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Backward Design

Why should faculty be concerned about course design for online and hybrid courses? The research literature (Schubert-Irastorza & Fabryshows, 2011; Jackson, Jones & Rodriquez, 2011) reveals that a critical element in student satisfaction with faculty performance is the degree of organization and clarity in an online course. Timely feedback, instructor presence, and interaction are other important elements.

As such, some of the major focal areas for design may be the course organization and layout at the outset; the creation of faculty presentation materials; the choice of readings and resources; and the design of student learning activities, assignments, and assessment.

For the latter, the idea of “backward design” (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) is a helpful concept—it means to design your course or unit or lesson with the “end” in mind; start with your learning outcomes and what you hope students will learn, then determine what learning activities you need to arrive at those results and what evidence you would need to assess those results. Wiggins and McTighe decried a focus on activity without full consideration of the purpose of that activity and the tendency for instructors to unduly focus on “coverage”—what the teacher will be able to get students through in however many weeks the course lasts. They encourage a more purposeful design approach that includes three stages:

  1. Identify desired results: What do you want students to learn?
  2. Determine acceptable evidence: How will you know students have learned it?
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction.

It’s important to plot out the basic structure of a course before building it out, whether face-to-face (f2f), hybrid, or online. But this takes on special importance in the case of an online course because everything in an online course must be built out and visible. Building out your online course as you are teaching it is not an approach that results in cohesive instructional design, nor is it wise from the standpoint of effective teaching or stress management either!

So outlining and drafting a syllabus and coming up with a logical layout for the online course site are important precursors to building out your course.

Your academic program may have design guidelines and online course site templates that are recommended for you to follow. Be sure to inquire about these before initiating your planning.

A course planning tool can be very helpful in keeping all the parts in order and providing an overview of the various parts and how they correspond, build on, or proceed from one another.

In Module 4, we provide a course planning tool that was also made available to participants during the Preparation for Teaching Online workshop.

As you devise the specific assignments and assessments, be sure to align assignments with the course learning outcomes and consider how attainment of the learning outcomes will be made observable by you, the instructor. This means deciding on the specific ways that students will demonstrate (and that the instructor will know) that students have achieved the week’s/unit’s expected learning outcomes/objectives.

Using a Variety of Approaches to Fulfill Learning Outcomes

It is desirable to incorporate different types of learning opportunities and approaches into each course, recognizing that there is more than one way to approach learning and that the appeal of any particular approach varies from student to student. Variety is as important online as it is in a traditional face-to-face class, and using multiple approaches will both reinforce student learning and allow students to address the subject matter from different perspectives.

If you teach a hybrid class, you will want to pay close attention to the mix of activities carried out in each format and take full advantage of both delivery modes. Generally it is a good idea to use face-to-face meeting time for the most complex topics; lab projects; testing and oral presentations; or other activities (e.g., organization, team-building, or feedback) that might be handled more effectively or efficiently f2f. This does not mean that you cannot perform these same activities equally well in a completely online class; it is just a recognition that if you have the f2f time available, some activities might be more easily arranged in that mode.

Any type of assignment is a potential assessment. It can either be formative (part of the instructional sequence for the purpose of measuring progress and giving appropriate feedback rather than for a grade) or summative (a graded assignment or test that takes place at end of an instructional sequence or as a final assessment of the course). What matters is that the assessment is:

  • relevant to the objectives and goals of the course
  • appropriate for the level and scope of the course content
  • easily enough accomplished online (or, in a hybrid course, is easily accomplished in the chosen delivery mode)
  • clearly outlined to students via logically organized instructions that include the how, when, and where of online logistics

Make sure that you create a mix of assessments including a variety of different types that allow student work to be measured from a number of different perspectives, providing diverse ways for students to demonstrate their learning. This summary of different types of learning activities introduced in the Preparation for Teaching Online Workshop might stimulate your thinking about some possibilities:

  • Reflective activities: journaling, blogging, discussion questions
  • Case studies and scenarios, games
  • Role play and debates (including those requiring research)
  • Peer review and small group projects
  • Assignments built around an online resource
  • Assignments that require action outside the classroom: interviews, reports of visits, creating video essays

Structuring Assignments in Online Courses

There are a few concepts that might be useful as you think about planning your online student activities and the mix of assignments to include:

Scaffolding and Sequencing: This means staging an assignment and providing support at each stage so as to allow students to gradually build up to the culminating tasks of the assignment. This is often accomplished via incremental structuring of an assignment or the provision of foundational materials. For example, a major research paper might consist of three or four smaller assignments: proposing a topic, producing a review of the literature and a preliminary reference list, creating an outline of the paper, a first draft, and final draft. Resources might be provided each step of the way: links to examples of a literature review, tips on creating a good outline, or a guide to proper documentation via APA or MLA. Scaffolding can also be organized so that learners at different levels of development in the subject can partake of those resources most appropriate to their needs.

Other types of scaffolding are weekly quizzes leading up to a final exam, clear models or exemplary samples of the resulting work you would like to see, or demonstrations of each step in a complex assignment or project.

