backward design transparancy course header

Backwards Design and Transparency 2: Modules and Assignments

Previously we discussed how to use backwards design to design an entire course. You can apply some backwards design principles when creating your modules as well. Brightspace’s HTML editor and Insert Stuff tool are great for creating modules that provide clarity to your students by keeping the rationale for your decisions easily accessible and in full view of your students.  Brightspace and Kaltura also provide the tools to record brief video announcements that complement or sometimes can replace your text descriptions.

In Flower Darby’s book, Small Teaching Online, she provides tips for designing your modules:

At the beginning of each online module or unit, provide a short, written description that introduces that module’s content, describes what students are doing, and explains why they are doing it. I like to open each module with a two- to three-sentence overview of the module, an explanation of how module content and activities will help students succeed in the class (or help them achieve academic and career goals, become better employees, better citizens – think big!), and a list of four to six learning goals or objectives for that module that align with the course learning objectives. 

You can begin your list of learning goals with something like, “After successfully completing this module, you will be able to…” and then provide a bulleted or numbered list of specific demonstrable skills students will acquire as they complete the module work. Provide this guidance in a short, written element at the beginning or top of each module in order to clearly establish why they are doing what they are doing in that module. Alternatively, or in addition to your text-based overview, you may want to give a quick video introduction to each module, in line with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Reinforce the reasoning behind class activities using announcements at intentionally timed intervals throughout the course. Video announcements are perfect for this. Written announcements are also an option, but in my experience students are more likely to click on and view a (brief!) video thumbnail than to read yet another wall of text.

Here is an example of how that could look for a module in Brightspace.

backward design module example with overview and objectives

Once you’ve designed your course and modules within the course, you can add transparency principles to any assignments or activities.


Oftentimes the purpose of  classroom activities is clear in your head,  but the potential is always there for the lack of such clarity to your students. In keeping with the principles of transparency that you used in course and module design you can create assignment instructions that provide a clear rationale for the work your students will do, as well as clear directions for how they can accomplish it successfully. You can then relate the task to the current module and to the course learning objectives.

Going to Flower Darby’s Small Teaching Online again, you can use the headings below in your assignments, using the HTML editor in Brightspace: 

Here’s what I want you to do: Explain the task. 

Here’s why I want you to do it: Explain the reason this task will contribute to the student’s success in class and beyond. 

Here’s how to do it: Provide detailed instructions, rubrics, checklists, and exemplars to help students clearly see and understand my expectations.

Here’s an example of how that could look in a Brightspace Assignment.

backward design assignment example

So you have the principles of transparency and backwards design ready to use at the course, module and assignment levels.  Using any or all of them will make your courses make more sense to you and your students!

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.

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