Backward Course Design

Adapted from Reflections articles by Wendy Crocker

Key questions of course design

Recently, curriculum conversations have been occurring across faculties and departments as part of a larger movement toward aligning program outcomes, assessments, and courses. Inevitably, the question arises, “Should I do this for my courses as well”? The answer is a resounding, YES! Using a course design process that helps align course outcomes, assessments, and teaching and learning strategies not only helps you, as the instructor, to clearly map out the key ideas in a course, but it will help you to address the following three questions that are the basis of good course design:

  1. What do I want students to know?
  2. How will I know that they have learned it?
  3. What techniques/resources will I use to share information?

Your responses to these questions are also important to students. We spend huge amounts of time crafting what we believe to be a suitable course syllabus to present to students in the first class of the semester. However, the information that students want to know – What will I learn?; How will I be assessed?; and What will we be doing in class? – is also contained in those three questions. Good course design begins with considerations of Outcomes (what will students know and be able to do), Assessment (how will I know that they have learned it), and Teaching Strategies (what techniques/resources will I use to share information). This notion of Constructive Alignment was forwarded by John Biggs (2003) and has been adapted for use in the Centre for Teaching and Learning as Figure 1.

Constructive Curriculum Alignment

Figure 1: Constructive curriculum alignment

What do I want students to know?

In designing a cohesive course, begin at the top of the triangle with OUTCOMES ~ what is it that students will know and be able to do as a result of learning in your course? In order to not become mired in the myriad detail of content knowledge, it is helpful to think of meeting a student in the future. What key concepts would you hope that they would recall from your course years later? These ideas become the Enduring Understandings (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), “statements summarizing important ideas and core processes that are central to a discipline and have lasting value beyond the classroom”. Enduring understandings:

  • frame the big ideas that give meaning and lasting importance to such discrete curriculum elements as facts and skills
  • can transfer to other fields as well as life beyond the classroom
  • help “unpack” areas of the curriculum where students may struggle to gain understanding or demonstrate misunderstandings and misconceptions
  • provide a conceptual foundation for studying the content area.

Enduring Understandings are BIG IDEAS and must be broken down into key or “Essential Questions” around which your course can be framed. McTighe and Wiggins (2013) explain the relationship between enduring understandings (Big Ideas) and essential questions in this way:

If the content that you are expected to teach represents “answers”, then what questions were asked by the people who came up with those answers? This conceptual move offers a useful strategy both for seeing a link between content, and important questions, and for coming up with ways of engaging students in the very kind of thinking that is required to understand the content…The questions thus serve as doorways or lenses through which learners can better see and explore the key concepts, themes, theories, issues, and problems that reside within the content. pp 4-5

To illustrate the relationship between the two, here are some examples from a number of disciplines of Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions that have been adapted from McTighe and Wiggins (2013).

Enduring Understandings
(Big Ideas)
Essential Questions

The geography, climate, and natural resources of a region influence the economy and lifestyle of the people living in the area.

How does where you live influence how you live?

Statistical analysis and data display often reveal patterns. Patterns enable prediction.

What will happen next?
How certain are you?

Dance is a language of shape, space, effort, and timing that can communicate feelings and ideas.

How can movement express emotion?

Essential Questions become course outcomes

When you have determined the several essential questions that are addressed in your course, the next step is to change these questions into outcome statements. Nilson (2010) asserts that an “outcomes-centred course design guarantees a high level of student engagement because the process steers you toward student-active teaching strategies” (p.18). A learning outcome is a statement of exactly what your students should know, value, or be able to do after completing your course, or at specified times during your course. An outcome consists of three parts: a statement of performance, a statement of conditions for the performance, and the criteria and standards for assessing the performance. It may guide your thinking to consider Bloom (1956), and Krathwohl (2002) frameworks that are arranged as taxonomies of cognitive operations from lower order (knowledge) to higher order (synthesis/evaluation). Outcomes that are written using a higher order verb (critique, defend, construct, design, validate) expect students to demonstrate their knowledge using more sophisticated means. In turn, your assessment tools and classroom teaching and learning strategies must support and enable these demonstrations of learning.

