What is backward design?
Backward design is a framework for course design containing three parts: objectives, assessments, and learning activities. It’s known as “backward” because the instructor begins by envisioning the outcomes they want their learners to walk away with, rather than the content they’ll work with along the way. This is important because it sets a clear foundation for your class’ purpose and ensures every part of the learning experience you provide plays an active role in achieving clear learning goals.
The three main components of a backward designed course are:
- Learning Objectives: statements that reflect what a student should know or be able to do after completing your course
- Assessments: benchmark activities that demonstrate a student’s progress towards the learning objectives (such as projects, exams, presentations, facilitated events, etc)
- Learning Activities: everything that prepares students for course assessments. This could consist of content (such as course readings) or activities (discussions, group work, reflective writing)
Backward Design: Planning a Syllabus
Particularly if you have not used backward design in previous iterations of your syllabi, open up a fresh document to begin the process– this may ease the temptation to cling onto previous assignments or readings. Even if you are a seasoned backward designer, you may find that your learning objectives for a course change for a given semester, which will impact what assessments and learning activities best serve those needs.
This will help center your vision for desired outcomes of the class, and make it clearer for you and your students how all assessments and learning activities build towards the course’s central objectives. Moreover, setting learning objectives first helps you account for situational factors in your teaching design. By starting with objectives, educators can adjust the scope of their course’s goals, which will be a big help in finding a reasonable amount of content and assessments to assign along the way.
To phrase these objectives, it is helpful to ground your phrases with powerful, measurable verbs that paint a clear picture of the actions you envision. Bloom’s Taxonomy, a model formed by cognitive psychologists and education researchers to describe the actions learners take when mastering concepts or skills, is a great framework to consider when searching for verbs that express those actions. Consider these verbs as a starting point.
The context in which you will be teaching the course is key information for establishing appropriate learning objectives. This context can be impacted by learning modalities, world events, who the students in your class are and what goals they have for themselves. Consider all of the above when deciding what content and skills are most important for this group at this time.
Based on how closely the content meets your learning objectives, categorize content as “must knows”, “need to knows”, and “nice to knows”. “Must knows” are imperative knowledge, prerequisite, and foundational ideas. “Need to knows” are less of a priority but likely to be important later (based on requirements of advanced courses in the discipline, curriculum standards, or requirements of professional practice). “Nice to knows” add depth or interest to a topic but can be deemphasized without compromising foundational knowledge. In compressed format courses, it is useful to prioritize “must knows” and “need to knows”, and engage with complex and important topics (“must knows”) early in the course.
It is crucial to recognize that this will likely be the first time both you and your students engage in a hybrid learning environment. To honor students’ agency in making this experience meaningful, plan not just for assessments of your students throughout the semester, but assessments of your course as well. Offer your students opportunities to provide you with feedback multiple times throughout the semester through an anonymous Google Form, email, or Zoom check-in during office hours.
Learning objectives serve as the tool for vetting all aspects of the course. Any assessment, assignment, or learning activity that doesn’t provide a specific answer to that question may need to be reconsidered or scrapped altogether. This is especially important for immersive courses, for which faculty must be even more selective with their content given schedule constraints.
Flipping the classroom means that classroom time is devoted to discussion, debates, intensive analysis, problem solving, and peer discussions while exposure to new material—whether through videos, lectures, podcasts and/or online readings—happens outside of the classroom, at home. Rather than assimilating information first learned in the classroom, students are working in the classroom to analyze information they have already encountered and thus the classroom is reversed or “flipped” and in effect, Bloom’s taxonomy is turned upside down. In many disciplines, notably in the humanities and social sciences, this has long been the pedagogical approach. A radical rethinking of how class time is used is at the core of the flipped classroom (Tucker 2012)
How do I flip my classroom?
Decide whether the flipped model will work well in your classroom and for which class sessions. Do you have class sessions with an in-class activity that there is not sufficient time to complete during class and that requires the application of students’ knowledge and skills? Consider the topics that students are struggling to understand. Which of these would benefit from guidance and sharing in the classroom?
Flipping Your Classroom
Coming to class well-prepared is essential in the flipped classroom. What types of traditional materials (readings) might be repurposed and what types of online instructor created and external content (videos, podcasts, mini-lectures, demonstrations) will communicate the information, concepts and ideas most effectively in advance of synchronous class time?
Applied learning is moved into the classroom in flipped learning and the “lecture” component happens before classroom time. Consider how what you are asking your students to know fits into a larger section of the unit and course. What types of “homework” are you now giving that would be more generative in the classroom setting? What is being rushed or completely neglected in class because there is not enough time to complete it well? What content do students need to know to engage in the learning processes and activities created for the in-class time? Are the connections between what is happening outside of class and what is happening during class clear and clarifying for the goals of the overall course?
Pre-class quizzes, check-ins and writing assignments can help to assess student learning and help clarify to the instructor where adjustments in content and approach are needed. Creating pre-class assignments and holding students accountable for them by incorporating them in peer assessment activities can also be a generative way to nourish students’ active engagement in the material while also assessing their progress in analyzing key information and concepts. Please see the CEP’s overview of Assessment and Remote Learning for more guidance.
