Backward Design

Course design is the planning of curriculum, assessments, and opportunities for learning which attempt to meet the goals of the course and evaluate whether those goals are indeed being met.The designing of a course can be adeptly performed through the use of backward design, which is based on the principle of working first from the material and concepts you want students to master. Once you determine these concepts, or learning goals, you can plan how you will assess whether this learning has occurred. This information thus guides which resources and methods of teaching are employed in order to enact learning of course material. 

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Where to Begin

Backward design is related to creating a course map (or course mapping), which conceives of the instructor as a mapmaker, someone who targets a destination and designs the most effective means for students to reach that destination. With such a map as the guide to the course, students and instructors are less likely to get lost along the way toward teaching and learning goals. We encourage you to follow the steps below to begin enacting backward design and map your next course. For a further breakdown of the course design process, watch Crystal Lumpkins, of the KU School of Journalism, and former CTE Director Dan Bernstein discuss effective course design as part of our Two-Minute Mentor video series. To hear two tenured faculty discuss their experiences with course design early in their careers and using the Backward Design process, listen to this podcast discussion (or read the transcript) between Meagan Patterson and Doug Ward.

Four questions from Wiggins & McTighe (1998) are suggested as a guide for condensing the course’s material into a few key topics:

  1. To what extent does the idea, topic, or process represent a “big idea” having enduring value beyond the classroom?

  2. To what extent does the idea, topic, or process reside at the heart of the discipline?

  3. To what extent does the idea, topic, or process require uncoverage?

  4. To what extent does the idea, topic, or process offer potential for engaging students?

Also consider the goals and characteristics of your future students. Some reasons that students may be taking your course include: to develop a philosophy of life, to learn to interpret numerical data, to understand scientific principles or concepts, to learn to effectively communicate, to learn to organize ideas, or to understand how researchers gain knowledge. As the instructor, you can use this information, along with your own goals for the course, to guide your course structure and teaching pace.

As a result, the first step is to review your course learning goals, or the outcomes you want your students to achieve by the end of this course, and in each piece (module) of your course. Keep your mind on the prize: the learning that you want to happen.This mindset will then help you make decisions about your assessments and assignments and your learning activities. 

Reflecting on the core purpose and essential outcomes of class can help frame your thinking about how to adapt the other aspects of your course.

Articulating course learning goals involves clearly defining what it is that you want students to be able to do or to demonstrate by the time they have completed your course.  In their book on Backward Design, Wiggins and McTighe (1998; 2005) suggest that instructors consider three levels of knowledge: 1) Enduring understanding, 2) important to know and do, and 3) worth being familiar with. Take some time to look at what the outcomes are for your degree program, and work to ensure your course outcomes align with those broader program outcomes. Reflect on the prompts below to narrow down the most important skills and understandings for students to take away from your class.

 Ask yourself:

  • What do I want students to be able to do as a result of this course?

  • Why is this important? Is the concept or skill​

    • A portal/ threshold into the discipline or deeper learning? Or do students often get stuck here (bottleneck)?​

    • Central to the discipline? A big idea in the field? A cutting edge idea being explored by KU faculty?​

    • Something that students need for later courses? (if so, be sure to align course outcomes with program level goals)?​

    • Likely to engage students, or be relevant for their lives or careers, or related to a grand challenge in our community or society?

  • ​ What do your students want to get out of this course? 

Visit our detailed guide on how to identify and write course-level learning outcomes.

Your course will be more flexible and adaptable if you organize it into into smaller pieces or modules. Once you know your overall course goals, think about how to organize them across your course, so that each unit or module is organized around a set of learning goals.

Ask yourself: 

  • What do I want students to be able to do as a result of this  module? Why?

  • How are my module learning goals related to each other? 

    • ​Does each module address different learning goals (e.g., different themes in a course)?