Bloom's Taxonomy staircase indicating the cognitive levels and corresponding activities

Figure 2. Bloom's Taxonomy staircase indicating the cognitive levels and corresponding activities

For example, a student learning outcome that asks students to recite Kreb’s cycle is only requiring student rote knowledge and memorization. While lower order skills have a place in our curriculum, they should not be the end point for a course. Instead, consider ways in which these lower order skills can be combined with other knowledge and key ideas which then require students to demonstrate what they have learned at a higher level – perhaps by constructing a model to illustrate a cellular level cycle or assess the validity of a conclusion based on their understanding of Kreb’s cycle. By inviting students to demonstrate their learning at a higher level, they are combining knowledge and skills from the lower levels and applying it in different ways. Outcomes that ask for higher order thinking are aligned with the essential questions that underpin a course. Lower order questions (Label, identify, explain, describe) may represent the learning from topics that are covered in a lesson or lab, but do not in themselves relate to an essential question.

When creating course outcomes, remember:

  1. Outcomes must be observable and measurable – that is the instructor can observe (see or hear) and evaluate each learner’s performance according to a standard (e.g., how well, how many, or to what degree).
  2. Most outcomes require high degrees of cognition according to Bloom’s taxonomy.
  3. Outcomes must be achievable for students given the length of the course, the number of course hours, and the level of scaffolding provided through classroom instruction and activities.
  4. Course outcomes are related to the essential questions and are therefore relevant to the course and meaningful to students.

Connecting Assessments to Course Outcomes

Taking Stock of Assessments

The first important step is a review of the assessments that are currently used in your course. Brainstorm a list of the “usual” ways that you measure student learning. Your list may reflect methods such as exams, quizzes, and mid-terms. While these assessments have their place, they each require the use of pencil and paper tasks to evaluate students’ recall of knowledge. These kinds of assessment tools tend to focus on the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (See Figure 2) and include Knowledge, Comprehension, and Application. If however the outcomes for the course call for higher order thinking skills such as Analysis, Synthesis or Evaluation, the methods that we choose to assess student learning should align with these outcomes.

In her visit to Western in 2014, Peggy Maki, advocated the importance of identifying or designing tasks to assess the dimensions of learning. During her presentation based on her best-selling book, Assessing for Learning (2010), she reminded us that assessments do not function in isolation and that an assessment’s effectiveness in improving learning depends on its relationships to curriculum and instruction. So what does that have to do with exams, quizzes, and midterms? Perhaps the assessments that you are currently using to measure student success aren’t the best tools? Perhaps it is a good time to rethink WHAT you want students to know/do and HOW you will know that they have learned the material? It is time to rethink your assessment toolkit.

Assessment Tools

With the onus on creating course outcomes that begin with an action, and that reflect a higher order on Bloom’s Taxonomy (Figure 2), traditional pencil and paper assessments can fall short of measuring what students have learned. Some verbs by their very nature require an action to demonstrate a skill – model, present, draw, design, debate, perform, to name a few. If these action verbs have been used in your course outcomes, then the assessments that students perform to demonstrate their achievement of that outcome must also be active – that is, a performance of some kind.

Quantitative and Qualitative Assessments

As instructors in a university setting, there is a need for a quantitative reporting to the administration usually done in the form of summative grades. However, as teachers we also are responsible to the students for their learning. This dual role can be challenging and could cause instructors to view the primary role of assessment as the construction of a series of assignments that can be readily translated into numbers that constitute a grade. However, is this really measuring what a student has learned in your class? There is a place for both quantitative (numerically based) and qualitative (description based) assessments to measure student achievement. The most effective way to meet the diversity of learner needs and established course outcomes is to use a variety of methods to collect information for creating an evaluative judgement. In the autumn 2013 edition of Reflections, an article on Authentic Assessment offers some recommendations for alternatives to more traditional pencil and paper measures of learning (Crocker, 2013). Fenwick and Parsons (2009, p. 50) provide the list of performance tasks below for consideration:

Performance Task Ideas

  • Peer evaluation of learner or performance products
  • Review of learner performance using video by external expert or committee
  • Profiling – narrative, in-depth description of learner using designated categories
  • Portfolios (paper or electronic) or folders of work samples over time
  • Learning maps, audit trails, or personal journals
  • Student performance of a skill
  • Simulated cases or in-basket exercises for learner problem- solving
  • Role play of strategies for coping with or addressing situations
  • Debates, panel discussions, presentations, or demonstrations
  • Learner teaches others who are then tested
  • Journals or learning logs
  • Peer and self assessment
  • Informal conferences of formal interviews with learner
  • Focus group discussions mediated by instructor
  • Checklists and rating scales used against a performance of a skill
  • Interviews – open ended or structured questions
  • Observers’ reports
  • Work Samples gathered periodically

Performance Task + Rubric = Assessment

When incorporating a performance assessment as a demonstration of student learning into your course, you must also remember the “measurement” aspect. While a performance task will align with course outcomes that require a more active demonstration of learning, as the instructor there remains the requirement to measure “how well” the student executed the task. Rubrics give structure to observations. Instead of judging the performance, the rubric describes the performance (Brookhart, 2013). About the only kind of work that does not function well being assessed on a rubric is that which has a right or wrong answer. Any task that has “…degrees of quality performance, where you want to observe how appropriately, or how completely, or how well a question was answered, can be assessed with rubrics” (Brookhart, 2013, p. 5).

