by Catherine Man

Here’s an idea to switch up the planning for your online course: Backwards Design.

This is an approach to instructional design explained in detail by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book, Understanding by Design (UbD). It’s a concept that seems counterintuitive at first because most educators approach the planning process by first designing learning activities (ie. reading the textbook, visiting a museum, researching a specific topic). In contrast, Wiggins and McTighe advocate beginning the process with designing the student assessments, and argue this is the most effective way to help students understand and not simply store knowledge.

Wiggins and McTighe differentiate understanding from knowledge; understanding implies that students reach a proficiency in which they can describe the concepts through their own interpretation, can view the information through multiple perspectives, have empathy and reflect on their knowledge. Some questions to consider:

  • What does this understanding look like for your students?
  • How do you imagine students will be able to apply the knowledge from the course work?
  • Why is it important for their academic or career trajectories?
  • What is the evidence that a student has reached a level of understanding with the content that you feel confident they can move onto the next level successfully


backward design of a course

When you’ve arrived at these answers, it’s time to concentrate on designing the assessments. How will you know when a student truly understands, and not just seem to understand by memorizing the reading material?

When designing these assessments on Blackboard, consider which tools will give students the space to demonstrate understanding and even mastery of the course material. In addition to the usual suspects (tests and papers), Blackboard offers various tools for assessment. Asking students to keep up a blog where they can reflect on and interpret the material through their own lenses. Working with other students to create a wiki page can help them process information through other perspectives.

Wiggins and McTighe ask the following questions when they design a course and are thinking like an assessor:


  • What would be a sufficient and revealing evidence of understanding?
  • Given the goals, what performance tasks must anchor the unit and focus the instructional work?
  • What are the different types of evidence required by desired results?
  • Against what criteria will we appropriately consider work and assess levels of quality?
  • Did the assessments reveal and distinguish those who really understood from those who only seemed to? Am I clear on the reasons behind learner mistakes?

As a design approach and framework, UbD is an alternative to the teaching mentality of trying to teach the entirety of a textbook, whether in an online or a face to face course. Setting a clear overarching objective that focuses on the level of understanding you want students to walk away with allows an instructor to selectively curate only content that will get students to that end goal.


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



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