Lesson Design

Last updated on 2023-11-16 | Edit this page



  • What are the recommended steps to take when developing a new lesson?
  • What lesson do you want to develop during and after this workshop?


After completing this episode, participants should be able to…

  • Explain the lesson design process we will be adopting for this course.
  • Summarise the lessons that participants will be working on.

A Lesson Design Process

In order to design an effective lesson, we need a structured approach with the learner in mind and clearly identified goals. Throughout this training, we will use a modified version of Nicholl’s five phase paradigm for curriculum design1. Nicholls’ paradigm describes a process, commonly referred to as backward design, where those who wish to develop a new curriculum first begin by defining exactly what their learners will be able to do after they have completed the lesson/training/course. The subsequent stages of the curriculum design process involve designing content to directly meet those stated outcomes.

  1. Select learning outcomes
  2. Choose learning experiences to help learners achieve these outcomes
  3. Develop content to support these experiences
  4. Assess learner progress towards desired outcomes
  5. Evaluate chosen outcomes, experiences, and content based on this assessment
A flow diagram presenting the Nicholls' five phases of curriculum design as a cycle.
Nicholls’ five phases of curriculum design, presented as a cycle to reflect that all aspects of the design should be revisited in response to the results of the evaluation that takes place at step 5.

The last two phases of Nicholls’ paradigm involve assessing learner progress towards the desired learning outcomes and evaluating the stated objectives and current content in light of the results of that assessment. In The Carpentries, most workshops are relatively short-format, without room for an extensive assessment after the teaching has finished (a summative assessment). To account for this, our lessons place an emphasis on formative assessment: assessment of learner progress that takes place while the teaching is still going on, to give instructors opportunities to evaluate the teaching and lesson content before the end of the workshop.

To account for this, we have adapted Nicholls’ five phases in this training, to place an emphasis on assessing learning during a workshop:

  1. Define desired learning outcomes
  2. Design assessments to determine progress towards desired outcomes
  3. Write content to lead learners from one of these assessments to the next
  4. Assess learner progress towards outcomes during teaching
  5. (After the break) evaluate how closely the outcomes meet the objectives
A flow diagram presenting the process of lesson design and development used in this training.
An overview of the iterative process of lesson design and development , adapted from Nicholl’s five phases, that will be presented in this training.

Note the cyclical nature of this process: you will complete one iteration through this cycle during this training (though probably for a limited part of your lesson, rather than the whole thing). Note also that teaching the content is an essential intermediate step in the process: the importance of feedback gathered while teaching the lesson will be a common refrain throughout this training.

Your Lessons

This training will provide many opportunities for discussion of your lessons. Providing some context now for the lessons that you will be creating will help the Trainers and other participants get involved in those discussions and give you feedback as you follow the process.

Discussion (10 minutes)

Share your answers to the following questions in the shared notes, then discuss them with the Trainers, your collaborators, and the other participants.

  1. What is the topic of the lesson that you plan to develop based on this training?
  2. Have you created training material on this topic before?
  3. What is motivating you to create this lesson?

Iterative Development

The Carpentries community develops open source lessons, which can always be updated and may never be finished. A lesson can undergo many iterations before it reaches a relatively stable state. To reflect this, we encourage lesson developers to indicate the status of their lesson by labelling its progress through a lesson life cycle:

Diagram of the life cycle of a lesson in The Carpentries ecosystem. A lesson is proposed at the beginning of the pre-alpha stage. It enters alpha when it is taught for the first time. In beta, it is taught by other instructors. A full release of the lesson is made when it is stable. Pilot workshops take place during the alpha and beta phases.
The life cycle of a lesson

Each life cycle stage indicates the level of maturity of a lesson:

  • pre-alpha: a first draft of the lesson is still being constructed.
  • alpha: the lesson has been/is being taught by the original authors, but has not been fully tested.
  • beta: the lesson is ready to be taught by instructors who have not been significantly involved in its developed to this point.
  • stable: the lesson has been extensively tested by the authors and others. It can be considered broadly complete and unlikely to undergo any drastic changes without warning.

Although your lessons will probably remain in pre-alpha throughout this training, some of the content will be equally valuable at later stages and we will also point you towards resources to help with testing the lesson and gathering feedback.

Key Points

  • We will learn to develop lessons based on the (slightly adapted) Nicholls’ backward lesson design process.
  • There can be many reasons to create a new lesson.
  • This training will give you a process to follow to ensure your lesson is effective.