Design your next course by thinking backward

Outlining your course can be very helpful before you get started. By organizing learning objectives, themes become more apparent, and the structure of the course takes form more easily. Image licensed CC0

When planning a new course, it’s often best to start with the end in mind. This is sometimes referred to as “backward design” by instructional designers. In backward design, a teacher starts by considering the enduring understandings or big concepts students should know after completing the course.

The teacher then writes down learning objectives that help point students toward the enduring understandings. 

Next, the teacher should decide the best way for students to demonstrate their understanding of the learning objectives. This is when a teacher may create a summative assessment tool.

Working backward from that, the teacher plans ways to help students prepare for the summative assessment, often through activities or assignments. 

Last, comes the content. This is what “fleshes out” the spaces between assignments and activities. The content provides students with background information or context they need to complete activities or assignments. 

Often, teachers start a new course by writing lots of content students should know. But in backward design, the content is written last. This ensures the content supports what really matters most: the learning objectives and enduring understandings. Put simply, you start with what’s most important and work backward from it.

By utilizing backward design, teachers avoid focusing so much on content that they end up writing a book instead of an online course. An online course, after all, should encourage discovery and higher level thinking through activities, rather than memorization of text for multiple-choice quizzes. Backward design encourages teaching for understanding and requires students to apply and demonstrate their learning.

Planning a course backward

For each unit or module:
Things to consider

It can be an adjustment for many teachers to develop this way. The teacher needs to decide on what is essential for students to know–what is at the core or “heart” of his or her discipline–and then decide how to know when students fully comprehend that “core knowledge.”  Designing the assessment is a necessary piece that must occur in the beginning of course development to give both the teacher and students a clear destination for the unit.  Once the destination is clear, the teacher is able to create the best roadmap to get to that destination.


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