps make the learning experience comparable for all students
  • prepares students with the skills we want them to develop
  • ensures constructive alignment of learning outcomes, assessment and teaching
  • constructs a scaffolded learning experience, avoiding jumps in expectations of students
  • creates focused learning and avoids repetition of material
  • helps students make informed choices about studying on courses or modules.

There isn’t one way to design a curriculum. However, there are key principles for successful curriculum construction. This guide will walk you through these principles, providing practical support to ensure all aspects of your curriculum are constructively aligned, level-appropriate, measurable, and deliverable.

Different schools will have different approaches to designing their curriculum, with some course design being shaped by accrediting bodies and the ethos of specific disciplines. When undertaking course or module design, in the first instance always consult your Director of Teaching and Learning, alongside your school’s teaching strategy. 

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Developing an inclusive curriculum

When designing your curriculum, it is important to keep inclusivity and accessibility at the forefront of your mind. Doing so will help all students fully participate and close awarding gaps and will only improve your teaching, learning and assessment for all.

Also key to developing an inclusive curriculum is ensuring you embed opportunities for students to develop the employability skills they will need after graduation, and gain insights into the range of opportunities available to them after graduation. This is because the only opportunities we can be confident are available and accessible to all are those that we embed.

Learn more

For more information, check:

Understanding constructive alignment

Constructive alignment is the process of ensuring your learning outcomes (LOs), assessment and teaching activities are fully integrated. This integration helps to produce a focused learning experience for your students, leading to reliable assessment that accurately and consistently measures the extent to which students have achieved their course LOs (Cleaver and McLinden, 2021).A iterative cycle. Learning outcomes, What do we want our learners to know?  Teaching activities. What activities will enable students to meet LOs? Assessment approaches. How will we measure whether out students have met the LOs

Learn more

Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does, by Biggs and Tang (2011), is full of practical advice, including how to manage the process of constructive alignment.

This 3 minute video “what is constructive alignment?” provides more information on constructive alignment and how to use it for effective teaching and learning.


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A six-step guide to course design

The design of an entire course will need to consider the following six stages in the teaching and learning process, ideally in this order:

  1. Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) subject benchmark statements
  2. Course LOs
  3. Module LOs
  4. Assessment tasks
  5. Teaching activities
  6. Resources

Diagram representing steps in model explained in text that follows

Below, we will go through each stage of the sequence, beginning with stage 1 (at the sector level) and progressively narrow our focus until we’re considering the resources needed within a specific teaching session.

Step 1 – QAA subject benchmarks

When designing an entire course, begin with the QAA benchmarks for your subject. They are written by subject specialists and are used as reference points in curriculum design, delivery, and review.

Each benchmark sets out what graduates should know and be able to do and understand by the end of their studies. If your subject does not have a benchmark, we advise referring to the closest related subject and amending it as you see fit.

QAA benchmarks are particularly helpful when creating your course LOs. Indeed, you will have to demonstrate how your course LOs map against the relevant QAA benchmark when seeking validation for your course.

When using these benchmarks, keep in mind that they will be pitched at either bachelors or masters courses. If designing a foundation course, you will need to amend according to the FHEQ level outlined by the UoS.

Action 1

Familiarize yourself with your QAA subject benchmark to get a clear understanding of what’s expected of your students when they graduate from your course.

Step 2 – course learning outcomes

Course LOs outline the knowledge, understanding, and skills that students should have upon completing the course.

Action 2

Use the QAA subject benchmark (usually the section under benchmark standards) to help construct your course LOs. Remember, the benchmark acts as a guide and can be amended to suit the needs of your individual course.

Things to remember

It is important to remember that:

  • there isn’t a fixed number of LOs for a course. However, too many can cause confusion and complexity, as all learning outcomes must be assessed by the course The University suggests a maximum of 14 for a UG course and 10 for a PGT course
  • LOs should be divided between general and subject specific skills, just like the skills listed in the QAA benchmarks
  • LOs must be set at the appropriate level. Guidance on pitching learning outcomes to the appropriate year of study can be found on the Academic Quality and Partnerships website, where you will also find a spreadsheet listing LOs that are language appropriate for each FHEQ level
  • LOs should be easy to read for both students and employers
  • LOs need to include testable action verbs.

