Designing a Course

Backward Design for Courses

In order to craft a course focused on student learning outcomes, design the course using the backward design method. This method, explored here, values what students take away from the course rather than narrowly focusing on what the instructor and instructional materials bring to it.

There are several effective approaches to syllabus and course design, and each instructor will develop a process that works for him or her. This section explores one method. While some might move through these stages in chronological order, we do not assume this chronology is set in concrete. In particular, the course and syllabus design process—especially if one is developing a new course or radically revising an existing course—is likely to be iterative, as work in the later stages leads one to revise what one did in the early stages.

The method described here suggests that you anchor the development of a course in a careful statement of the learning goals—just what is it that you want students to learn—and work backward from there. The "backward design" model exemplified here is developed in considerable detail by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding By Design. While most of the examples in that book come from K-12 education, their method can be adapted to university education.

The version of backward design developed here assumes four phases of course design, while others simply three. You can think of these as sequential phases; but remember that you're likely to find yourself moving iteratively through the phases. In brief, this model would have you:

  1. State as clearly and succinctly as you can what you expect your students to learn. This will likely include both content knowledge and disciplinary strategies and techniques.
  2. Identify what you will count as evidence that students have met those goals? What do students need to do in order to demonstrate to you that they have met the goals that you have set? Having done this, your next task is to design the specific tasks and assignments that will allow students both to practice the behaviors that demonstrate what they can do and also to demonstrate to you that they can do these things. These could include papers, problem sets, examinations, and many other sorts of activity. Note that the practicing and the demonstrating are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One assignment might not only provide students the opportunity to practice but also be an opportunity for you to assess their developing competency.
  3. Identify and develop what students need from you and/or other sources in order to complete the assignments you have developed. This could include, for example, lectures you present in class, assigned readings, sample problem sets, focused class discussions, or laboratory research projects. Students will also need to know how to accomplish these tasks, and modeling how to do those assignments may help.
  4. Finally, develop and describe the logistical and other matters that support and structure the course.

In short, by using backward design, an instructor selects all course materials to support an end objective rather than defining the end objective as a summary of the materials covered along the way. Backward design emphasizes the importance of leaving students with transferable skills, practice in disciplinary methods, and lasting ephiphanies over factoids memorized for a test. Of course, this is not to belittle the importance of facts and recall as foundational in so many disciplines, but instead to emphasize that giving an extra meta-level of foresight to the goals of a course can yield a course with greater impact.

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