How to design a course backwards

Being assigned a new course can fill a professor’s heart with joy, dread, or a bit of both.  The joy can come from the excitement of being able to create something new; to put into use all the techniques and technology that you have learned about and exercising the academic freedom that you may have been denied teaching courses designed by others.  Some may dread it because of the daunting amount of work necessary to design and implement a new course; often without extra time or pay to do it.

Recently, I found myself in both the camps of joy and dread.  I was given the opportunity to develop the fully online version of Anatomy and Physiology at my college.  I have taught the subject many times, so I knew the course, the student population, and the resources well.  I had just completed courses myself about creating engaging online courses and I had lot of ideas ready to go.

Then, I was begged to revamp an old course in Human Diseases, a course I have not taught before, knew little about the student population or resources, and just had an old syllabus to go by.  It also had to be changed from a 16-week semester to an 8-week term.  And oh, by the way, it started in two weeks.  Ugh.

So, there I was, designing two different courses and I had two vastly different attitudes about it.  With the time crunch, I had to be very deliberate about how I invested the time I had.  Human nature had me wanting to spend all my time on the course I was excited about.  That felt good.  It was fun to me.  But I also had a responsibility to produce a good course for the other about which I was less excited.

For a moment, I sat there with the world of possibilities swirling before me.  Syllabi, readings, PowerPoints, videos, delivery platforms, assignments, labs, quizzes, exams and more piled up inside my head, threatening to bury me under the weight of the time needed to create them while each rallied for my attention first.  It was hard to know where to start!

Then I remembered the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe called Understanding by Design in which they recommend that instead of starting at the beginning, I should start at the end.  Their strategy called Backward Design, also called backward planning or backward mapping, is a process meant to be used to design learning experiences and instructional techniques to achieve specific learning goals.

Woah, I read that line and I was already guilty wanting to use the familiar and implementing new ideas without having given much thought to what exactly I was trying to achieve.  I read on about the three-step process they describe to create a course.

Stage 1: Identify desired results

For my A&P course, this was easy.  The Human Anatomy & Physiology Society curates a list of learning outcomes and just published revisions. So, thank you HAPS!  I Googled pathophysiology or human diseases learning outcomes, and there are as many opinions out there as there are diseases.  I learned that my students would be Health Information Management majors, so I researched standards and guidelines by the accrediting bodies and even asked the head of the HIM program, but I did not receive much guidance.

So, what was everyone else doing?  I found many syllabi posted online and compared them for similarities in their outcomes and compiled a list of what I felt would be a solid course in Human Diseases.  Now I had a destination in mind for both my courses!

Stage 2: Determine acceptable evidence

How will I know if they have achieved these outcomes and goals?  I needed to plan assessments that would check their learning.  There are many ways to assess learning, not just exams.  Here I could be a bit creative using tools like term papers, short-answer quizzes, homework assignments, lab projects, practice problems, group projects and more.  The key idea here is that the assessment is created to obtain evidence of an outcome or goal.  In my job as a Faculty Advisor for Pearson, I sometimes hear from frustrated professors that their students perform well on homework, labs, and in-class assignments, but then bomb the exam.

It can be useful to compare the exam to the outcomes to verify that the exam is designed to verify the learning that you set out to achieve.  I also speak with instructors who want their students to become good critical thinkers, to be able to problem solve, and apply the information from the text to case studies and real-world situations.  Yet, when I ask them what their exams are like, they often tell me that they are multiple choice questions, most of which are from the lower-levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy like Remembering and Understanding, not the higher levels of Apply and Analyze – the outcomes they desire.

In my own courses, I decided that assessment did not need to mean purely exams, that I could incorporate a variety of ways to check their understanding.  Technology affords us the opportunity to be creative, so I did a little exploring and found an article from a professor that uses a video discussion board called FlipGrid to have students present on topics and comment on them.  Brilliant!  Even in a time crunch, I could easily set that up and employ it to assess their understanding of concepts, critical thinking, and application skills.