When phrasing your LOs, there are three things to include, as stated below.

    1. An active verb/phrase (such as, ‘Apply...’).
    2. An object (such as, ‘...relevant critical theory...’).
    3. A context/condition (for example, ‘...to an investigation related to media, film and/or music’).

Learn more

For further guidance on creating course learning outcomes, please see Bovill’s (2018) short guide to writing intended learning outcomes for courses.

Also, see Winwood and Purvis’, How to write learning outcomes, developed for Sheffield Hallam University.

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Step 3 – module LOs

The design of module LOs follows similar principles to constructing course LOs. However, rather than aligning these outcomes to the QAA subject benchmark, you will now be aligning them to the course LOs.

Here are some examples of module learning outcomes at different stages of study. When creating module LOs, don’t forget to use the University’s guidance on pitching learning outcomes to the appropriate year of study.

  • Foundation year. Level 3:

    By the end of the module, a successful student should be able to:

    • apply relevant critical theory to an investigation related to media, film and/or music
    • By the end of the module, a successful student should be able to demonstrate understanding of a range of behavioural ecology topics.
  • UG year 1. Level 4:

    By the end of the module, a successful student should be able to:

    • evaluate differences between main financial asset classes
    • analyse an economic problem or issue using an appropriate theoretical framework, and recognise its limitations.
  • UG year 2. Level 5:

    By the end of the module, a successful student should be able to:

    • reflect on their own experiences of education in a critical and theoretically-informed way
    • apply a range of techniques in quantum mechanics and symmetry to analyse the bonding characteristics and energy levels of molecules.
  • UG year 3. Level 6:

    By the end of the module, a successful student should be able to:

    • employ practical skills to plan and carry out a research project relating to feminism and women’s activism in British politics
    • initiate and develop their own research in relation to their design practice and thinking.
  • Masters. Level 7:

    By the end of the module, a successful student should be able to:

    • schedule and manage a multi-person project
    • systematically understand of the role of government and other institutions in fostering the context for entrepreneurship and small business.

Action 3

Once you have established the modules on your course, and constructed their LOs (see guidance below), populate the LO map template to highlight how the modules link to the aims of the overall course. Note that one module should not meet all of the course LOs because this would mean students would only have to take that one module to pass the course.

Note also, that all course learning outcomes must be assessed at the level of the award. So, for an undergraduate degree, you must be able to assess all of the course LOs at Level 6. Of course, you will also be assessing them, in a variety of ways, at lower levels.

For an example of a Course Learning Outcomes Map see Section E of the ‘New Course Specification’ document on the Academic Quality and Partnerships (AQP) Validation page.

Things to remember

It is important to remember that:

  • when assembling the modules for your course, think about which modules need to be core and which optional
  • the UoS stipulates that a 15-credit module should have no more than 4 learning outcomes, whilst a 30-credit module should have no more than 6 learning outcomes
  • when creating the module LOs, ensure you have oversight into how your module relates to other modules on the course, ensuring course LOs are being addressed evenly
  • you should pitch your module LOs at the appropriate level. Use the University’s spreadsheet of FHEQ levels and relevant language
  • your LOs need to be achievable. The next section will look at how the module assessment aligns with the LOs. You may find that module LOs need to be amended slightly in light of your assessment development.

Learn more

When planning your curriculum, including which modules you might make core or optional, consider what information you are prioritising for your students and why. Where in the world does this knowledge come from? Are you privileging one perspective and what is being omitted?

AdvanceHE have produced guidance on internationalising the curriculum.

Additionally, Pedagogies for Social Justice has excellent resources for educators looking to decolonise the curriculum.


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Step 4 – assessment tasks

In this step of the curriculum design process, decide how you will test student achievement against your learning outcomes. At this stage focus solely on your summative assessments, i.e. those which contribute to module marks. You can then move on to identifying opportunities for formative assessment and consider how your teaching will help students develop the necessary knowledge and skills.

When reviewing and planning assessment it is important to consider, not only whether they constructively align with learning outcomes, and reliably test achievement against them, but also how they engage students in learning. See the principles of assessment design for more guidance on designing assessment for learning.

