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SAGE Musings: Backwards Course Design

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
published Jun 27, 2016

Summer is a great time to think about designing or revising courses, and I know that right now many of you are thinking about how to incorporate new ideas or activities into your teaching. This therefore seems like the perfect time to re-visit the idea of "backwards course design."

Heather and Jan presented a session about this at the March workshop, on Saturday morning: -- but we didn't invent this process. The idea of designing a course "backwards," or by starting from the desired results, comes from a book by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe: Understanding by Design. There's a very nice overview of this book on the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching website:

This approach is described in detail in the "Cutting Edge" course design tutorial, with a wealth of examples from the geosciences: This site walks you through the process of articulating overarching course-level learning goals for your students, choosing course content to achieve those goals, and developing a plan for the course that fits all of those pieces together.

When I started teaching, it never crossed my mind to articulate course-level learning goals. Now I can't imagine designing a learning experience without starting with the desired end in mind, and designing learning activities to give people practice and support in developing the skills I expect them to master. It seems so obvious in retrospect, but if I wanted my students to be able to read geologic maps, I had to give them multiple opportunities to practice that!

I like to take this approach to every level of teaching, so I wrote a page about designing a class period using backwards design: If backwards design is a new idea for you, and you'd like to try it on something "smaller" than an entire course, this might be a place to start.

Have you tried designing or revising a course or an assignment with the learning goals in mind? How did it go? What are some of your overarching goals for your students?

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