Stage 3: Plan learning experiences and instruction

Now that I had my goals laid out and the ways in which I wanted them to provide evidence that they have achieved these goals, how was I going to take them from 0 to 60mph in the short time that we have?  I had to make sure that all the work that I am asking the students to do – readings, labs activities, homework, discussion boards – had these goals and assessments in mind.

Looking at assignments and activities in this way can reveal what might me considered “busy work”.  For example, I had found in our textbook instructor’s manual a section in each chapter for incorporating diversity and the human side of A&P.  That sounded great to me, so I had it on my list to incorporate these topics into discussion boards or short writing projects.  But when I looked at my desired outcomes, these assignments, while noble, didn’t address any of goals I had for the course, so I tabled them for now.

Getting back to that frustration that professors have about acing homework and bombing exams – when the professor and I take a close look at the activities and homework they have assigned, sometimes they have not provided a good practice path to the skills they want students to achieve.  For example, if the homework has all multiple-choice questions of the Remember and Understand level of Bloom’s, but the exam has mostly short answer Apply and Analyze questions, where was the opportunity for the student to learn the skills to bridge that gap?  This also addresses common feedback from students, that we often don’t receive until well after the term has ended, that they did not feel that the homework prepared them for exams.

Backwards design allows us to keep the goal clearly in mind as we create assignments and activities that connect the dots and lead a student on a marked path toward that goal.


It is a beautiful thing that today we have so many different teaching approaches and effective learning strategies to choose from.  At Pearson, we have a wealth of resources from texts, to videos, animations, case studies, applications, simulations, and much more – that the temptation is to use anything and everything in our courses to make it exciting for students to learn.  But to keep an activity from just being busy work that achieves little but a distraction from the real goal of the lesson, we must keep our eyes on the prize and make sure it contributes to the understanding of an outcome of the course.

Tips for doing this with Pearson:

  1. Most texts have learning outcomes listed before or within the chapters. Often the learning outcomes align with the outcomes created by a society of professors and professionals in a discipline.  Choose a text that is a good fit for the goals you have for your course.
  2. Mastering and MyLab products allow you to choose items to add to an assignment based on the learning outcome. In Mastering, sort the question list by learning outcome and in MyLab simply select the learning outcome from the drop-down box.
  3. Mastering will also let you define your own learning outcomes and add them to items. This can be done in step 4 of the create/edit assignment workflow.  This is particularly handy if your institution or department has outcomes that they would like you to address in each course like “Effectively communicates in writing”.
  4. Use the Learning Outcomes Summary in Mastering or Item Analysis by Assignment in MyLab to see which outcomes are covered and by which and how many items. Do you need 12 items on a particular outcome?  Can you take some out?  Is another outcome under represented in the course or assignment?

It takes time to design a class with the backwards design approach, but it saves a lot of time too.  It saves time of sifting through or creating resources that do not meet our goals.  It streamlines our use of class preparation time and use of the time we have with students.  The students spend their time on activities and assignments that are leading them to the goals of the course.  I was able to apply backward design to my two courses in the two weeks given and I feel confident that I have solid courses that will help the students achieve the course outcomes.

About the author:
Debbie Schmidt

Debbie Schmidt

Debbie is the Faculty Advisor in Life Sciences for the Eastern US and Canada.  She has Master of Science degrees in Audiology and Human Anatomy & Physiology Instruction. While practicing Audiology for several years, she discovered a love for patient education.

Debbie joined higher education as an Anatomy & Physiology instructor teaching for several central Ohio colleges before becoming A&P Coordinator at Hocking College. There she became involved with Pearson as a freelancer consulting with other faculty about her success with MasteringA&P.  She joined Pearson full time in 2015 and continues to teach part-time. She loves working with faculty to help them with their goals for their students’ success.


Understanding by Design – Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching – Understanding by Design

The Glossary of Education Reform – Backward Design

McTighe & Associates Consulting – Resources

Building a Community of Learners in Online Classes – Amy Earls Thompson, PhD