It is also important to ensure you aren’t over-assessing students and creating unnecessary work for yourself or your colleagues. This short film by The University of Plymouth, focusses on designing assessments to the LOs. The video explains that by tailoring assessments to the LOs, and making clear to students what the assessment seeks to test, you can reduce workloads for all and make the assessment more accessible for students.

Learn more

Explore our guidance on developing assessment for learning on our Principles of Assessment Design pages, in particular the guidance on flexible and authentic assessment.

The Assessment Modes pages provide more tailored guidance on how to design effective assessments, mapped against some of the more common assessment modes.

How many summative assessments?

There is no set rule on how many summative assessments to have per module. But you want to strike a balance between having only one assessment (which is very high stakes for your students) and many assessments (which could result in over-assessing students and increase workload for both students and staff). We suggest having at least two forms of assessment per 15-credit module. If you have more than one assessment, you will need to consider weightings for each one. Speak to your Director of Teaching and Learning (DTL) if you are unsure of the recommended weightings for assessments within your school.

If you have more than one assessment, you will need to decide how to divide your module LOs between assessments.

Your summative assessments can also be used formatively, for example an assessment task scheduled in the middle of a term can help guide student efforts in subsequent summative assessments within the same module, or later in their course.

Action 4

The UoS has a list of all approved assessment modes. They are less restrictive than they first appear. There is lots of scope, within each mode, for a wide range of assessments. Once you’ve decided what your assessment is going to be, identify which mode best suits your assessment. If you are unsure, talk to your Academic Developer.

Use the course assessment map to get an overview of assessments within the course. This will give you a good idea of how your module assessment/s fit into the wider course, helping you to avoid assessment bunching and ensure assessment skills are developed throughout the students’ academic journey.

Offer formative assessments before all summative assessments ensuring that all students have the chance to practise new forms of assessments.

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Step 5 – teaching activities

Keeping constructive alignment in mind, the next step is to consider how your teaching content and activities help prepare students for their assessments, whether through in-class activities or through formative assessments. While this approach to teaching might seem utilitarian, it certainly doesn’t have to be.

See for example, the approach to active essay writing used by Dr Wendy Garnham (Senior Lecturer in Psychology) who uses fortnightly tasks to prepare students for their upcoming essay. Each task has an intriguing name such as ‘conversation collage,’ ‘sling your hook,’ ‘geographer’s dream’ and ‘painting a Rembrandt,’ designed to encourage students to think outside the box and come up with their own ideas for their essay questions.

It can be difficult to get students to engage in class. To help boost participation in class and to promote embodied learning, the Active Learning Network has published 100 Ideas for Active Learning, which is a practical handbook to inspire innovative educational experiences. It is for educators and curriculum designers who wish to apply active learning tools and strategies in their own teaching and learning contexts.

When designing teaching activities, you can embed employability and entrepreneurship skills by linking your content to skills development and career management. This is something that can be easily incorporated in to any module of a degree and is likely to already be happening across some delivery within your school. See the excellent Embedding Employability and Entrepreneurship Toolkit, developed by the Careers team.

Lesson planning for both large and small student groups

Teaching to large student groups can be a challenge for many reasons, particularly with regards to keeping students engaged. Moving away from traditional lecture-based teaching can be a way of boosting active participation in class and therefore student engagement.

One alternative to traditional lectures is to integrate Gagne’s nine events of instruction into teaching sessions.

  • 1. Gain attention

    Activity to produce event: present introductory activity that engages learners.

    Examples used in class: tapping on the microphone queued students that lecture was to begin. Class then began with presentation of media such as comic strip or YouTube video that related to the lecture topic.

  • 2. Inform learners of objectives

    Activity to produce event: give learner objectives for the class.

    Examples used in class: students presented with the objectives and how they are relevant to overall course objectives, followed by example of real-world application of the knowledge to be gained.

  • 3. Stimulate recall of prior learning

    Activity to produce event: present an experience that stimulates memory of prior learning.

    Examples used in class: questions and images were incorporated that reviewed related material and facilitated connection to prerequisite learning.

  • 4. Present stimulus

    Activity to produce event: deliver content.

    Examples used in class: new content was delivered every 10-15 minutes. Stories, images, videos, mnemonic devices, and examples used to teach complex concepts.

  • 5. Provide learner guidance

    Activity to produce event: give learner examples.

