How to design a course backwards

| November 6, 2019 in Higher Education

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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.