Low-stakes vs. high-stakes assignments: Low-stakes assignments and assessments are those that are worth relatively few or no grade points or that can be retaken for the best score. For example, in a math or computer science or history course, weekly quizzes might be worth a small number of points, offer automatic feedback, and only count the highest score out of multiple attempts. A low-stakes writing assignment might be an initial draft of an essay or responses on a discussion board that are worth only a few points each. Low-stakes assignments are good for motivating students, keeping them engaged, and laying the foundation for higher-level thinking skills by reinforcing memory and retention of information. High-stakes assignments and assessments often involve evaluating a student’s final product, such as a major research paper, group presentation, or final exam, and are therefore worth more points or a larger percentage of the final grade.

Instructor presence, social presence: Because face-to-face interaction is missing in an online course, it is important, when designing a course, to create opportunities for instructor and students to make their presence felt. An instructor may do this through a variety of methods: participation in the discussion board; through carefully crafted regular announcements or a running blog; through personalized feedback as well as through the use of casual audio or video commentary; real-time office hours through Skype or chat; occasional surveys and polls to gather formative student feedback on the ongoing course. A social element that helps to create a sense of a class community may be achieved through skillfully designed discussion; student writing and commenting on blogs; group wikis; social bookmarking; posting of student profiles; photos and video introductions; or any of the many sharing or social media tools that are appropriate for your course. By combining a variety of opportunities for instructor and students to interact and communicate and for students to receive and give feedback, instructor and students are able to achieve the sense of inhabiting a real learning space together. Again, the key to this is planning and designing for such interactions. In this video, Michele Pacansky-Brock discusses the value of social presence in online learning:

For more exploration into the Community of Inquiry framework and its concepts of teaching, social and cognitive presence in online education, see https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model/an-interactive-coi-model/

The Importance of the First Week and First Assignment

In online courses, the first week of the course is critical in capturing the attention and confidence of the student, so give it special attention when designing a course. Here are some of the items that you must have in place, all of which were covered in the Preparation for Teaching Online workshop in greater detail:

  • An announcement that is welcoming and tells students where things are, how to get started, and where to ask a question
  • Your contact info and some idea of communication turn-around time posted in the course site, as well as in the syllabus
  • An invitation to students to introduce themselves in the discussion forum and to get to know classmates, which can be combined with an ice-breaker question—encourage but don’t force students to supply a photo via the avatar creation in Blackboard or to create their own video intro
  • A first assignment beyond introductions and ice-breakers which is due within the first two weeks of the course.

More on that first assignment

The first assignment should be designed to serve several purposes:

  • It should have substance and immediately engage students in the essential principles or relevance of the course subject matter.
  • It should be low-stakes in terms of the overall grade percentage, so as to establish a baseline, provide an opportunity for faculty feedback, and while it may be challenging, it affords a chance for the student to achieve a small measure of success. The assignment can be low stakes by virtue of the small grade percentage, or because it allows for multiple attempts or revisions. It may also be the first step in an incrementally larger assignment.
  • It should provide the faculty with some diagnostic value—measuring prior knowledge, particular skills (including such skills as writing, research, or analytic or quantitative reasoning).
  • It should be an assignment on which the faculty member can give a quick turnaround.

Some examples of an effective first-week assignment are: asking students to read and then discuss CUNY’s official Academic Integrity policy on a discussion forum, a short writing assignment in response to a topical article, or a reflection post on what they may already know about the course’s topic.

Promoting Academic Integrity as Part of Design Process

Students today live online and are able to easily tap internet resources if they are inclined to plagiarize. Some students really do not understand what plagiarism entails—they may simply not feel competent to express ideas, or may not fully understand how to document and cite their work. Here are a few things to keep in mind when designing assignments and assessments so as to decrease the odds that students will stray from standards of academic integrity:

  • Set up assignments so as to make use of SafeAssign or Turnitin in Blackboard.
  • Make sure writing and research topics are sufficiently specific, rather than so broad that any borrowed text could meet the requirements.
  • Include elements that require students to refer to discussion or other activity specific to the class.
  • Segment the assignment so that you can observe the development of the work.
  • Make sure grading criteria includes measures of responsiveness to the assignment requirements and question, so that you grade on the basis of relevance and responsiveness to the assignment.
  • Ask students to give examples and provide evidence to support their arguments.
  • Insist on clear citations and a reference list that matches those citations.
  • Educate students concerning fair use guidelines and in creating multimedia products, have students document what they incorporate from elsewhere.

What are SPS Expectations for an Online Course?

At this point we want to introduce a document that you will be referring to while designing and developing your course as well as during the teaching of your course. That is the SPS Online Design and Interaction Guidelines. This can serve as a checklist for what you need to consider in designing, building out, and teaching your course.

Things to Think About:

  • What are some of the essential aspects of my course subject matter that I want to convey to my students from the very start of the class?
  • What are some of the most important skills or knowledge sets that are embedded in the course learning outcomes?
  • What would be an ideal first assignment for my students?

Things to Do:

  • Categorize each element in the mix of different assignments and learning activities that you contemplating for your course. Do you find that they are similar, or do they embody different approaches? Which are low stakes and which high stakes? What seems to be missing from your mix?
  • Identify any templates or types of assignments that are required by your program. If you have any questions about these, contact your academic director.
  • Make a list of ways in which you will provide opportunities for students to interact with each other and with you.


Some of this material has been adapted from Ko, S. S., & Rossen, S. (2010). Teaching online: A practical guide (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.