Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence (CAFE)

Getting Started: Basics of Course Design

Ten Steps to Create an Effective Course: "Backwards" Course Design

In "backwards" course design, we begin with the end goal for our students as our first consideration, rather than with course content as our first consideration.  No matter what format you are teaching in -- face to face, hybrid, synchronous, asynchronous, hyflex, or something else -- backwards design is the way to create an effective course. 

Here's a very brief video summary of the backwards design concept:  

  1. Think about who your students are and what they need:  What preparation do they have?  What prior experience?  What might their goals and dreams be?  What challenges might they face? What strengths do they have?  What's the format of this course and its place in the curriculum?
  2. Create and clarify learning outcomes: What do you want students to get out of the course overall?  What do you want them to get out of each part of the course, specifically, and how does that relate to your overall goals?
  3. Think about how you will know if they have met those learning outcomes:  What tangible evidence would students display in terms of work product, behavior, writing, creative works, skills, etc., that would show you that they can do what you want them to be able to do?  These are "assessments."  Develop your graded assignments and tests from this step.
  4. Create or identify activities that they can do to get the information and practice skills needed for the learning outcomes:  What information do they need, and how will they get it, to be able to do the graded work?  What practice do they need?  What feedback do they need?  Develop your lectures, homework, projects, etc., from this step.
  5. Build an alignment table (doc)Check how well Steps 1-3 match up.  Make sure that every outcome has an assessment and every assessment has an activity - and that the outcomes, assessments, and activities all work together.  You can also make sure that the course is balanced, without one area being unintentionally over- or under-emphasized.
  6. Decide on a grading system:  What are the key components in your system, and what are their weights?  Strive for a system that accurately reflect students' achievement and also provides chances to revise and improve their work over the course.  Grading is an extremely complex phenomenon; talk to your department to learn about general practices in your department.
  7. Decide on course policies and practices:  At Cal Poly Pomona, faculty are responsible for determining their own policies regarding late work and responses to academic integrity, so at the very least include these policies. See CPP's Syllabus policy (pdf).
  8. Create and locate course instructional materials and assignments:  For most faculty, the problem is more having to pare things down than find new things!  As you decide what to use, strive to find resources and activities that reflect and honor the diversity of CPP students.  This will take more time up front but is well rewarded with courses that speak to our students.
  9. Build your course in Canvas:  You'll probably go back and forth between Steps 8 & 9.
  10. Write your syllabus:  This is purposefully the last step, although in practice you will probably find yourself writing parts of your syllabus throughout.  As you write the final syllabus, you may find yourself going back to tweak parts of the course as well.  But the syllabus is last because it is the culmination of the design process, reflecting all the choices you have mindfully made.    

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