Backward Design and Elements of Course Design


Backward Design and Elements of Course Design

Prior to teaching a course for the first time, faculty have decisions to make. These decisions include identifying learning outcomes, determining what content should be taught and how it should be organized and assessed, and choosing a textbook or other reading material. The order in which these decisions are made can have an impact on students’ meeting the learning outcomes. This chapter describes the Backward Design process (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) and how it has been reconceptualized for teaching online. This outcome-focused process is effective not only when planning assessments and teaching methods for an online course, but also for drilling down to the individual assignments.

Also included in this chapter is an explanation of workload for both students and faculty and how it impacts course design choices. The various elements of course design are explored, including authentic teaching and assessment options, and the use of quizzes as formative assessment.


When developing a course for the first time, several approaches to course development and design can be employed. Richards (2013) referred to these various methods as forward, central, and backward design, as they each relate to the starting point for course development. Forward design starts with identifying content. Central design focuses on the process of teaching (teaching methods). Backward Design begins with the learning outcomes.

In forward design, the method commonly employed in nursing, course development focuses on content. A textbook is chosen, the reading assignments are uniformly divided over the semester, teaching methods are considered, and types of assessments are identified (Richards, 2013). This 42method clearly focuses on teaching—what faculty will do—not on what students will learn.

Central course design begins with decisions related to what teaching methods will be employed. Although this method is not commonly used in higher education, given the growing popularity of online education where teaching methods are different from the classroom approach, knowing the mode of course delivery up front is important. Central course design may be more prevalent in K–12 classroom-based courses, where planning what the students will do during classes that span an hour to many hours is very important to the teacher. This method does focus on learning to some extent if the active process of coconstruction of knowledge—where students work together to help each other learn—is operationalized (Richards, 2013). However, when the focus is filling the day, the result can be what Wiggins and McTighe (2005) referred to as “hands on without being minds on” (p. 16), a very descriptive phrase that indicates one of the “twin sins” (p. 16) of instructional design. If constructivism is not the prevailing theory upon which building a course using this method is based, the danger is that activities will be planned to keep students busy without thought to the value for learning, a true definition of busywork. Even though processes or teaching methods are important to developing online courses and must be considered, they are not the best starting point for course development.


Backward Design is an outcome-focused method for course creation or planning that is similar to purposeful task analysis (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) and is useful at the course, curriculum, or program level. The basic premise is to teach for understanding, and that can occur only when the learning outcomes are clearly understood by faculty prior to developing any other aspect of the course. Here the authors use the term understanding in a way that is more inclusive than Bloom’s second level of the cognitive domain. To Wiggins and McTighe, understanding means:

to make connections and bind together our knowledge into something that makes sense of things (whereas without understanding we might see only unclear, isolated, or unhelpful facts). But the word also implies doing, not just a mental act: A performance ability lies at the heart of understanding. (p. 7)

Further discussion on what it means to understand is in order as understanding is the goal of teaching. Wiggins and McTighe (2005) have identified six “facets of understanding,” which are listed in Box 3.1.


43BOX 3.1

  Explanation or making sense of content by telling (verbally or in writing) the how, what, where, and why of events, data, observation, and so on, and coming up with a solid explanation as to why it is supported by evidence. Another way to look at this explanation is having students show their work.

  Interpretation is the facet where the questions of What does it mean to me? and So what? are internalized and personalized. Students develop their own story as they wrestle with the content. This facet is where learning meets experience and results in ownership of a perspective.

  Application implies transfer, such as using knowledge and skills in different and perhaps new situations.

  Perspective requires the ability to not take what is known or taught at face value regardless of the source. It requires a certain amount of inquisitiveness, objectivity, and dispassionate curiosity, which allows logic to flow. It is the ability to step back and question to arrive independently at one’s own view.

