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With the start of the semester fast approaching we will spend this week’s post examining a simplified introduction to Backwards Course Design by focusing on determining learning goals and planning out assessment styles for a new class. And make sure to come back next week, when the topics of syllabus creation and lesson planning will be discussed.

Planning a class is tough. Figuring out lectures and topics to cover, choosing between papers, projects, quizzes, or just a final, setting up a flipped classroom or relying on the traditional lecture model, there are so many choices. Into this confusing maelstrom comes the ideas of Backwards Course Design, where instead of getting stuck in the minutia, the course objectives are established first and from there the rest of the decisions begin to fall into place. The Kaneb Center typically offers a workshop series in the Spring semester that will go deeper into these topics, but for this post we will hit the highlights on choosing learning goals and determining assessment options based on those goals.

Learning Goals

When thinking of learning goals, or learning objectives, it is helpful to imagine that you are already done with the course. Try to list off three to four goals you would want your students to have completed by this point. These are your learning goals. When designing learning objectives, instead of using words like think or understand, it can help to use active words like create, analyze, or compare. An example of a poor learning goal for a Calculus I class would be:

  • At the end of this class, the student will understand what a derivative is.

This can immediately be improved by restructuring the goal to the following:

  • At the end of this class, the student will be able to calculate derivatives and apply them to various real-world applications.

A very helpful source for educationally-related active words is Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is beyond our current scope, but a helpful diagram can be found here (PDF).

A few more examples of appropriate learning goals are shown below.

  • At the end of this class, the student will be able to identify and evaluate the strength of a thesis in a variety of mediums. (Composition)
  • At the end of this class, the student will be able to explain trends of chemical properties by referring to the periodic table. (Introduction to Chemistry)
  • At the end of this class, the student will be able to compare and contrast social structures and examine their impact on themselves and the world. (Introduction to Sociology)

With these learning goals in hand, you now have a direction for designing assessments for the class. Additionally, while we suggest only having three to four objectives defined for the class as a whole, it is very useful to establish additional learning goals for individual lectures, assignments and projects. The justification for condensing the course into only a few goals is to help keep the direction of the course focused.


When considering assessments, it is important to remember the two primary types, formative and summative. Formative assessments are intended to provide feedback and help inform the students about their competence in a subject, while summative assessments tend to be used more for assigning grades and rankings, i.e. summarizing a student’s ability. Any assessment can include aspects of both types, but some fall on one side much more heavily. For example, a final exam where the student will likely only see his or her grade and never see the graded exam is overwhelming a summative assessment, whereas weekly quizzes for minimal points, where the intention is that it is used as feedback for learning is primarily a formative assessment.

Thinking back to the learning goals you have identified, a good place to begin planning assessments is by determining how the learning objectives can be measured. Taking the Calculus example from earlier, homework and quizzes where the use of derivatives are required would be an effective way to measure students’ progress as they practice calculating and using derivatives. For the composition class, assignments where the student must identify or eventually create thesis statements would be a way to measure the learning goal. Deciding on quizzes or papers or tests only mattes as a point of personal preference, departmental policy and grading time. The end result should be a ruler upon which to measure the success of a student in fulfilling the class learning goals

Additionally, one important component to always include is a rubric. Having an objective scale to use while grading is of the utmost importance because it allows for transparency and consistency in grading. iRubric (link) provides a number of helpful templates along with a number of sample rubrics, if you do not have much experience creating your own.

Ultimately, the primary role of the assessment should be to measure the student’s progress along the stated learning goals. If an assessment fails in that capacity, then it should be reworked or replaced.

Once you have your learning goals and general ideas for assessments determined, creating a syllabus is much simpler, which will be covered in next week’s blog post, along with tips on lesson planning.


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