Backwards Course Design at Assumption College

Dr. James Lang, Professor of English and Director for the Center of Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the one question faculty should ask themselves before designing a new course.

What Is Backwards Course Design?

Backwards design says we should think about how to plan our courses from the end point.

Many faculty members begin planning by asking themselves, How am I going to fit all this important content into a 15-week semester?

Backwards design takes a different approach. It says we should look at what is it that we want students to be able to do or know at the end of the semester. A lot of the emphasis in backward design is on the doing aspect of learning outcomes.

“If we start with that end in mind and we think about the kind of specific cognitive skills or the foundational knowledge we want them to have, then the question that we’re asking is a different one,” James told us.

It’s not, How do I cover this content? Instead it’s, How can the content help get students to this end point that I have identified?

The “20-Year Question” Faculty Need to Ask Themselves

“The 20-year question came out of a Course Innovation Academy that I run on campus, which has eight faculty members every year who go through a course redesign process,” James told us.

Here’s the question: What do I want students to have retained from this course in 20 years?

It gives birth to other questions, such as: What really matters about this course? What do I really want my students to take away from this course, and how can my teaching help achieve that? What knowledge or skills will they still have or how will it have shaped their lives 20 years later?

“In some ways, it’s a very artificial question,” James said, “because we have no idea what impact our courses might have in 20 years, but it’s a useful thought exercise because it forces you to think about what matters about your class.”

By asking the question, faculty members tend to step away from specific content and instead orient themselves more toward skills, values, convictions, and wanting to make a larger impact on the lives of their students rather than just having them master a specific content domain.

Of course, you as a faculty member might find that a content domain is necessary to achieve the 20-year goal that you’ve set for yourself, but the important thing is to begin with that really deep fundamental question.

Content Risks for Courses Designed Without a Long-Range Plan

“When you are an expert in your subject matter and you’ve got 15 weeks to teach it to undergraduates, there is never enough time to cover everything that you think should be covered in a class,” James said.

That leads professors either to cram in more material than is good for learning or simply to skating over the surface of the content. Students never get a chance to go in-depth but still manage to feel like they are always behind.

Content is exploding these days, and this exercise really forces people to step away from being locked into any particular content and instead thinking more fluidly about the content that’s going to help them achieve their objectives.

“This is discipline specific,” James admits, “because there are some disciplines in which people are preparing students for external exams, for example, or for careers in which they do really need to a fundamental content base, so this exercise is not designed to say that content isn’t important, it is.”

For all professors, however, backwards course design can help them realize they can’t cover everything, think hard about their objectives, and make better decisions about what to cover.

Next-Steps Advice for Faculty

Asking the 20-year question is, in some ways, the easiest and most interesting part of the process. The next and most difficult part is taking your answer to that big question and trying to parcel it out into smaller objectives.

“That’s then when you get into the actual assignments and assessments that students are going to do,” James said.

Backwards course design consists of a three-step process. The 20-year question is the first step and probably the most interesting and thought-provoking one. The second step requires asking: How will I know the students have done that? This step guides your assessments.

The third and final step means asking: What am I going to do in class that’s going to help students get the skills they need to do those assessments and to master that objective?

“I always think about it as having these three core steps to it,” James told us. “Starting with the 20-year objective, moving through the assessments, and then into the daily classroom practice.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. James Lang from Assumption College. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.