  Empathy is about appreciating diversity or what it is like to walk in another’s shoes. It can be considered somewhat of a polar opposite from the facet of perspective, which requires distancing oneself to take an objective view. Empathy requires that the student set aside assumptions, beliefs, prejudices, pat responses, and knee-jerk reactions to understand others from their perspective. Empathy is closely related to insight, which perhaps can be thought of as the end game of being empathetic, that of gaining insight.

  Self-knowledge focuses on self-assessment fueled by metacognition and reflection, two constructs discussed in detail in Chapter 1.


For the practice of nursing, a balance must be struck between the facets of perspective and empathy. Benner, Sutphen, Leonard, and Day (1984/2010) label this as boundary work and note:

In learning boundaries with patients, students learn not to merge with the patient’s plight or pain or overidentify with the patient. They must also learn not to be too objective, too distant, but to be sufficiently open to the patient’s experience to understand the patient’s concerns and be of help. (p. 185)

To summarize in a few simple words without any intent to do injustice to its complex meaning, to understand is to get it. Educators intuitively 44understand this notion, yet it is difficult to define objectively and even more difficult to assess unless outcomes are clearly specified. The key, however, is to find teaching methods that promote understanding, and not simply convey the teacher’s understanding, which results in memorization by the student, a common occurrence when lecture is used as the main teaching strategy (see Chapter 5 for an elaboration of this statement).


The Backward Design process of course design includes three sequential stages that must be aligned (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005):

     1.  Identify desired learning outcomes (understandings, goals, and objectives)

     2.  Determine evidence to demonstrate these outcomes have been met (assessments)

     3.  Choose learning experiences and teaching methods

Stage One

The first stage—that of determining outcomes—is more than writing behavioral objectives to indicate the learning that should occur. Fundamentally, this stage involves faculty understanding how the course being developed fits into the curriculum for the program. In other words, understanding what knowledge, skills, and attitudes students must take away from your course because content that will not be taught anywhere else must be carefully explored. This content may be applied in other courses, but knowing what content is unique to your course and on what level it should be taught is essential.

For example, students learn about lung function in a prerequisite anatomy and physiology course. When developing the content to accompany a clinical course, students will need to understand lung function as it applies to caring for a patient with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Thus, instead of revisiting basic lung function in detail, learning about the various methods of assessing pulmonary function would be more appropriate for a clinical course. In order for students to fully understand pulmonary function tests, they may need to revisit basic information that could be accomplished through independent study and not taught directly. So, faculty need the big picture of the curriculum in order to understand the contribution their course makes to the overall program. In addition, 45content required by the accreditation and other regulatory bodies must be considered.

The first step of identifying outcomes is to become clear on the overarching goals of learning for the course. Details on the appropriate format for writing goals and objectives are discussed in Chapter 4. However, to gain clarity on the goals themselves, Wiggins and McTighe (2005) recommend a few essential questions faculty should ask themselves. These questions are as follows: What should students know, understand, and be able to do? What content is worthy of understanding? What enduring understandings are desired? (p. 17).

Although these questions will point faculty to important content, keep in mind that limitations exist in that not every aspect of the topic can be taught in one course, so reasonable priorities need to be set. To further assist you in identifying important content from all possible content, Wiggins and McTighe (2005) distinguish between “worth being familiar with,” “important to know,” and what they term “big ideas and core tasks” (p. 71). Content that is worth being familiar with and important to know is anchored by the big ideas and core tasks. Let us take a brief detour from Stage One to explore what is meant by these concepts.

Big Ideas

As defined by Wiggins and McTighe (2005), big ideas are the

core concepts, principles, theories, and processes that should serve as the focal point of instruction and assessment. By definition, big ideas are important and enduring. Big ideas are transferable beyond the scope of a particular module. . . . Big ideas are the building material of understandings. (pp. 338–339)

For example, diagnostic reasoning is at the core of advanced nursing practice, yet teaching the theory of hypothetico-deductive reasoning or pattern recognition with the goal of students subsequently being able to apply these theories may not yield the desired results. Diagnostic reasoning is a big idea that can be built into authentic teaching methods and assessments indirectly via the case study method. Another example of a big idea is that of using evidence to guide practice. This is a topic that may be essential content in a foundational graduate course for advanced practice nurses and a big idea in subsequent courses. Wiggins and McTighe refer to a big idea as the “linchpin” or “conceptual Velcro” (p. 66): ideas at the core of understanding that organize otherwise fragmented content and help students make sense of it.

