backward design transparancy course header

Backwards Design and Transparency at the Course Level

Numerous instructional and course design models depend upon “backwards design” as their prime organizing principle. Many instructors start by deciding which content they want to include in their course, then decide on assessments, then course objectives. Backwards design reverses that process, making content the last thing you would choose.  Flower Darby, in her book Small Teaching Online, uses the analogy of a road trip to explain backwards design. The graphic below outlines the steps of backwards design

Destination  (Course Objectives)  → Determine if you arrived (Assessments)  → What you’ll need to get there (Content)

small teaching online design process

If you’ve been tasked with creating a course from scratch, or want/need to make significant changes to a course you are teaching, using backwards design is a great way to get started. It works for either online, in-person or hybrid courses.

Darby elaborates in her book:

Where do we want to go?  What are our primary goals for the course? What do we want students to know and be able to do by the end of the term? This should form the basis of our thinking around course learning objectives or outcomes. Early in your career you might have taught courses without a clear sense of what the learning objectives listed on the syllabus actually say or really mean. Maybe you inherited a syllabus or a course shell from someone else, or maybe you just whipped up some objectives in order to fill a spot on a required course template. When we take a backward approach to designing our course, we think carefully about our destination. Where do we want students to end up? This helps us to slow down and consider both the substance and the wording of our objectives. 

How will we know if we have arrived? Once we are clear about the course learning objectives, it’s essential to measure students’ achievement of those objectives to determine whether they attained them. We do this by way of both summative and formative assessments. Summative assessments such as final exams, papers, and projects allow students to demonstrate their mastery of our course learning objectives. Formative assessments such as low-stakes quizzes or weekly reflections help us to know whether students are making good progress. Planning intentional measures designed to reveal whether students are achieving the course outcomes forms a critical part of deliberate course design. 

What will we need to help us get there? After deciding on the destination and effective ways of measuring whether or how well we arrived there, the final core step in backward design is to consider what students will need in order to succeed on our assessments. Here is where we (finally) select course materials such as textbooks and other content. We design activities that help students engage with and process new information and concepts. We devise a course schedule with milestones, often in the form of incremental deadlines or formative assessments that keep students accountable and allow us to give feedback on their work along the way. In doing so, we help our students make steady progress toward the destination – that is, achieving the course learning objectives.

Transparency in Course Design

With your road map ready, you can let your students know why they will be doing what you ask them to do, and how it will help them be successful. Next week using transparency in modules and assignments to connect students to course objectives throughout your course. 

Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby is available through the Carlyle Campbell Library if you would like to dive into the book.
Please contact Paul Keys ( or Stacy Muse ( if you would like to learn more.

1 thought on “Backwards Design and Transparency at the Course Level”

  1. Pingback: Backwards Design and Transparency 2: Modules and Assignments – Instructional Design That Works

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