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Constructing a Rock-Solid Structure for Curriculum Design and Development Guidance

A streamlined system for curriculum design cuts development time, ensures consistency and can help spark creativity in the classroom.
A streamlined system for curriculum design cuts development time, ensures consistency and can help spark creativity in the classroom.

As the Director of Standards & Practices at WGU—with a professional background in UX, UI and Creative Design—I seek foundation and structure when approaching problems. It’s a science-based approach, not unlike what one may use in any STEM field.

In those areas we find hierarchical structures that help you think categorically, like Carl Linnaeus’ top-down botanical and zoological nomenclature (domain, kingdom, phylum, class, etc.) or the bottom-up levels in the biological organization of life (atoms, molecules, biomolecular complexes, organelles, etc.). These types of structures work well even when they are imperfect. So, as my Standards & Practices team began to tackle the question of creating standards and guidance for curriculum and assessment design, we created a viable structure.

Our structure has these goals:

  • Contain an ever-growing body of guidance to help designers and developers produce consistently high-quality work
  • Empower designers and developers to understand and enact guidance even if they haven’t memorized (or even read) every guidance item
  • Support the broadest of concepts to the most minute design and development execution details in a single system

In short, we simply call our system Guidance. Although guidance is merely one level near the bottom of the hierarchy, it is the most used when referencing this content and the most encompassing term for the structure. It’s also a term that makes immediate sense to everyone who uses it. Our structure starts much like Linnaeus’ approach—from the broadest to the most specific.


The broadest category is the Persona: the mindset of the person using your design. We usually need to design for many different personas. A curriculum designer may need to think about how the design will support a focused learner, a preoccupied learner or a learner returning to school after a long career. The user may also be an instructor, an assessment proctor or someone else. Since the user may have different needs, experiences or other influences on design use, guidance for making a great design may differ according to the user. For example, guidance for making a body of text serve well to a preoccupied learner might recommend the designer write as simply as possible to reduce confusion and shorten reading time. But guidance for writing that same content for an instructor might be to add examples and restate information to support the instructor in teaching the material.


A Domain describes a focused area of interest related to the user’s needs. In curriculum design, for instance, one area of interest is naturally instructional design. Another is assessment development. Domains relate to the delivery of information for different human needs or states like accessibility or diversity, equity and inclusion. There are domains for legal design as well as visual design. In a sense, each domain is an area of expertise related to delivering a design that supports all our users’ interests.


A Principle is one of a few statements—usually three to five—that drives a particular domain’s design recommendations. They are not only short and sweet but memorable. Taken together, a domain’s principles capture the spirit of design according to that domain. Designers can compare a design feature against a principle and decide if the feature captures the essence of what matters to that domain.

At WGU, we are so focused on making great things for our users that we write our principles in the user’s voice. One of the three visual design principles, for example, is Use Design to Help Me Learn. One of the four instructional design principles is Be Efficient. One of the three assessment development principles is Be Fair. Writing our principles in the user’s voice helps our team members keep the user’s voice top of mind as they work, and it makes our principles easier to memorize.


A Standard is a measurable definition of success toward a principle. Another way to put it is that a standard marks a design achievement. Considering the Be Efficient instructional design, one of the standards under that principle is Provide a View of Learning Progress. That’s a measurable standard that a designer can validate. A designer can ask themselves: “Did my design provide this view or not?” If the view is included, they know they met the standard.

Standards can be specific, like provide a two-sentence summary for every unit, or rather generic, like asking to use high-quality photography. In any case, we just need a way to look at a design element and qualify its success in some fashion.


We’re getting there! Guidance is next, and it is the bulk of the structure’s content. It provides the descriptions for how to achieve a standard. Any standard might have several items of associated guidance, and a designer is expected to apply as much guidance as necessary to create a successful design. Using the visual design standard of using high-quality photography, we find it contains several guidance items that tell designers how to achieve this standard. They are:

  • Clarity—Use photos that are well lit and clear.
  • Candidness—Photos of people should be candid and not posed.
  • Contrast—Color values should have high contrast.

Theoretically, a designer who applies these three guidance items will obtain a photo of acceptable quality to meet the visual design standard. However, if one day we discover that our designers are following all this guidance, yet still we find their photos to be of poor visual design quality, we’ll use that information to write additional guidance that ensures acceptable results.


This is the last level of the structure. Instruction provides the executional detail that tells designers exactly how to do something mentioned in guidance. Using the photo guidance example, the legal domain might provide a link to a photo collection website along with directions on where to click to find photos that are legally safe for WGU use. The visual design domain might provide instructions on how to use Photoshop to ensure sufficiently high photo contrast.

Potential Controversies

There are a couple of potentially controversial features about this structure.

First is that guidance is hyper-focused. You may have noticed that the visual design guidance for photos contains no mention of the need for diversity in photos or that photos need to be meaningful to the text where they are placed or that photos are legal to use. For guidance users, these omissions may seem counterintuitive because of any university’s critical expectations for photos used in its curriculum. However, each of these missing guidance items serves different standards, which relate to different principles managed by other domains, so these items don’t make sense for the visual design domain to repeat. In this example, the visual design principles, standards and guidance only need to focus on making learning design beautiful and delightful from a visual perspective. It is the accessibility domain’s responsibility to provide photo guidance that ensures support for people who require alternative text with photos. It is the legal domain’s responsibility to provide photo guidance that ensures photos are legal for WGU use and contain attribution. The designer must use all this guidance collectively to produce great design, which leads to the second controversy.

Guidance items from different domains may conflict with each other. For example, one of our visual design domain’s guidance items might request that a designer remove complexity from design elements on a screen to make things more visually pleasing, while one of our accessibility domain’s guidance items might request that a designer complicate the design by adding various elements that support people with disabilities. Our guidance structure requires designers and developers to make their own design decisions, and they must decide how best to proceed for each of their designs. Importantly, we want to empower our designers to make choices and support their choices with reason. If our team members do something in opposition of a recommendation, they’ll need to be prepared to explain the reasoning for their decisions. As a Standards & Practices team, we don’t want robotic designers who make decisions based on a policy that dictates what to do. We want designers who think critically. We may not get the exact same design from each designer, but each design will likely be of acceptable quality, thoughtful and supported by careful choices.


A classification system for providing guidance to a curriculum design and development team makes it easier for teams to ensure consistency and quality during design and production. A body of focused standards and guidance, classified into distinct categories and aligned to domain principles, empowers designers and developers to make their own decisions, encourages them to support their decisions with reason and data and ensures enough flexibility to apply rigid standards against ever-changing demands.

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