Core Tasks

Core tasks are those skills that are essential for the role. When talking about skills in nursing, thoughts immediately migrate to clinical skills such as 46starting an IV or assessing heart sounds. Those are skills in the narrow sense. Wiggins and McTighe (2005) describe skills as “performance demands” (p. 78), which broaden the construct to include the complex tasks nurses do, such as reviewing patient data, assessing the patient’s status, extracting the salient features, and then analyzing the results to arrive at a plan of action. Core tasks are essentially understandings-in-action.

A note of caution here. When thinking about big ideas and core tasks, one can quickly lose sight of the three steps of Backward Design, as this mental activity seems to be focused on identifying content. Keep in mind that the purpose of identifying these big ideas and core tasks is to develop a list of desired outcomes as part of the first step of the Backward Design process. The next step is to write broad goals for teaching that will become the foundation for developing learning outcomes for students, written in the form of behavioral objectives, which is discussed in Chapter 4. Suffice to say that identifying outcomes and subsequently either writing behavioral course objectives or reviewing those that were developed by the curriculum committee is the final part of Stage One.

Stage Two

Returning to the stages in the Backward Design process, the second stage of the process involves choosing the types of assessments that will determine whether the desired learning has occurred (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Placing this step before a decision is made on teaching methods may seem counterintuitive, but it really places the focus on assessing the learning outcomes (the objectives) instead of the minute aspects of content taught. Because the goal of teaching is for understanding, the facets of understanding should be revisited here as a guide as you work on Stage Two. Some of the assessments appropriate for teaching online are discussed later in this chapter under the Elements of Course Design section.

Stage Three

The third and final stage of the Backward Design process is to determine which teaching methods will promote learning at the desired level or the level indicated by the specific verbs that appear in the course objectives. By learning at the appropriate level, I am referring to the three taxonomies—cognitive, affective, and psychomotor—that describe levels of learning along a continuum. The types of assessments and teaching methods chosen must align with the level of verb in the objective. This alignment will be better understood after reading Chapter 4.

47Questions suggested by Wiggins and McTighe (2005) that faculty can ask themselves in this stage are as follows:

     1.  What teaching methods will result in understanding?

     2.  What teaching materials and readings are needed to support learning for understanding?

Upon completion of these three steps, you are ready to write the objectives for the course and create the syllabus. When drilling down to the lesson level, it is helpful to repeat the steps of Backward Design to create the lessons or modules of the course to maintain your focus on learning outcomes.

Summary of Original Backward Design Process

To recap, the Backward Design process as conceived by Wiggins and McTighe (2005) is based on teaching for understanding and comprises three stages and action steps. They are summarized in Box 3.2.


The Backward Design process was originally conceived for use in classroom-based courses where summative assessment methods, or assessment of learning, and teaching methods were two discreet entities. However, in designing a course for the online environment, the distinction between teaching methods and assessments is blurred. In traditional classroom instruction in nursing, for example, midterm and final multiple-choice exams have been used to assess learning outcomes as summative assessments. Due to inherent difficulties, such as the potential for cheating in the online environment, in addition to the questionable value of this type of assessment to assess learning over all, the use of multiple-choice exams is changing. Frequent low-stakes quizzes are now often employed in the online environment as formative assessments and student self-assessment to promote learning from the readings and provide practice on certification exam-style questions. In addition, online group discussions provide opportunities for both formative and summative assessments. For now, it is important to begin to visualize how the indistinct line between teaching and assessment impacts online course development using the Backward Design process.


