Backward Design

Backward Design

When you set out to design a new course, where do you begin? For many of us, the first place we start is with the content. We are experts in our field of study after all, so it is natural for us to immediately start generating ideas of all the topics that we want to teach to our students during the course.

Yet research indicates that if we don’t start with the end goal in mind, we won’t achieve our learning objectives. So as strong as the temptation is to begin with content, the better place to start is by thinking about our learning goals for the course. We can begin by asking ourselves questions like, “What do I hope to see in my students’ lives 5-10 years from now as a result of this course? What would they need to learn in this course that would set them on a trajectory to achieve that long-term goal?” Thinking about our long-term goals for our students can help us craft specific learning objectives for the course.

For a first-year Hebrew course, one long-term goal might be that we want the students to be doing exegesis in the Hebrew text of the Bible when they teach and preach. That would lead us to write course objectives like, “At the end of this course students will be able to read Hebrew narrative,” (behavioral) and “Students will enjoy learning Hebrew enough to stick with it until they can read proficiently” (affective).

Once we have identified our objectives for the course, we then need to think about what evidence would demonstrate that our objectives have been met. If the goal is for students to be able to read Hebrew narrative by the end of one year of study, how will we know that they can do so? Perhaps we would ask them to translate a short narrative passage with the aid of a dictionary. Their translation would serve as evidence that they understand recognize the vocabulary and understand the grammar and syntax at the level we would expect after one year of study. We might then rewrite our course objective to include this evidence: “At the end of this course students will demonstrate their knowledge of Hebrew by translating a narrative passage with the aid of a dictionary.”

Once we have identified evidence for each of our course objectives, we can then design assessments that will allow us to measure that evidence. For the first year Hebrew class, perhaps we would choose a suitable narrative passage, provide a list of definitions for any unfamiliar vocabulary words, and ask students to translate the passage using only the provided list of vocabulary help.

Finally, we design the learning activities and content that will help students achieve the assessments we have designed. It may be surprising to see content as the final step in the process–that is why it is called ‘backward design.’ Following this process helps us make decisions about how to narrow the scope of the course content. We do not have enough time to teach everything there is to know about our subject in one course, so of necessity we must be selective. By designing the assessments first we can make our decisions about what content to include based on what students will need to know in order to successfully complete the assessments. There will be a lot of Hebrew grammar concepts to learn and vocabulary to memorize for students to get to the point of being able to translate a passage at the end of first year Hebrew. But because we have identified a narrative passage as our assessment focus, we can set aside topics pertaining to Hebrew poetry as not relevant.

The backward design process can be summarized by these four steps:

  1. Learning objectives
  2. Evidence
  3. Assessments
  4. Learning activities and content

For further reading:

Understanding by Design (UbD) white paper (McTighe and Wiggins)

Overview of Backward Design (from IU)

Resources for Backward Design (from IU)

Writing Course-level Learning Outcomes (from TTU)