Encouraging students to form informal learning groups, study groups, and writing groups can help them to share learning experiences. Having students participate in formalized study groups where they focus on expanding a concept, idea or skill can also be very helpful in deepening their understanding of course content and encourage classroom community building. Supporting students to deepen their understanding in these ways as well as building in structures such as discussion boards and additional course resources (optional extra readings, problem sets) can help to connect in-class and outside of class experiences and can also reinforce the fact that the course has an important life that extends far beyond the classroom—whether flipped or not.
Immersive Format Courses
Immersive format courses may present unique challenges in terms of pacing and content, as they are only 7-weeks long but meet for longer periods of time each class session. This section offers strategies for designing immersive format courses and enhancing student engagement within them.
For compressed format courses, focussing on depth over breadth of learning enhances the overall experience of immersive courses. Delve into fewer areas in more detail and concentrate on major concepts rather than cover large amounts of information. Because immersive format courses take place over just 7 weeks, it is preferable to design for depth over breadth so that students will be less overwhelmed with content and more capable of retaining knowledge. Prioritize learning resources and activities that encourage deeper engagement and higher-order learning—synthesizing, analyzing and problem solving—over content acquisition.
Review teaching and study materials, including course readings in order to determine what aspects of your course are “must know, need to know, and nice to know.”“Must knows” are imperative knowledge, prerequisite, and foundational ideas. “Need to knows” are less urgent but likely to be important later, especially for advanced courses or further study. Nice to knows” add depth or interest to a topic but can be deprioritized without compromising baseline knowledge. Prioritize “must knows” and “need to knows” and engage them early on in the course.
Consistency, structure, and organization are key aspects of a successful immersive format course. Well-organized courses positively impact student motivation, focus, and engagement. Without organization and clear presentation of material in an easy-to-follow format, immersive format courses may become overwhelming and confusing. It is helpful to align course content, learning activities and assessment tasks, and make these connections clear to your students. Internal consistency between learning activities, assignments, assessments, and course content enhances student engagement. While organization and structure are important to maintain, keep in mind that things may not always go according to plan and it’s also equally important to be flexible!
Since immersive format courses are longer than traditional lectures and seminars, consider incorporating 5-10 minute water and/or stretch breaks throughout the class session.
Use mixed methods of delivery to vary pace and stimulate interest, including activity-oriented and discussion-focused instruction. If you need to lecture, consider dividing lectures into smaller chunks. At the end of each lecture block, have students engage in an activity that complements the lecture content. Students can demonstrate their understanding of the material just covered through check-in activities such as a quick quiz, a poll, a contribution to a Canvas discussion thread or Zoom Chat, or a short, written reflection. These activities help ensure that students are engaging with the content and help gauge student understanding and skills. See Online Lectures and List of Active Learning Activities for more.
Assign shared reading. For example, instead of assigning all students three texts to read prior to class, divide the class into three groups. Assign each group one of the three selected texts. In class, students summarize their assigned reading to those who have not read the same text. Implement pre-reading assignments that prime students for new content. Excerpt readings to help students focus on key components of a course.
Assign frequent, shorter assessments to accommodate the shortened time frame and potentially faster pace of an immersive format course. Ongoing assessments that incorporate a mixture of low and high-stakes tasks enhance student motivation and engagement and create opportunities for students to demonstrate learning throughout the course. Shorter, more frequent assessments also provide students with consistent feedback early on in the course.
Divide substantial assessments into shorter, more frequent tasks in lieu of or alongside substantive assessment. For example, you might choose to create weekly quizzes instead of conventional midterm and final exams that account for a significant percentage of the course grade. Or, use formative assessments in addition to a substantive final exam. Other options include implementing daily reviews, pre- or post-lecture short quizzes, and short writing assignments. Consider utilizing assessments that facilitate faster turnaround for feedback. Conventional assessments like exams and papers, may require more time to read and grade, whereas self-scored pre-and post-tests, class presentations, graded class participation or discussion facilitation, and oral exams provide opportunities for immediate feedback.
Consider scaffolding long essays and papers, group assignments, and research papers involving primary research that may be challenging for students to complete and instructors to provide feedback on within a compressed time frame. Suggestions include deconstructing a final paper into smaller parts to be completed throughout the course, assigning multiple students to write different parts of one paper in collaboration, and/or using class time to generate research questions as a class, develop a class bibliography, or workshop paper outlines. Alternatively, writing skills and research skills can still be taught without the completion of a full paper. Some possibilities might include assessing students based on quality of research and a well-written abstract with a clear argument, or assessing students’ outlines and annotated bibliography instead of full paper. You might also set aside time during class sessions for students to work on final projects. For example, this could take the form of structured individual writing time or devoting part of class time for peer workshopping students’ writing.
Create opportunities for reflection on material through the use of journals, small group breakout sessions, online discussion forums, and informal individual assignments that require feedback from the larger group. Gauge whether the pace of the course is appropriate by offering students an opportunity to provide feedback through brief surveys or in-class check-ins.