    • Or do they build on each other developmentally (e.g., increasing levels of thinking/learning)?​

Writing effective learning goals involves identifying what you want students to do, and the level of understanding that is desired. That way, your goals will readily lead to the next step of backwards design, considering how students will demonstrate their achievement of the learning goals. Many instructors find that Blooms taxonomy helps them identify the level of thinking they want students to achieve. This diagram (docx) and this accessible version (docx) align Bloom's levels of learning with verbs that can be used in learning objectives and that map well to particular types of assignments and other assessments.  Follow this checklist for creating learning goals (adapted from Carl Weiman Science Initiative). 

Ask yourself:

  • Does the learning goal identify what students will be able to do after the topic is covered?

  • Is it clear how you would test achievement of the goal?

  • Does the chosen verb have a clear meaning (not “understand”)

  • Is the verb is aligned with the level of cognitive understanding expected of students? Could you expect a higher level of understanding?

  • Is the terminology in the learning goal familiar/common? If not, is knowing the terminology a goal?

  • Is it possible to write the goal so it is relevant and useful to students?

This exercise on rewriting learning goals (.docx) provides examples of revising to increase the level of goals on Bloom's taxonomy. 

After having determined which material will guide the course design, the next step in backwards design is to establish the criteria you will employ to evidence student learning. Instead of using a lone cumulative exam to assess learning, backwards design is guided by the concept that understanding increases across time while students process, reassess, and connect information.

Therefore, assessments to measure this increasing level of understanding should be conducted throughout the semester, using a variety of methodologies such as discussions, tests and quizzes, projects, and assessments in which students analyze their own level of understanding. We encourage you to watch this Two-Minute Mentor video on Iterative Assignments for more ideas on how to scaffold student development throughout the semester.

Once key concepts and assessment criteria have been decided upon, you can then focus on which teaching methodologies and activities you will use to help students reach these course goals. In this manner, teaching is driven by the concepts that are crucial to the course, rather than the course being driven by the teaching methodology itself.

When you communicate with a student with a disability, keep these points in mind, as suggested by the KU Research and Training Center on Independent Living:

  • Use person-first language. Refer to an individual as a person with a disability, instead of a disabled person. This puts people first, not their disability.
  • Use the term accessible, not handicapped. Handicapped suggests that participation obstacles are in the person, not the environment.
  • Understand the difference between the medical model (which regards disability as a defect or sickness that needs medical intervention) and the social or independent living model (which regards disability as a neutral difference between people, and problems related to disability are caused by interactions between an individual and the environment, not the individual’s disability itself).

Instead of adjusting courses student-by-student to meet various accommodations, following these Universal Design of Instruction principles will maximize learning for all students (Burgstahler, 2007).

  1. Class climate: Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness.
  2. Interaction. Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to everyone.
  3. Physical environments and products: Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations.
  4. Delivery methods: Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners.
  5. Information resources and technology. Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students.
  6. Feedback: Provide specific feedback on a regular basis.
  7. Assessment. Regularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools, and adjust instruction accordingly.
  8. Accommodation. Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design.

Developed by Dr. Anjali Forber-Pratt, assistant professor of Human Organization and Development at Vanderbilt University, is the following checklist for course accessibility at the university level: 

  1. If a student requests an accommodation, have you contacted Student Access Services to learn how to best address it?
  2. Does your syllabus have a disability statement about accommodations, including flexible attendance and exam accommodations?
  3. Have you made your syllabus and reading list available well before the course begins, so that students can get accessible textbooks and/or reading material?
  4. Does your classroom provide seating at the front for people who need interpreters or captioning?
  5. In the classroom, is there access for students to be able to come ask you questions after class?
  6. Are you providing options for students to ask you questions outside of class, understanding that some students would be more comfortable sending a note via email, some more comfortable speaking to you in person during office hours?
  7. Are you using Blackboard’s accessibility features?
  8. Are course readings/materials, assignments, and evaluations of learning (quizzes, tests) in an accessible format (i.e., accessible electronic files, print can be made larger, photos include captions)?
  9. Are assignments structured so that all students can successfully complete them?
    • Assignment in accessible format
    • Alternative formats possible for submitting assignments, such as Talk to Text
    • Students have sufficient time to complete the assignment
  10. Are you monitoring microaggressions that may be directed toward students with disabilities, either visible or invisible?