BOX 3.2

1.  Identify desired learning outcomes:

     a.  Write goals

     b.  Write or review behavioral objectives

2.  Determine evidence to demonstrate meeting these outcomes:

     a.  Determine types of assessments that will indicate learning has occurred (summative assessment)

     b.  Determine opportunities for formative assessment

3.  Choose learning experiences and teaching methods:

     a.  Match teaching methods with content considering the desired performance and level of learning required

     b.  Determine sequence of instruction and assessment


48When developing an online course with the foundational underpinnings that include constructivism, social constructivism, and andragogy, all concepts discussed in Chapter 2 under the headings so named, small group discussions will most likely be the primary method of teaching, if not the teaching method of choice. Whenever student discussions are included, faculty facilitate the discussions, scaffold student learning, and provide feedback for individual students as well as on the group’s overall progress toward meeting the learning outcomes. These activities, which are considered types of formative assessment, will result in reflection, potential revision of their position, and learning. Eventually, these discussions will be graded (summative assessment). Consequently, the choice of teaching methods must be considered concurrently with assessments. This approach compresses the second and third steps of the Backward Design process into one. The Backward Design process reconceptualized for creating online courses is summarized in Box 3.3.

The Backward Design process maintains initial focus on assessments to measure the outcomes indicated in the objectives, but also considers the potential for doing double duty as teaching methods. This approach to course design eliminates the need to identify additional means of assessment in the form of assignments that could result in busywork for the students.


BOX 3.3

1.  Identify desired learning outcomes

2.  Determine methods of assessment that include opportunities for formative and summative assessments as well as methods of teaching



The course syllabus is an important document that guides teaching, learning, and organization of the learning management system (LMS). When developing a syllabus, West and Shoemaker (2012) recommend that faculty consider what it is like to be an online student who must juggle multiple courses, work, and family life. These students are most likely millennials who, according to Wilson and Gerber (2008), seem to struggle in courses that lack structure, but a well-thought-out syllabus can provide this needed structure. If students are to be successful, self-directed learners, we must give them enough direction from the start in order to do so.

Purpose of a Syllabus

Course syllabi serve multiple purposes. Smith (2005) identified 51 competencies required for those who plan to teach online. Some of these competencies were related to the course syllabus and helped to define its purpose, such as clearly outlining course requirements, clear explanation of what the term participation means, and how points will be allocated. Matejka and Kurke (1994) mentioned that a syllabus functions as a contract, means of communication, a plan, and cognitive map. In addition, a syllabus serves faculty as a planning tool to organize thoughts and schedule events (teaching and assessment).

A syllabus serves a very important function for faculty in that it demonstrates evidence of application of appropriate pedagogy (assessment strategies and teaching methods) for promotion, tenure, and accreditation. A syllabus is a permanent record of what occurred in the course and an indication to various stakeholders whether the course was appropriately designed in order to support student learning. For this reason and others, faculty should keep copies (both electronic and hard copies) of every syllabus they create. Ideally, someone at the school should be in charge of collecting and archiving all syllabi.

Because faculty spend an undue amount of time organizing a syllabus prior to teaching an online course for the first time, they are intimately familiar with the course schedule by the time the course begins. Students, on the other hand, may take a cursory look at the syllabus before classes 50begin and then set it aside, not fully internalizing its contents. At least that has been my experience, for multiple questions often arise 2 weeks into the course, the answers to which can be found in the syllabus. This can be frustrating for faculty, but should be kept in perspective. Strategies to avoid repeatedly having to remind students where to find information by answering multiple, individual e-mails are discussed in Chapter 12.

According to Slattery and Carlson (2005), students do rely on the syllabus in order to organize their time, especially if they are taking more than one course concurrently. Parkes and Harris (2002) provided a unique, student-centered perspective that is especially relevant for a constructivist paradigm.

A learning-centered syllabus will provide information about how to plan for the tasks and experiences of the semester, how to evaluate and monitor one’s performance, and how to allocate time and resources to areas in which more learning is needed. (p. 58)

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Jul 29, 2018 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Backward Design and Elements of Course Design

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