Connecting Outcomes and Assessments

In order to respond to the question, “How will I know if my students have learned it?” instructors must adopt a form of assessment or measuring student knowledge. In considering constructive alignment (Biggs, 2003), the assessments must also measure the key course outcomes that address the question, “What is it I want students to know or be able to do at the end of this course?” If the outcome has utilized a verb from the higher orders on Bloom’s Taxonomy, then the assessment tool must match the action of the verb. If the course outcome is to redesign and critique a Roman weapon of war, a pencil and paper exam may not truly capture how well a student has achieved this expectation without first having actually constructed the weapon. Only then could students offer ideas for redesign by critiquing what worked or didn’t on the original armament. In choosing active verbs as outcomes, the assessments must make room for student performance to demonstrate what they have learned. How will that affect what happens in class time? What resources would you choose to support student learning? How do you scaffold the skills students need to actually complete the assessment tasks?

Good course design is structured around three guiding questions: (a) “What do I want students to know and be able to do?”, (b) “How will I know that they have learned it?”, and (c) “What techniques and resources will I use to share information?”. This third article addresses considerations for structuring and communicating how class time will be used, scaffolding the content, and selecting resources to ensure that students have the information that they require to perform well on assessments and demonstrate the course outcomes.

Thinking about class time

Often, contact time with students is viewed as the opportunity to deliver content through variations on the lecture mode (e.g., instructors teaching, video, guest speakers) which places students as passive collectors of information. Textbooks and other print based resources reinforce the concepts introduced in class time. But what could class time look like? How could activities in and outside the classroom position students as co-constructors of their learning? What if out of class time was spent learning the concepts and student contact time was used to engage in activities that applied what they had read? Two ways in which student contact time have been reconsidered is through Flipped Classroom pedagogy, and the use of Experiential Learning. Both strategies have been adopted successfully by a number of instructors across faculties at Western.

Flipped classrooms

According to Educause (2012) “the flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed” (p. 1). In this model the instructor assumes the role of coach or facilitator while the students use class time to engage in hands-on, collaborative activities that require them to apply the knowledge that they read or viewed in pre-class videos or lectures. The flipped classroom model is only one way in which class time is being used for active exploration of concepts and requires careful planning by the instructor to be effective. Before adopting this model consider:

  • How does class size impact my use of this pedagogical approach?
  • How could Teaching Assistants be used to actively support teaching and learning in this model?
  • How would key information be shared with students before class time?
  • How often would the flipped classroom be adopted in my course?

The flipped classroom approach has been adopted by several instructors at Western including, Dr. Sarah McLean, Assistant Professor Bachelor of Medical Sciences Program, and Teaching Fellow with the Teaching Support Centre. Contact the Teaching Support Centre at for more details about this instructional strategy.

Experiential learning

“Experiential education first immerses its learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about that experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking” (Lewis & Williams, 1994, p.5). In its simplest form, experiential learning is learning by doing. It can also be defined by what makes it different from traditional instruction. Often students manage their own learning to a large extent, instructors pass a great deal of the instruction to the students, learning may not take place in a classroom, and there may be no text books or university texts to study (Schwartz, 2012). Service learning and community-based learning have long been recognized as highimpact practices.

According to Kuh (2008),

In these programs, field-based “experiential learning” with community partners is an instructional strategy—and often a required part of the course. The idea is to give students direct experience with issues they are studying in the curriculum and with ongoing efforts to analyze and solve problems in the community. A key element in these programs is the opportunity students have to both apply what they are learning in real-world settings and reflect in a classroom setting on their service experiences. These programs model the idea that giving something back to the community is an important college outcome, and that working with community partners is good preparation for citizenship, work, and life (Service Learning, Community-Based Learning section, para 10).

Staff at the Student Success Centre who will help instructors to structure courses to incorporate elements of experiential learning. Examples of these courses can be found here.

