Backward design is a very useful model for designing courses for face-to-face, hybrid. or online settings. Wiggins and McTighe, in their book Understanding by Design (2nd Ed., 2005), describe the three steps of backward design.
- Identify desired results. What should students know and be able to do at the end of the course? These are your learning outcomes.
- Determine acceptable evidence that students have achieved these learning outcomes. These are your formative and summative assessments.
- Plan learning experiences, instruction, and resources that will help students be able to provide evidence that they have met the learning outcomes.
Begin With the End in Mind
Dee Fink (2013) describes the steps of backward design as making three key sets of decisions:
- What do you want the students to learn?
- How will students (and the teacher) know if they are learning?
- What will the teacher and students need to do for students to learn?
Alignment (Wiggins and McTighe) or integration (Fink) of desired learning outcomes, assessments, and teaching and learning activities provides consistency for students and supports more accurate construction of course concepts.
It’s about beginning with the end in mind. Starting with desired learning outcomes, clearly stated in measurable terms, and working backwards through assessment activities, teaching and learning activities, and content delivery. In the following video, a University of Wisconsin faculty member describes how they are using the backward design process to improve courses.
Access directly within YouTube by clicking the share link arrow in the video’s top right corner, then click on the link that will appear in the middle of the video.
Prioritizing and Organizing
Once you have a list of desired learning outcomes for your students you may see that you have more than is practical in a single class. This is quite common for outcomes related to content coverage. Fink (2013) identifies the heart of the issue as designing a “content-centered” course versus a “learning-centered” course.
A content-centered course is what everyone is used to – you were a student in them and you likely teach them as well. They start with a list of topics (not uncommonly based on textbook chapters) and work through them over the semester focusing on coverage. Alternatively, a learning-centered course begins with the answer to the question “What can and should students learn in relation to this subject?” and then move forward to organize activities, assessments, and content presentation in a way that supports that learning.
By starting from a learning-centered approach, it is easier to prioritize these content-oriented learning outcomes into three groups: the critical, the important-but-not-critical, and the nice-to-know. As you prioritize you will normally see a structure emerging that may not be in the same order or with the same emphasis as before. You will also likely see that there is not enough time to include all of the learning outcomes you have identified. Asking yourself questions like the following can help you sort and prioritize:
- What am I including so that students have the prerequisite knowledge and skills to continue in the discipline?
- What am I including only because it’s in the textbook?
- What am I including in my course because it’s central to the discipline, included on a licensure exam, or because I would be personally embarrassed if a student left this course not knowing these things?
- What am I including because the person who taught this course before included it? What am I including because it’s something I’m really passionate about?
Concept/Mind Mapping Tools
Once you have grouped and prioritized your outcomes you’ll need to think about how to order them in the course. When you’re doing this it’s a very good time to also explicitly call out how the different concepts link together. These are the first steps to creating a course map.
The content found here was designed by Indiana University and adapted for use by the Institute for Faculty Development at Vanguard University. This content is offered under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike license and should be considered under this license unless otherwise noted. The original content was imported from “Designing and Teaching for Impact in Online Courses” from within Canvas Commons.