    Examples used in class: students played word games, received lecture recordings, used handouts and reviewed sample questions as examples of expected learning.

  • 6. Elicit performance

    Activity to produce event: give practice activities.

    Examples used in class: case studies, simulations, and pictures used in group activities.

  • 7. Provide feedback

    Activity to produce event: feedback should be immediate, specific and corrective.

    Examples used in class: in-class question and answer sessions used audience response systems or simple raise of hands to provide feedback to the entire group. Students received both instructor and peer feedback through group discussions.

  • 8. Assess performance

    Activity to produce event: present learners with post-assessment items.

    Examples used in class: minimal point quizzes occurred after lecture sessions, which allowed students and faculty to assess learning during course. Tests used to assess overall learning.

  • 9. Enhance Retention and Transfer

    Activity to produce event: give resources that enhance retention and facilitate transfer of knowledge.

    Examples used in class: group retests were given after individual student examinations. Students randomly assigned to groups of 4 or 5, and each group discussed the test questions with one another, using peers as resource and providing their own rationales for answers. This was intended to enhance retention and transfer of knowledge; students could discuss rationale, reinforcing new learning.

Learn More

The nine steps above were drawn from Milner et al., (2015) Using Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction to Enhance Student Performance and Course Evaluations in Undergraduate Nursing Course.

See also our guidance on teaching methods.


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Step 6 – resources

All resources should be made available to students via Canvas, which is the University’s cloud-based online study platform, supporting both our on-campus teaching and online distance learning courses. Don’t forget to communicate with your students on how they can access resources, when resources will be made available, and why they are of value.

The University has provided guidance on Canvas module set-up, including the required School templates. For any queries, please email tel@sussex.ac.uk.

All essential and supplementary module content must be provided in an accessible format. If accessibility issues are identified an alternative format should be made available or steps taken to make the content accessible. SensusAccess can be used to convert files into alternative accessible formats.

The University has provided guidance on digital accessibility to ensure resources are usable for all students and staff, including those with disabilities and specific learning differences.

The accessibility of Microsoft Word documents or PowerPoint files can be checked using the MS Office Accessibility Checker. All links to module content and external sites should have meaningful descriptions.

Canvas modules will include a reading list set up in Talis Aspire specifying those readings that are essential and recommended, grouped by week or topic. All essential reading list items must be available online.

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Betts, Tab, and Paolo Oprandi. 100 Ideas for Active Learning, OpenPress @ University of Sussex, 2022. Available at: https://openpress.sussex.ac.uk/ideasforactivelearning/

Biggs, John, and Catherine Tang. Teaching for Quality Learning at University, McGraw-Hill Education, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/suss/detail.action?docID=798265.

Bovill, Catherine. Short guide to writing intended learning outcomes for courses, Institute for Academic Development, 2018. Available at: https://www.ed.ac.uk/sites/default/files/atoms/files/shortloguide.pdf

Cleaver, Elizabeth, and Mike McLinden. A Launch Pad for Future Success: Using Outcomes-Based Approaches to Scaffold the Pandemic Year and Build for the Future, QAA, 2021. Available at: https://www.qaa.ac.uk/docs/qaa/guidance/using-outcomes-based-approaches-to-scaffold-the-pandemic-year-and-build-for-the-future.pdf

Garnham, Wendy. ‘The active essay writing initiative,’ School of Psychology Blog, 2021 https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/psychology/2021/10/06/the-active-essay-writing-initiative/

Miner, Amy, Jennifer Mallow, Laurie Theeke and Emily Barnes. Using Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction to Enhance Student Performance and Course Evaluations in Undergraduate Nursing Course. Nurse Educ. 2015 Available at: https://doi.org/10.1097/NNE.0000000000000138

Teaching and Learning Plymouth University. Assessment to the Learning Outcomes. 2015. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M8wTQ0-uek&t=4s UCL. Inclusive Curriculum Healthcheck, 2018. Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/teaching-learning/education-strategy/1-personalising-student-support/bame-awarding-gap-project/ucl-inclusive

Winwood, Bridget, and Alice Purvis. How to write learning outcomes, Sheffield Hallam University, 2015. Available at: https://academic.shu.ac.uk/assessmentessentials/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/How-to-write-Learning-outcomes-2015.pdf

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