Program-Level Design

In the diagram below notice that there are three levels of curriculum development.  The top left depicts the program level, then the course level and then the unit and/or lesson level.  No matter where you start developing your curriculum a great approach is to use the backward design. 


Backwards design is about three things:

  • Identifying the results,
  • Determining acceptable evidence and
  • Planning the learning experiences. 

Although there are similarities on how you approach each level, there are differences as well.  The major difference is that at the departmental level you are approaching results, evidence and learning experience broadly. At the lesson level you align what you want students to know broadly more specifically.

When you are designing a curriculum you usually start at the level where you have influence to change or develop.  If you are a lecturer- then it will be at the lesson level, a course instructor can either start at the course level, unit level or lesson level.  If you are a department/program chair, or on a curriculum committee for your program you can start at the program level.

In the diagram below notice that there are three levels of curriculum development.  The top left depicts the program level, then the course level and then the unit and/or lesson level

Planning an effective curriculum on a program-level is not something that can be done quickly, it will most likely take months to a year depending on how aggressively it is approached. Many programs benefit from outside facilitators, who don't have a stake in the final product, to guide the process.  Creating consensus does not mean that everyone must be in agreement.  It does means that everyone agrees upfront that majority decisions prevail.   Some believe that bringing together key faculty and stakeholders (no more than 12 players) and working on the process in a 3-5 day session is the most effective.  This way faculty and stakeholders are less burdened by outside distractions and less spend time is wasted than if the process is extended over several months. 


A Program-level Design Process

Program Development- Let’s assume that your University is offering a Plant Breeding Program at the M.S. and PhD. Levels  One approach to re-design your offerings is informed by Wiggins & McTyhe (2005) using their backward design model.  

1. Identify Results

Designing or modifying your department's curriculum can be an overwhelming process. The first step is deciding what students should be able to understand to be considered competent in their field before they leave your program.  One suggestion is to identify the overarching questions that reveal students competence in applying the principles, frameworks, laws, theories and concepts in their field of study. These principles, frameworks, and concepts are often identified as core competencies.  In the area of plant breeding education core compencies, a dephi study was conducted by U.C. Davis that could prove useful to your curriculum development process.  

Below is a table that can help you organize how you identify the results. 





Content Core Competencies

Professional Skills

Coverage in what course?

Overarching Questions

















  • Use faculty input to identify the core competencies, which are generally content-based, to the list.
  • Add the professional skills such as team building, critical thinkings, behaving professionally, leadership, communication skills, etc.  Being intentional about professional skills students need in your field's work places improves students future success. 
  • Identify the current courses and experiences your department offers.  Match the core competencies and professional skills to the overarching questions.
  • Priorize the listed core competencies and professional skills from all sources.  A way to priortize is to put each concept, skill or behavior into three catagories:
    • What does the student have to understand and be able to do before they graduate?
    • What is important for them to know?
    • What is worthy of knowing?
  • Determine the competencies as beginner, advanced and expert.
  • Determine the courses that should be offered. What competencies/concpets go together?
  • Determine the sequence of the courses.
  • Determine the professional skill experiences that be reinforced in courses.  Identify other ways students can acheive these skills and how to be intentional on how to include them (e.g. out-of-class clubs, campus leadership experiences, on the job training, etc.)

2. Determine Acceptable Evidence.  At the program level questions should be tied to the core competencies that underlie the entire program.  The questions should reflect on content and professional behaviors as well.  When looking at the program level you might think about what questions you ask students on a pre-liminary or final exam.  It is important to be explicit about what students should be learning and how they will be assessed.

Questions to ask are:

a. What evidence demonstrates that students are achieving the desired results

b. What assessment tasks and other evidence anchor the program, courses, and curricular units and thus guide faculty instruction?

c. What should we look for to determine the extent of student understanding?  (does the evidence enable faculty to infer student's knowledge, understanding, skill or behavior?)

d. Does the evidence align with the goals or the results created? 

Overarching Questions

 Content  Concepts/Skills

Professional Skills

Acceptable Evidence:

(What task and how you will know they can do it).





Performance Task


  1. State in Question form
















3. Plan the learning experience.

Apply a scope and sequence to your program.  What questions, objectives, or goals fit best in each course and what is a good sequence so there is a clear learning progression.  Many times faculty start planning their new program based on the courses offered in the past.  It is often helpful to identify the courses, list out the core competencies and acceptable evidence for each to determine if there is over or under coverage of concepts and skills currently being taught. Then ask yourself what should be modified based on what curriculum committee members have agreed to.  


Current Course title

What question is it answering?

What concepts/competencies are covered

What professional skills are they learning?

What performance tasks are covered? 

What evidence are you using? 

Plant Genetics












Quantitative Methods













 Remember a couple of important things: 

  1. A great program does not only teach content it also prepares students to be self-directed learners, good employees, good leaders and good professionals.  Not everything your program is doing should and can be done within a course. 
  2. A great program design takes into account what students need to be successful today, but projects what future needs they will have.
  3. Students and employers have a stake in program design, not including them in the process impacts future success of the program.


Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005).  Understanding by Design.  Alexandria VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.