Applying Backwards Design Principles to Your Course or Program

Much has been written about effective course and curriculum design. Below, you’ll find a few general principles to keep in mind when you are designing a course or program. Most fundamentally: Begin with the desired end in mind and work to align your learning goals with what students will do or experience and assignments that they will be evaluated on.

1) Consider your long-term goals for student learning

How do you want your students to be different at the end of your course or program — in terms of what they know, what they can do, or what they value? For example,

  • Do you want them to be more informed and critical citizens?
  • Do you want them to think like a scientist, a historian, or an accountant?
  • Do you want them to have stronger intercultural communication skills or an understanding of diverse perspectives?

2) Express those goals as clear learning outcomes or objectives

Once you’ve established your long-term goals, your learning outcomes or objectives should explain what students will be able to do at the end of your course and program. The most effective student learning outcomes are

  • meaningful – they describe the essential or authentic knowledge, skills or ideas central to your course,
  • manageable – the list is focused and prioritized to emphasize what can be taught and learned in the course
  • measurable, using verbs that describe skills, knowledge or behaviors that you can observe and evaluate from student work or class performance.

Then, you can design backwards from these outcomes to make that sure your assignments really test what you want students to learn and that the course material and activities reinforce students’ learning and practice of this knowledge and skills.

3) Consider the context of your course

Who are your students? What are they likely to understand or misunderstand when they begin your course? Since people learn by building on the foundations of what they already know and believe, the prior knowledge, attitudes and beliefs students bring to your class are essential in shaping how and what they learn from your class.

  • Ask colleagues who have taught related courses to get a sense of students’ needs or give an ungraded quiz in the first week to find out more about your students’ prior learning experiences.

Creating an environment for learning that balances challenge and support is crucial; consider course climate and inclusion from the very beginning.

  • What can you find out about important dimensions of student diversity in your area? Are all of your students’ backgrounds represented in your course materials? (See Who Are the Students? for more ideas.)
  • Do students know where to find the resources to thrive in your course?

Consider the sequencing between courses. For example:

  • How do your courses fit with previous and later courses? How does the course fit into the curriculum of your department/program, and more generally into Elon’s Core Curriculum? Is the course required or an elective? Introductory or advanced? How will your students be able to use the feedback from your course to feed into later courses?

4) Plan activities and assignments that align with your learning objectives and with what we know about learning

Students learn best when they are actively involved in processing and making sense of what they are learning and when the learning seems authentic and meaningful for them. Consider:

  • What will your students do or experience? Inside or outside of class?
  • How will the learning activities mirror authentic practice or thinking in your field?
  • How well do students understand the purpose of each assignment and the criteria that will be used to evaluate it?

Think carefully about assignment design, sequencing and feedback at the beginning of each course. Consider:

  • How will students practice the skills or knowledge they’ll need to do well on the assignments before they become high stakes?
  • What concepts or skills will students find most difficult or need the most practice with? Which objectives are most important to reinforce and repeat throughout the term? Why?
  • Will your students understand the relevance of the evaluation criteria and feedback they receive from you or peers? How will they respond to or use it for future assignments? (See grading and providing feedback for more suggestions)

5) Involving others

Can you meaningfully include others in your course and program design? For example, can you invite current or previous students to be part of your curriculum design committee or have a focus group of students to ask for their perspectives and ideas for the course or program?