Starting at the End: Using Backward Course Design to Organize Your Teaching

Nov. 7, 2016

Are you curious about Backward Design? Have you ever heard of it before? ASM recently spoke to Sue Merkel, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at Cornell University and chair of the ASM Committee on Undergraduate Education, about Backward Design and how to get started using this course design technique that helps instructors organize their teaching, promote critical thinking, and set clear goals for their students.

Backward Design (also called Understanding by Design) can be broken down into three broad steps:

1. Develop Learning Outcomes

The first step is to develop learning outcomes for your students. This is a statement like “At the end of this unit or class, students should be able to…”, followed by a measurable action statement like “describe the evidence that supports the theory that mitochondria evolved from bacteria.” Learning outcomes can be either lower order (generally requiring recall of facts) or higher order (generally requiring deeper understanding or the application of concepts to a new situation). ASM provides Sample Learning Outcomes to go along with the Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Microbiology. You may want to layer your goals by defining broad learning outcomes for your entire course, and 2-3 smaller goals for each class period.

2. Write Your Assessments

The learning outcomes determine where you want your students to go, and assessments tell you whether or not they got there. If your learning outcomes are measurable, then it's easy to write assessments that match the outcomes. Higher-order and lower-order learning goals and assessments should match. As Merkel said, “you don’t want to teach at a high level but ask questions at a low level, or teach at a low level and then ask questions at a higher level.”  For example, a learning outcome of "Students should be able to label the cell structure of gram-negative and gram-positive cells" (a lower-order learning goal) should not be assessed with "Predict how doing the Gram stain incorrectly (e.g. forgetting ethanol) would affect the results for gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria" (a higher-order learning goal). ASM offers Sample Questions in Microbiology, aligned to the Curriculum Guidelines, which you might find useful when developing your assessments.

3. Decide How You’ll Deliver the Content

Now that you know what you want your students to learn and how you’re going to measure that learning, decide how you’re going to deliver the content. You might choose case studies, labs, a textbook (Microbe 2nd ed. is aligned to the ASM Curriculum Guidelines and Sample Learning Outcomes), or a combination of tools.

Merkel suggested that you may want to start with trying Backward Design on just one lecture, and work up to redesigning a unit and finally your whole course. “One of the powerful things about Backward Design,” she said, “is that it’s a framework that allows you to make sure that you’re doing what you meant to do…It’s a way to keep track of what you’re doing and make it purposeful.” Backward Design helps you clearly set goals for your students’ learning, and then measure whether or not those goals have been met.

Want to learn more about how you can incorporate evidence-based teaching into your classroom? Check out Merkel’s recent article in FEMS Microbiology Letters, an ASM webinar that she presented on course design, and teaching methods and tools from ASM. Workshops and sessions on Backward Design and evidence-based approaches are frequently offered at the ASM Conference for Undergraduate Educators and the ASM Microbe meeting. The open-access Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education offers many resources as well.


Author: Bethany Adamec

Bethany Adamec
Bethany Adamec is a Science Education Specialist at ASM, where she communicates about ASM’s work in student and faculty professional development, supports the ASM Education Board, and works with colleagues to promote evidence-based education reform.