Curriculum Design for Adults: How to Start with What You Want Learners to DO!


The MOST important question to ask and answer about your new curriculum is, “What am I preparing learners to DO?” Your answer to this question drives your entire curriculum design.

Begin your design by identifying your learner's desired destination in real life.

Curriculum design should always begin with the end in mind. The first and most important question to ask is, what do I want my learners to be able to DO out there, outside of my classroom or training room, in their real lives, that I will take responsibility for preparing them for in this course or training?

Focus on real-life outcomes to create a curriculum destination.

Asking about the end result first provides a target for everything you will include in your curriculum. Beginning with the end in mind drives the curriculum design process in a way that stays focused on the adult learner and his needs in his real-life roles. If for example you want to support an adult learner in successfully seeking and obtaining gainful employment that is a good match for his skills and abilities (real-life destination), you have just described what he will be able to do in his role as a job seeker.

Design in ruthless service to your curriculum destination.

A common mistake is to think about your curriculum design based on what your course or training should cover. Learning is not about what the teacher or trainer covers, it is about what the learner leaves being able to DO. This means that your learners probably don’t need:

  • A history of your topic
  • To know everything you know as a practitioner for the last 30 years
  • Stuff that someone thinks it would be good for them to be aware of

If it isn't essential to getting learners to the destination, it shouldn't be in your curriculum!

Brainstorm some real life test drive tasks for your curriculum's finish line.

Next ask, given this destination, what test drive task could my learners do in my class or training that will give me and them a reasonable indication that they can successfully cross the finish line and be successful at the destination?

In our example of preparing a job seeker to obtain gainful employment that is a good match for his skills and abilities, we'd want to plan a test drive task that is an actual application or simulation of seeking and obtaining gainful employment. In a course designed for incarcerated learners preparing for a job search upon release, the test drive task could be to participate in a videotaped, mock interview using effective speaking and listening skills to communicate your fitness for the job, as outlined on a successful interview checklist. 

Give them a roadmap telling them how to reach their destination.

The other important thing to know about a test drive task is that you don’t want to whip out the interview checklist with the list of criteria for success on mock interview day. Instead, provide the success checklist with all the interview skills and behaviors that you are expecting to see, when you assign the task. Research tells us that adults perform better when they know ahead of time the criteria for success. It certainly makes sense that learners are more likely to arrive at the intended destination if they have a roadmap to guide their preparation and travel.

Examine the test drive task to extract the actions the learner needs to master to successfully arrive at the destination.

Working backwards from the destination to the test drive task and finish line, next ask, given the test drive task, what actions will this learner need to master to successfully execute the test drive, cross the finish line, and arrive at the destination? By answering this question you can generate a list of critical job search and interview actions including but not limited to: write a cover letter, create a resume, identify personal strengths, research the employing organization, and practice a story to share that shows how your strengths have uniquely prepared your for the position for which you are applying.

Then ask, what does my learner need to understand and resolve to be successful implementing these actions? 

The next design step after generating a list of actions is to ask, what must my learner understand and be able to resolve to be successful using these actions? A concept to  understand might be, how (thorough, prompt, neat, on time, courteous, creative) someone is in the application and interview process is an indication to the prospective employer of how that person might be on the job. An issue to resolve might be how to answer a question about having been incarcerated in a way that focuses on what the job seeker learned from the experience and how he plans to use that on the job to benefit this employer.

Only now are you ready to list the content your curriculum will teach.

Only now at the end of this process do you ask and answer, what content should this course or training include? By starting with the end first and asking what you want the adult learner to do in his real-life role, you are much more prepared to design content and activities that have a laser beam focus on helping the learner perform this role with success. Because you’ve identified the destination (what the learner will be able to do in his life), the test drive task (an actual or simulated activity that mimics the destination), actions, understandings and issues embedded in the test drive task (the fuel for the journey), you have identified the content!

By designing backwards as outlined above, you have the best chance of providing value and supporting meaningful behavior change. The research tells us that adult learners show up for, pay for, sit through, or participate in learning because they want to solve a problem in their lives, either personally or professionally. When you start your curriculum design with the end in mind and nail down the real-life destination that tells what the learner will be able to do, and then design backwards from there, you have a much better chance of designing in a way that will support the learner in accomplishing his goals.

Tell me what you think!

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