Backward Planning: Ensure the Syllabus Supports Student Outcomes
When designing a course, you want to ensure that each component directly contributes to student learning. Following Universal Design for Learning, you want to strike a balance between core instructional goals, student interests and expectations, and the constraints of the semester.
To reach this balance, you must first consider what your students should learn by the end of the course. What key facts must they recall? Which key skills provide a necessary foundation for further work? What types of creative application do you need your students to display?
Next, compose the key assignments. Make sure the major projects of your course focus on the desired student outcomes. Will they actually apply the core knowledge you want them to learn? Will they employ the critical thinking skills of research, investigation, and analysis?
Once you've designed these projects, determine the smaller assignments that will help students prepare. What skills must they learn in order to succeed in your projects? Do these skills correlate with the course objectives you've planned? What kind of practice exercises will strengthen their individual abilities? Will these activities reinforce positive habits for academic success?
In short: Based on your course objectives, assign helpful activities that will build toward meaningful projects without resorting to busywork.
The Shortcomings of "Starting from the Beginning"
As a teacher, I've often attempted this in reverse — I've carefully chosen readings and activities that I felt would benefit my students, and then I painstakingly pieced them together like jigsaw puzzle pieces to create a "coherent" whole. I believe many teachers follow this approach — it does, after all, seem to make sense that you would "start from the beginning," pacing out the semester week-by-week in anticipation of what students should be able to "accomplish" at each stage.
The problem, however, is that you can't fit everything into a single course — we have too much to share, and not enough classroom hours. Additionally, a course built of incredible activities and experiences may appear disjointed — and even that assumes the students will share your enthusiasm for each individual reading, discussion, or assignment.
In a way, however, I believe every teacher does retrospective planning. Looking back on the prior semester, we tweak our assignments, rewording and reconstructing the directions to help students better address the issues that "bother" us in their submissions. For example, I hate it when students use poor citation — over time, I've developed increasingly complex lessons on how to properly cite outside sources. I've grown weary with the number of students who have plagiarized Wikipedia or other websites. Sure, it's only one or two cases a year, but each one feels like I've been punched in the gut, as if I've failed as a teacher — and so, more lessons what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.
These "backward glances" are a form of backward planning, and they aren't ineffective. In fact, they provide crucial learning experiences for each of us — especially when we integrate feedback from students into course design. But to make the best use of them, it's important to place each one within the context of course expectations. Over time, I've better integrated these lessons with the larger course projects, introducing each small assignment at a stage that matters for the larger course projects. However, as I formulate my plans for future courses, I anticipate that I can avoid situations where improvisation provides mixed results.