On Frameworks in Course Design

When preparing courses, whether they are planning or designing, instructors make decisions about what to teach, how to teach it, and how to evaluate students’ learning. When teaching for deeper learning, faculty attend to many more aspects of learning than what to tell students and what answers they should recall. The many decisions and the many factors they must address leaves many instructors in search of an answer to the question “What should I do?” Guidance for instructors who are engaged in course design can be communicated in several ways. Some find checklists are useful for ensuing necessary elements have been attended to, but the existence of an element does not mean it has been designed for the intended purposes.  

When designing course that promote deeper learning, the answer to the instructor’s question, “What should I do?” is often answered with a the phrase “it depends…” and it is completed with variables regarding the nature of the students, the nature of the material, the type of learning, and other factors associated with teaching for deeper learning. Frameworks often provide useful guidance for instructors designing for deeper learning.  

A framework provides designers with a scaffold to understand “the fundamental structure underlying a concept, technology, or system” (Mehlenbacher, 2010, p. 194). Typically, a framework compromises several dimensions, each defining an essential element of the system. Further, the dimensions are defined along continua; on one and is the “problematic realization” and at the other is the “idealized realization.” As the purpose of design is to create improved intervention, the designers seek to align their systems with the characteristics of the idealized realization. The adjective “idealized” is appropriate as most designers understand the systems they design are unlikely to reach the ideal state, but the continua do provide a method for comparing interventions, and identifying aspects of the design that can be improved in a specific direction,  

Well-articulated frameworks are intended to be theoretically oriented, so there is evidence that the dimensions and continua accurately reflect the best available knowledge of the systems. Well-developed theory sheds light on the nuances of phenomena, and it leads to more complex understanding of the system. Those who design frameworks retain only enough complexity that the dimensions are appropriately defined. This also allows frameworks to be generalizable; in course design, the same framework should be useful regardless of the subject or the characteristics of the students. Like theory, frameworks are understood to be modifiable; if theory is update din a manner that necessitates change or if local circumstances necessitate designs be modified, then the framework is updated. Unlike theory, local circumstance affect decisions about problematic or idealized realization of dimensions. 

A framework for design courses that promotes deeper learning will include a dimension related to the nature of the problems that organize the curriculum, a dimension related to the nature to the interaction, and a third one related to the level of application and choice that organize the lessons. In the following sections, three dimensions are detailed and the way the produce learning situations versus training situations are compared.  


Mehlenbacher蜉, Brad. 2010. Instruction and Technology: Designs for Everyday Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.