Smooth implementation of programs, courses, and curricula of any size is a challenge. Program developers must identify, appraise, and effectively use resources, objectives, and educational methodologies and frameworks, making the process even more difficult and confusing. As Barbara Gross Davis puts it right at the beginning of her book Tools for Teaching, “Faculty must consider what material to teach, how best to teach it, and how to ensure that students are learning what is being taught” (Davis, 2009, p. 3). Life does not get any easier in higher education, and growing demands from educators expect launching educational innovations ranging from curricular sessions to new programs under time constraints. Patricia A. Thomas, David E. Kern, Mark T. Hughes, and Belinda Yim Chen’s groundbreaking program development text, Curriculum Development for Medical Education (2016), presents a six-step method relevant to any development context—from individual lessons to programs involving several departments and sessions. According to this approach, designing or revising a program or course in any learning environment boils down to asking the right questions at each step.

Ideally, the resulting framework will accommodate different learners as well as assess the learners and evaluate the program in general. In the following, straightforward questions that represent each of the six steps for establishing effective programs were developed. This approach also harmonizes with backward design, the process of starting with objectives prior to determining sessions with specific methods. In particular, the six-step approach adds important considerations of the larger picture and the needs of students. From a managerial point of view, moreover, it might be prudent to work backward from the program’s target launch date and assign dates to the answers of each question.

Question 1: What problem needs solving?

The first step in program and curriculum development is problem identification: you need to know what stakeholders—such as leadership, learners, and the community—need. Perhaps your last course was rated low because it did not address certain topics. Take a hint from there; there might be a need, a problem waiting to be addressed. This might also be the time to think about collaborators, such as a faculty colleague for team-teaching or to facilitate student break-out groups. Perhaps the program aims to teach educational IT, and additional values and needs might become apparent. Now is the time to decide what program to implement—as well as what questions you will not address at that time.

Question 2: Who are your learners?

This question aims to determine students’ learning needs, including consideration of their learning environment. For example, students aiming to be accepted into medical school will need to be exposed to different content and methods of teaching and learning than adult learners seeking to deepen their understanding of the field in which they already work. This is also the time to come up with ideas about how to engage your students and make them responsible for their own learning. I recommend developing a draft inventory of teaching methods. If you analyze past student feedback and have conversations with colleagues who might have taught similar courses to similar learners, the overall picture will become clear. Don’t forget, senior students can be great ambassadors of new courses if included early in the process.

Question 3: What are your overarching course goals and learning objectives?

After conversing with colleagues and learners and, if necessary, obtaining leadership approval, your ideas and understanding of needs are probably consolidated, and you can create a schedule of topics and sessions. This is the stage to develop broad overarching course goals and specific, measurable objectives. Learners need to clearly understand (1) cognitive (knowledge), (2) affective (attitudinal), and (3) psychomotor (skill and behavior) objectives to prepare for exams. Goals and objectives are also a great means to communicate the essence of the curriculum to others, such as stakeholders. This is also when to draft the course syllabus. Determining resources such as classrooms, online space, educational IT, and key personnel is prudent. This will provide a reality check about how to accomplish the objectives and which to prioritize.

Question 4: What educational means and methods are you going to choose?

To answer this question, think about (1) what works best for your students, (2) using the resources you have access to, and (3) the methodologies with which you are familiar or can engage an expert’s help. For example, if the course will involve teaching large groups of students, alternating lecture with interactive problem-solving exercises might provide a great solution. An educational IT specialist can help set up the session for a successful application. If the class size is small, however, you can promote active learning through group activities. Students have different learning styles and preferences, so aim to be inclusive by presenting the content in different formats.

Question 5: What resources do I need to launch the program on the target date?

Need versus availability of resources become more explicit as planning continues. A checklist inventory listing all resources as well as institutional support and administrative structures for future viability helps components such as teaching space, educational technology, topic-specific equipment and many more to be in place to have a coherent program by the target date. Develop a schedule of resources, and consider that even a course taught by the faculty who developed it requires resources in personnel, time, facilities, and either funding or time. Social media and professional websites can be populated ahead of time and perhaps combined with the learning management system. In addition, a backup plan, such as supporting online modules, increases viability and permanence. If several faculty are required, faculty development will need to be included. But innovative types of resources add value and contribute to student and faculty satisfaction. Lastly, ensure that applicable accreditation standards support the course or curriculum.

Prior to the launch, send announcements and promotional material (flyers) to stakeholders and community.

Question 6: How can you determine program quality?

Assessment and evaluation are often used interchangeably. Briefly, there are two major aspects: assessing learners’ performance on one hand and evaluating the program’s overall effectiveness on the other. In both applications, students or academic leaders or both, as well as other stakeholders (e.g., donors of funds or equipment), receive the results.  Evaluation can be formative or summative when final grades are given. Performance assessment (exams) of the learners depend on the nature of the learning objectives assessed (knowledge–attitude–skill) and is also institution specific. For example, faculty can assess skill objectives using simulations, but not every institution has access to a simulation lab, and demonstration of the skill and rating via checklist may be used instead. Most exams will assess mastering knowledge objectives and will need to be tailored to the institutional exam modalities. Program evaluation seeks to deliver a judgment about the entire curriculum’s effectiveness and may involve several components, such as student satisfaction and learning and teacher evaluations. Methods of program evaluation are more holistic in nature and can include learner interviews, surveys, or focus groups. All outcomes and results are collected, analyzed, and reported to reveal a baseline about the program, and how it compares to similar programs in the institution. Successful programs deserve dissemination as great examples for similar developments.

Final thoughts: Your program is successfully implemented—Now what?

A curriculum or program can be likened to a garden: It needs constant work and attention. New plants must be introduced and weeds eliminated to make room for them. Every iteration of the program will necessitate change depending on learner assessment and program evaluation. Change might be drastic or subtle, but it should never be undocumented and random. Every iteration is a new beginning and necessitates considering unanswered questions, values, and the needs from question 1 (needs assessment). For balance, adding new content will require eliminating existing content. The program evaluation is most likely eye-opening in terms of unexpected strengths and weaknesses. One word of advice: listen to your learners. They see the program with the eyes of tomorrow.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on December 16, 2019 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.


Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Thomas, P. A., Kern, D. E., Hughes, M. T., & Chen, B. Y. (Eds.). (2016). Curriculum development for medical education: A six-step approach (3rd ed.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Elisabeth Frieda M. Schlegel, PhD, is an associate professor of science education and the assistant director of faculty development and medical education research at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.