“Backward Design” is a course design framework that applies the concept of “beginning with the end in mind.” Rather than using content to drive your course design, this approach asks you to start by identifying the desired results you hope students will achieve from taking your course. In other words, what will students be able to do after successfully completing your course? Once you define what the student learning outcomes are for your course, then you need to determine how you will know students successfully met these outcomes. This is often in the form of a major assessment (e.g, project, paper, exam). Finally, you plan the learning activities and instructional methods that best prepare your students to succeed in the major assessment(s), and thus meet the defined student learning outcomes.
Stages of Backward Design
1st: Identify the desired
2nd: Determine acceptable evidence
3rd: Plan learning experiences and instruction
1. Identify the Desired Results: Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs)
Desired results are typically communicated as “Student Learning Outcomes”. Student learning outcomes communicate what it is that your students will be able to know, think or do upon successful completion of your course. Before you determine the student learning outcomes for your course, it is important to identify the goals for teaching the course you are designing and to recognize the situational factors that will influence each component of designing your course. Below are two worksheets that will assist you with this.
This is a diagnostic tool that will help you focus on your personal priorities as an instructor for the course you are designing. It isn’t a formal scoring tool, nor does it offer you a number that you can compare to any of your colleagues. In previous iterations of Course Design Institute, our participants have remarked that they find this tool especially useful when they were able to devote about 30 minutes to thoughtfully filling it out. You will use this to guide your decisions throughout the course design process.
Situational Factors to Consider
This worksheet asks you to reflect on the broad context of your teaching situation that may influence the design and delivery of your course. While the Learning Goals Inventory is a personal diagnostic tool about you as an instructor, this guide asks questions about those items outside of your direct control that can influence your course design. You can expect to take about 15- 20 minutes to answer these questions thoughtfully.
This information will help you to clearly define meaningful student learning outcomes for your course.
2. Determine Acceptable Evidence: Assessment
After developing student learning outcomes (SLOs) for your course, the next step in backward design is to develop assessments. Assessments provide the artifacts, or the evidence, of student learning. For most people, the natural place to start is with the course’s “major” assignments e.g., exams, large projects, term paper(s). Once those are developed, they can be (a) checked to ensure they are aligned with and address all of the course SLOs and (b) analyzed to determine what specific skills and knowledge students need to be successful in those assessments (which then become objectives for course modules and classes).
3. Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction
The 3rd stage of backward design is where you will plan the learning experiences and instruction for your students. Having a clear vision of the desired results, identified through the student learning outcomes and evidenced in the major assignment, choices can now be made as to the teaching methods, learning activities, and resource materials you will want include in your course. You will now make decisions about what content is important to include in your course, and identify learning activities that are meaningful and connect to the learning outcomes. The learning activities are opportunities for students to actively engage in the learning process by offering students opportunities to practice and receive feedback with smaller scale, low or no-stakes assignment that prepare them to be successful in the major assignments/exams that happen later in the course.
More about learning activities
- Dee Fink’s, A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning, explains the process of course design and provides worksheets and action questions through each phase of the backward design approach.
- IDEA paper 42 on Integrated Course Design by Dee Fink
- Verbs that can describe student learning objectives focused on significant learning collected by UD’s Center for Teaching & Assessment of Learning
- Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development ASCD.