Course Mapping: What is the Purpose of this Assignment?

Hand drawing on whiteboard with sticky notes
Published: Tuesday, July 20, 2021

A course map reduces cognitive load, sets learners on a path toward success, and fosters learner-centered approaches.

Imagine your first day of class and a student asks, what’s the purpose of this assignment? As a subject-matter expert you more than likely can answer the question, but what if the same question comes up again? Do you decide to explain it only to the student who asked or the entire class? For instances such as this, you might consider sharing a course map with your students.

Backward Course Design

A course map is an outline of a course. An important tool for organizing a course design project. There is not one way of creating a course map, but it always starts with the end in mind. Therefore reflecting on the following question is key: what should students know or be able to do by the end of the course? Asking this question is an essential process of backward design by articulating the learning outcomes, which must be clearly written and measurable. This model is widely accepted in course development as it stresses alignment between course elements. However, I want to focus on why having a course map is important. The following three sections point out why having a course map and sharing it with students can improve their learning experience.

Reducing Cognitive Load

Course maps help identify and address expert blind spots such as cognitive load. For example, how often do subject-matter experts consider the learning process of a novice? Or ask themselves how much brain power a student needs to focus and learn the materials? It’s easy to forget that learning can sometimes take longer to master.

Cognitive load theory proposes that cognitive capacity is limited. de Jong explains, “if a learning task requires too much capacity, learning will be hampered”¹. Avoiding cognitive overload can be accomplished by designing a course that optimizes working memory capacity where small amounts of information are stored for a very short duration². Cognitive load theory therefore recommends (a) presenting material that aligns with students’ prior knowledge, (b) avoiding non-essential information that may be confusing, and (c) stimulating processes that lead to long-lasting knowledge (de Jong, 2010). Using a course map helps instructors reduce cognitive load and focus on optimizing students’ learning process.

A Pathway toward Success

A course map not only supports the course design process by aligning outcomes with activities and assessments. For students, a course map serves as a visual representation of a course. It provides clarity and sets a transparent path to support student engagement and academic success³. One might think students don’t pay attention to the connection between learning outcomes and assignments. However, instructors are often asked questions, such as, what is the purpose of this assignment? Sharing a course map on the first day of class or displaying it alongside the syllabus invites students to gain an overall perspective of the course and helps them see how various course components are connected. The ideal course map will help students identify crucial course components and actions required to meet expectations, at a glance.

Learner-centered Approaches

Similar to how course design is not a one-and-done process but a continuous process, a course map can be refined by student input. This can prove helpful when it comes to enhancing a course. Students can identify where they might need additional support, less scaffolding, and point out any needed revisions. Reviewing outcomes is a critical part of the course revision process and students can help provide important insights. Course mapping, therefore, has potential to nurture student/instructor collaboration and foster learner-centered approaches.

A course map establishes a pathway for both students and instructors to connect. This creates a welcoming environment where students are valued and instructors are open to listen, all for the sake of improving their course.


¹de Jong, Ton. (2010). Cognitive load theory, educational research, and instructional design: some food for thought. Instructional Science, 38(2), 105–134.

²Caskurlu, Secil, Richardson, Jennifer C, Alamri, Hamdan A, Chartier, Katherine, Farmer, Tadd, Janakiraman, Shamila, Strait, Marquetta, & Yang, Mohan. (2021). Cognitive load and online course quality: Insights from instructional designers in a higher education context. British Journal of Educational Technology, 52(2), 584–605.

³Beckham, Roxanne, Riedford, Kathy, & Hall, Mellisa. (2017). Course Mapping: Expectations Visualized. Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 13(10), e471–e476.

Guest Author(s):
Ana Fierro
Former Instructional Designer, Digital Learning