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Planning Your Course: The Way Forward Through Backward Design

By Joslyn Brenton

As teachers, we have all been in the familiar predicament of developing a new course. This is how the process usually goes for me: Excitement (mixed with panic) sets in. Where do I begin? What do students need to know? What readings do I have? Based on the answers, I identify important readings, group them into meaningful sections, throw in some assessments, and think up a final project. A day or so before each class period I think of some fun activities that might keep things interesting. While this is arguably not a bad strategy—in fact, it is the most common—there might be an easier and more effective way to develop (or redesign) your course.

To plan a course you must start at the end and work backward. It seems counterintuitive, but this actually what backward design entails.  And it makes perfect sense, after you try it. I will describe the three steps—taken verbatim from L. Dee Fink’s (2013) book Creating Significant Learning Experiencesusing examples from a sociology course I developed.fink_taxonomy_significant_learning1

Step 1: Ask yourself, “What is it I hope that students will have learned, that will still be there and have value, several years after the course is over?”

This seems like a pretty tall order, and the answer will vary depending on your discipline. Think of how you would fill in the following blanks: If nothing else, by the end of this semester, I hope my students walk away with _______ skills, a good understanding of _______ theory, and ________ concepts.

The key here is to be realistic about what your students can accomplish in one semester. They cannot learn everything about this topic in one semester. So choose the skills, theories, and concepts that are the most important. Less is more.

Also, consider that the end goal of the course isn’t just for students to learn content. Educational theory tells us that significant learning experiences (those that students say are meaningful and that stick with them long after leaving the class) tap into the 6 dimensions developed by L. Dee Fink. Content, or “Foundational Knowledge,” is only one aspect of your course.

In the fall of 2015 I developed a new 300-level sociology course entitled Health and the Family. This is what I came up with for step 1 while trying to tap into the 6 dimensions of learning (I put these in parentheses):

  1. I want students to understand that the family is a site where ideas and beliefs about health and illness are transmitted and negotiated (Foundational Knowledge)
  2. I want students to analyze this process drawing on 3 key sociological theories and a handful of important sociological concepts (Foundational Knowledge)
  3. I want students to analyze their own family and health dynamics through this lens (Application, Integration, Human Dimension, Caring)
  4. I want students to support one another, to grow, and to become more complex people and thinkers. (Human Dimension, Caring, Learning how to Learn)

Step 2: Ask yourself: “What would the students have to do to convince me—and themselves—that they had achieved those learning goals?”

After you have identified the end goals for the semester (Step 1), you can focus on assessment. I came up with three kinds of assessment: A final project, self-reflection, and peer assessment:

  • Submit a 3-page summary/analysis of each interview (Evidence for goals 1, 2)
  • Submit written assessments at multiple points throughout the semester analyzing their growth (Evidence for goal 4)
  • Listen to one another, share ideas, and formally assess each other’s work (Evidence for goal 4)
  • Submit a 5-page final article that uses sociological concepts to analyze two interviews conducted with family (Evidence for goals 1, 2, & 3)

Step 3: Ask yourself, “What would the students need to do during the course to be able to do well on these assessment activities?”

To successfully write the final project students needed:

  • Sociological theory
    • Readings that illustrate 3 major theories of health and the family
    • Readings that describe nuances within these theories
    • Readings that illustrate complications or challenges to these theories
  • Workshops on interviewing
    • Readings for conducting interviews
    • Class time spent practicing interview techniques with one another
  • Practice analyzing interview data (3-page summary of interview)
    • Readings on writing interview summaries
    • I posted an example interview summary on Sakai
  • Feedback on writing
    • Submit interview summary to two classmates who then gave written and verbal feedback
    • Submit a first draft of the final project to two classmates for feedback before submitting the final version
  • An example of a good final project (optional)
    • I wanted the final project to mimic articles published in the sociology journal Contexts

To identify and asses their growth over the semester students needed:

  • To identify individual goals for the semester
    • They did this by filling out an intake sheet the first day of class that asked them to describe their personal and professional goals for the semester.
  • Opportunities to reflect
    • They submitted two self-evaluations during the semester in response to prompts like: How is the class going for you so far? What skills do you feel you are developing? What do you want to develop more?
    • It was a small class, so I responded to each of these with a brief typed letter

To support one another they needed:

  • Class discussion to brainstorm, share, and challenge ideas
    • Together, we identified ground rules and expectations at the beginning of the semester regarding the ingredients for good class discussion
  • Formally asses each other’s work
    • Offering feedback on the interview summaries and on the first draft of the final project gave students opportunities to praise each other for their good ideas, and to suggest more ideas for developing their thinking and the final project

I tried my hand at backward design this one time, and now I am sold. The final projects were fantastic! I truly enjoyed reading them. I am convinced they were good because of the backward design. I had a clear idea of what I wanted, I designed assessments that would prove to them, and to me, that they were on the right track, and I assigned readings and developed activities that would give them the tools they needed to do the assessments well.

I think backward planning can be especially powerful when paired with Fink’s 6 dimensions of significant learning. For me, an important course goal was for students to apply sociology to their own lives. Through conversation we shared personal, and sometimes heart-breaking, stories of our family members’ physical and mental struggles. Through listening, asking questions, and offering feedback we helped each other to grow intellectually and emotionally. In doing so, I think we became more complex and compassionate people. The process was messy at times, but the backward design helped me to feel confident that we would all get to where we needed to be.


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