Backward Design

Backward Design in 7 Steps

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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.

1. We analyze the learners, learning environment, and learning goals connected with a particular course.

We begin by analyzing three primary educational contexts that inform how we design our course. Although there are many different approaches that might aid in the analysis phase of online course design, most encourage educators to consider questions related to the following three topics:

  1. Who are the learners who will participate in your course?
  2. What is the learning environment you anticipate utilizing for your course?
  3. What learning goals will drive the nature and purpose of the educational processes in your course?

2. We specify our course objectives in light of our program objectives.

As we think about our course goals, we need to know where the course fits into the program. What overall program goals will be advanced by the course? We can also ask 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 long-term goals and program goals 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 do 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).

3. We indicate what counts as evidence in student achievement.

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.”

4. We articulate an assessment strategy that will allow students to demonstrate this evidence.

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.

5. We generate a course plan (blueprint) that identifies necessary course content, organizing all course components through alignment, distribution and scaffolding.

After thinking about our assessment strategy, we design course content that will help students achieve the assessments we have designed. It may be surprising to see content so far down 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. Organizing our course content in a course blueprint can help us make decisions about what content is needed.

Once we have identified our objectives, evidence, and assessments, we want to ensure that they are aligned. We should not have any course objectives that are not being assessed, nor should we have assessments that do not relate to one or more of our course objectives. Articulating evidence for each objective helps us make sure that our objectives and assessments are well-aligned. We also need to consider the alignment of our content with our assessments. We have a limited amount of time with our learners so we need to be selective about the content we teach. We need to prioritize the content that advances our course objectives and helps students achieve the course assessments.

We need to think about the workload in our course from the learner’s perspective. Busy adult learners need to be able to plan when they will devote time to course work as they juggle their other work and family commitments. If a course has 2 hours of work the first week, 3 hours the second week, and then 10 hours the third week, students will be frustrated and may be unable to complete all of the work in the third week. As much as possible, we want to distribute the workload evenly. If students have 5 hours of work to complete each week they will have a much easier time managing their schedules.

Some of our learning goals may require students to first work on smaller goals that will build toward the larger goals. First year Hebrew students need to memorize noun and verb endings before they can parse, and they need to memorize vocabulary before they can read. We need to scaffold the learning in our course so that as students follow the learning pathway they are naturally led to achieve the learning objectives.

6. We adapt our learning design to encourage user engagement and teaching presence.

As we work on designing our course, we want to keep the principles of Learner Experience (LX) in mind. Learners are motivated to learn content that they find to be usable, useful, and desirable. The design and organization of our courses should make it easy to find material. Courses should be easily accessible and the arrangement should be as intuitive as possible. Adult learners tend to be interested in content that is relevant or useful to them. Our learners will be motivated to engage with the subjects we teach if we can demonstrate how the course content is relevant to their lives. We also need to consider what makes our content desirable—that which is good, beautiful, and true. Designing our content in such a way that learners find it to be usable, useful, and desirable will increase their motivation to engage the course and will help us as we seek to design learning that leads to transformation.

Another aspect that leads to learner engagement is teaching presence. Ordinarily we might think about teaching presence as it relates to the role of the facilitator. However, there are ways in which learning designers can create opportunities for teaching presence in their course design. These include designing feedback mechanisms and creative pedagogies, as well as incorporating suitable best practices for teaching presence in the design.

7. We design an evaluation strategy for course revision and improvement.

As designers, we want to create evaluation strategies that enable student evaluation of themselves as learners. The way we ask evaluation questions can lead learners to take responsibility for their own learning. We also want to design evaluation strategies that enable feedback that supports teacher growth and development. When we invite students to give feedback to the teacher, we want to invite their contributions in a manner that is helpful for the teacher to continue to grow in her craft. We also want to invite student feedback that enables us to create a plan for improving and revising the course. The learners’ perspective on the course is valuable as we consider ways to improve it for future offerings.

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