Conceptual understanding in course and program planning

Conceptual Understanding in Course and Program Planning

As an instructor, seeing how your course fits into the big picture of a program can make it much easier to choose learning activities and assessments. This post aims to make this process easier for you, and make learning more attainable and authentic for learners 

Conceptual understanding is effective because it helps you organize your course by making learning goals clear and concise. This, in turn, helps learners grasp the concepts theyre learning and see how their learning will transfer to the real world. Conceptual understanding is a way of thinking that allows you to organize and evaluate your teaching practice, which can lead to better communication of outcomes to your learners, and better alignment of assessment practices to outcomes (see templates below). The more explicitly you can communicate the key concepts of your course and program to learners, the more clearly they will understand the concepts you are teaching them, and the more likely they are to learn to and be able to transfer their learning to the real world.  

This short YouTube clip explains the difference between conceptual understanding and the traditional way of learning where we see students as empty vessels to fill with information without taking time to ensure understanding and application. 

  As an instructor, you may ask yourself questions such as

  • How do I ensure student extend their previous learning?  
  • How do I know learners will be challenged in their upcoming courses? 
  • How do I help ensure learners are career ready after they have completed their programs? 

If you do have these questions, or you now think these would be great questions to start asking, consider conceptual understanding as a jumpingoff point. 

Here is a great list of questions you can use to begin the reflection process as an instructor examining your own course, or with colleagues to examine an entire program.  

Course Level

If you randomly selected any standard, opened up to any page in your textbook, or pulled out any difficult assignment, which 23 ideas would you want learners to activate in their minds to think things through? 

If learners could only remember three key ideas from your course, which three ideas would most equip them to approach new phenomena? 

What ideas do you come back to again and again in your course? 

Whenever you begin a new unit or topic, what do you want your students to look for? When they approach a new text or problem, what should they pay attention to? 

Which concepts “unlock” all the others? 

Program Level

Examine the existing Program Map for your course. Which 23 large concepts do we want our learners to understand upon graduation? 

If learners could only remember three key concepts from our program, which three ideas would most equip them to approach and solve new phenomena? 

What concepts repeat again and again in our program? 

Whenever learners begin a new course, what concepts do we want them to connect throughout the course?  

Which concepts “unlock” all the others? If we list all of the concepts within a program, how can be organize them into 23 larger concepts? 


Here are a few more template links to get you started: 

Essential Concepts and Skills Planner Template: 

Assessment Brainstorm Tool: 

Instructional Planner for Online Learning 

If you are interested in learning more, contact the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Innovation at Lethbridge College.     


Assessment Brainstorm Tool: 

Education to Save the World. (2020, July 15). Essential learning that transfers  

Stern, J. (n.d.). Assessment brainstorm template for learning that transfers  

Stern, J., Duncan, K., & Aleo, T. (n.d.). Essential concepts and skills planner templateEducation to Save the World. 

Comments are closed.