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Course Design Toolkit

Backward Design is a student-centered, pedagogical technique in which the instructor begins with desired end goals by focusing on what the learner will learn, rather than what the teacher will teach.

Backward design is beneficial to instructors because it encourages intentionality and alignment during the course design process. It provides guidance for instruction, designing lessons, units, and courses. Backward design is a guiding principle and a research-based process. It is often helpful to think of backward design with parallels to the research process. First, ask a question. Then, collect data in the form of assessments. Last, analyze your assessment data by asking yourself if your students learned what they were supposed to. Keep in mind that it is not a strict flowchart or decision tree. It can be a fluid process.

Backward Design can be achieved through the following three stages: 

Stage 1: Identify Desired Results 
Stage 2:  Determine Acceptable Evidence 
Stage 3: Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction 

This toolkit provides an overview of each stage of Backward Design with corresponding activities to help instructors design or redesign a course.

Stage 1: Identify Desired Results

By the end of Stage 1, you will be able to identify at least one “Big Idea” and create at least one related “Essential Question” for your course and/or unit of study.  Determine your big ideas by considering the following questions:

  1. What are the big ideas students should retain after taking your course?
  2. What is the purpose of this course in the grand scheme of education?
  3. What is worthy of understanding? What enduring understandings are desired?
  4. What would you like students to be able to do by the end of the course (or unit)?

After you've determined the big ideas that you would like students to retain, create essential questions to guide your learning outcomes. Essential questions are not learning outcomes; they focus on the big questions you want students to consider throughout the course. They guide the unit/lesson and course learning outcomes.

Essential questions:

  • Focus on what students will be working towards
  • Frame the course/unit
  • Anchor the students’ work
  • Provide context for learning
  • Require thorough evaluation – engaging, provocative, multilayered
  • Go to the heart of the discipline
  • Recur naturally in the field
  • Raise other important questions
  • Have no obvious right answer
  • Are deliberately framed to provoke and sustain student interest

 Essential question examples:

  • Is there “enough” to go around?
  • Does art reflect culture or shape it?
  • When is a law unjust?
  • How do authors use different story elements to establish mood?
Stage 1 Worksheet

The Stage 1 Worksheet provides guiding questions for you to determine your big ideas and essential questions. Complete the worksheet before moving on to Stage 2.

Download Stage 1 Worksheet

Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence

Now that you have established your big ideas and essential questions, the product at the end of Stage 2 will be your performance tasks and other assessments of knowledge. Keep the following questions in mind as you work through Stage 2:

  • How will students demonstrate knowledge (performance tasks or quizzes, tests, or homework)?
  • How will you know if students have achieved the desired results?
  • What will you accept as evidence of student understanding and proficiency?
  • Can your students:
    • Teach it?
    • Use it?
    • Prove it?
    • Explain it?
    • Defend it?
    • Read between the lines?

Stage 2 has two steps:

  • Step 1: Review or create new course learning objectives that will guide what you determine as acceptable evidence of learning. For examples and a process for creating learning outcomes visit the Course Assessment Toolkit.
  • Step 2: Determine which assessments you will use to collect evidence of student learning. Ask yourself, what will your students be able to do and know by the end of your unit or course? Then determine what students will do in your course to demonstrate that knowledge or skill. 
Stage 2 Worksheet

The Stage 2 Worksheet provides guiding questions for developing learning outcomes and a template for determining assessments. For examples and a process for creating learning outcomes and assessments visit the Course Assessment Toolkit.

Download Stage 2 Worksheet

Stage 3: Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction

In Stage 3, you will determine specific learning activities that will help achieve learning including course content, formative assessments, and how you will deliver the content. You will map your activities and instructional methods to your assessments and learning outcomes.

Use these guiding questions to help you plan your instruction:

  • What knowledge (facts, concepts, principles) and skills (processes, procedures, strategies) will students need in order to perform effectively and achieve desired results?
  • What activities will equip students with the knowledge and skills?
  • How should content best be taught in light of performance goals?
  • What materials and resources are best suited to accomplish these goals?
  • How can learning be engaging and effective?
  • What is the best use of time spent in and out of the classroom, given the performance goals?

When designing your course activities consider the characteristics of effective and engaging instruction. Instruction is most effective when:

  • It is hands-on
  • It involves mysteries of problems
  • It provides variety
  • It offers opportunity to adapt, modify, or personalize the challenge
  • It is built upon a real-world or meaningful issue
  • It involves real audiences or other forms of authentic accountability for results

Instruction is most engaging when:

  • It is focused on clear and worthy goals
  • Students understand the purpose for the work
  • Models and exemplars are provided
  • Criteria is given to allow students to monitor their progress
  • There are many opportunities to self-assess
  • Learning objectives, assessments, and learning experiences are aligned
Stage 3 Worksheets

The Stage 3 Worksheet provides guiding questions to think about your instruction and course activities and a template to map these to your assessments and outcomes.

Download Stage 3 Worksheet

When planning your course learning experiences it is important to know if you are creating a brand new course or redesigning a course. Mapping learning activities to performance tasks and other evidence of learning will be different for new courses than course redesigns. Refer to these worksheets for specific guidelines on new course designs and redesigns.

Course Design Toolkit Resources