Communicating how class time will be used

A well-designed course – where the teaching/learning opportunities are aligned with course outcomes and assessments – should be communicated with students. While it is understood that a syllabus will be shared with every student in a course during the first class meeting, the purpose of the document is two-fold. First, it is a mandated device that, according to the eLearning Toolkit (n.d.) “…is the blueprint for the course expectations, requirements, ground rules, readings, assignments, exams and final projects, professor’s contact information, office location, and office hours” (para 1). It becomes a contract between instructor and student (Nilson, 2010). However, it is also a learning map for students, and thus the tone and content of that document must be easily understood. Consider sharing your course planning and alignment using “Big Ideas and Enduring Understandings” – those key elements that students should understand and be able to apply as a result of their successful completion of the course.

Big Ideas, according to Wiggins and McTighe (2005), have lasting value and serve as key concepts for making important facts, skills, and actions more connected, meaningful, and useful.

There are different methods of sharing Big Ideas with students so that they understand the course syllabus as a map for the teaching and learning of a course. One way is to create a graphic syllabus – that is an illustration that captures the outcomes, Big Ideas, and key elements about which students are concerned (e.g., assignments) in a graphic form (Nilson, 2007). Below is an example of a graphic syllabus for an engineering course where students can see how the topics and Big Ideas relate to each other over the progression of the course.

Graphic Syllabus for an Engineering Course
Figure 3: Graphic Syllabus for an Engineering Course

Other instructors find that a Course at a Glance is a helpful organizer for their students. Instead of an illustration, the course is laid out in chart form illustrating the week of the course, the topic or Big Idea, some essential questions that will be explored, the texts that correspond to the discussion, and any assessment that is due.

Course at a Glance for Dr. Wendy Crocker's Education

Figure 4: Course at a Glance for Dr. Wendy Crocker's Education 9405 Leadership in Early Childhood Curriculum

While the format that an instructor chooses is secondary to the information that is relayed to students, class participants must be able to discern the key assessments for the course and the ways in which lesson topics and other assignments serve as scaffolding to these larger assessments.


Scaffolding is based on Vygotsky’s (1978) zone of proximal development and proposes that it’s important to determine the area (zone) between what a student can accomplish unaided and what that same student can accomplish with assistance. The two major steps involved in the process are: (a) “development of instructional plans to lead the students from what they already know to a deep understanding of new material…” and (b) “…execution of the plans, wherein the instructor provides support to the students at every step of the learning process” (Lange, 2002, p. 1). For example, if you include an assessment task – say a research poster – that is worth 60% of the final grade, instructors are assuming that students have the skills and background necessary to meet these high expectations. However, the reality is that often students have not had preparation to meet this level of expectation, including opportunities to submit an outline for comment, or preliminary drafts of the poster that they can revise and resubmit. When considering scaffolding for student learning, a good guideline “…is the higher the stakes, the more scaffolding you need to include. In other words, the heavier the weight, the stronger the support.” (Caruana, 2012, para 2).

To get started with scaffolding, create a brief outline of each assessment for the course including the skills needed to be successful on the assignment. List the prerequisite skills that students must possess. Consider if it is reasonable that students have these skills before arriving in your course, or if you need to teach these skills. Next, consider where these skills are naturally introduced in your course, and how they can be folded into assignments. Now, look at the list of assessments that you have assembled for the course and include the appropriate skills for each assignment. Finally, create an outline of how each major assignment is scaffolded to be shared with students so that they understand how the learning opportunities in the course have been designed to work together and build upon each other in a logical way.

Thinking about resources

When designing a course that is aligned among outcomes, assessment, and teaching and learning strategies, what immediately becomes apparent is that simply following a course text, chapter by chapter may not be the best method of sharing information with students. While a text offers one method of framing a course, other supplemental material should also be found. Those resources are often virtual in nature and may include podcasts, instructor-created video, websites, and blogs. Students are “connected” everywhere, and seek to make sense of their world (and of our courses) in-person and on-line. While opening a course syllabus to include more on-line and virtual supporting texts can be a daunting task, inviting students to seek out helpful course resources as part of a classroom activity would add to their engagement with the material as well as help to find resources that meet your requirements as the instructor, yet are helpful to learners. To take this activity one step further, found resources could be added to a course OWL site by students. As an assignment, small groups of students could select and annotate the new resources according to criteria established by the instructor. Not only would this activity address resource-finding for course content, it would also give students much needed practice in becoming critical and discerning users of on-line material.

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