~1000 Words, ~5 min reading time
The “state of the art” in course design is called “backward design”. This design philosophy isn’t new, by any means. But, let’s walk through what it is for those who might be uninitiated. First, though, let’s consider the opposite of backward design. I’ve seen a few names for this – I don’t like any of them. But, here’s how the course design runs…
Step 1: Pick the topics for the class. (Perhaps based on textbook.)
Step 2: Present the topics to the class using various methods (lecture, demonstrations, practice problems, etc.)
Step 3: Come up with a test or other assessments (papers, problem sets, etc.) based on what you did in class and assignments outside of class.
This is often the way that college professors will design a course, ESPECIALLY if we’re teaching it for the first time. The old joke runs that you just have to stay one chapter ahead of the students. And, often, that is basically the way that we approach course design – flying by the seat of our pants, so to speak.
However, there’s a serious weakness to this approach: the question of WHY you’re teaching what you’re teaching is often secondary. “It’s in the book” is hardly a good answer, seeing as so many things are in the book that we don’t teach. Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t think about these things – but rather that the “why” question tends to be asked piecemeal, with little attention paid to the overall story of the course. A shame, since we know that one of the best ways that we learn is by making connections between what we know and what we’re trying to learn. A well-integrated course design that tells a clear “story”, then, can be profoundly beneficial.
So, what does “backward design” look like?
Step 1: Determine learning outcomes for the course and the various units within the course.
Step 2: Determine assessment instruments based on those learning outcomes.
Step 3: Determine teaching methods – lecture, demonstrations, etc.
Unlike the previous method, backward design is filled with intentionality. The “Why” question should be obvious to the professor, at the very least, even if it isn’t obvious to the students.
The point of this post, though, was not to convince you to use backward design. It was to help you “hack” it. Why hack it? Because most college professors have almost no pedagogical training. As a result, Step #1 above is extremely difficult. We may have learning outcomes handed to us by our departments (the Higher Learning Commission certainly wants us to!), but we generally don’t know how to write them ourselves. The fact that most learning outcomes that are given by departments are at the course level doesn’t help – as they tend to be so broad as to be basically useless. So, let me allow a small hint.
If you don’t know how to write learning objectives – or are even just a bit hesitant about doing that – skip step 1 above. Instead do this.
Step 0: Write a traditional test (essay, short answer, problems, multiple choice, whatever you’re comfortable with) based on what you anticipate teaching.
Step 1: Determine what learning outcomes that test would assess. A well-written learning outcome is basically a test question, but stated in terms of what the student has to do to answer it. (Notably, very few course level learning outcomes you find in syllabi are written this way.) Eliminate those that you realize aren’t actually important. Add new ones as you’re inspired.
Step 2: Determine how to assess the learning outcomes. (Note: it might be that the test you write is the best way to do it. But, it doesn’t have to be so.)
Step 3: Determine learning activities.
My own experience is that I’m not very good at writing learning outcomes in a vacuum. However, I love writing test questions. What this method does is let me start with something I can do, and then forces me to back up and ask the “why?” question.
Consider this example. Test question: “Suppose that the economy is booming, and incomes are rising. What happens to the demand for filet mignon, given that filet is a normal good?” This is a pretty standard Principles of Microeconomics multiple choice question. What learning outcome does it imply? Something like “Students will be able to identify the effects of changes in income on demand for normal goods.” Notably, “identify” is the verb I used. “Predict” would be appropriate as well. “explain” would NOT be. Why? Because the question doesn’t ask the student to explain the answer. So, as a professor, I can start asking myself – “Do I want students to identify or explain or both?” I can also use this outcome to imply other outcomes. Do I want students to be able to identify the effects on demand for inferior goods as well? What about other demand shifters?
Through this process, you can develop a refined list of learning outcomes based on the test you’ve written. Then, start working backward. If I decided, for example, that I want for students to “be able to explain the effects of changes in income on the demand for normal and inferior goods”, then I know that the original test question alone will NOT be sufficient. I may need to break it apart into a couple. If “explain” is the verb I want I’ll definitely need to change the responses, at the very least – I might even need to change from a multiple choice format to something else.
It’s a simple hack, really – but one that can be very time-consuming if done properly and completely. But, that’s what backward design IS. It’s going to be somewhat time-consuming precisely because it’s not slapdash. However, at the same time, it ends up saving you a lot of wasted time preparing to present material that doesn’t really matter, and lets you spend more time emphasizing and re-emphasizing what does matter.