Outside of an academic setting, if someone asked you to design a "course," you'd first need to ask them some questions: where should it start? where should it go? will it be used primarily by swimmers, cyclists, or runners? That is, you'd need to imagine the course as something situated within a broader landscape, and designed to help a specific group of users reach a certain destination. Within academic settings, by contrast, we often fail to think of course design in these terms. Instead, we focus on how we're going to distribute some mass of content across a semester-length arc, organizing it along common-sense axes such as chronology, geography, or theme, and punctuating it with problem sets, midterms, papers, or creative projects. In this way, often we end up with syllabi that are doing more justice to the topics of our courses and the vicissitudes of the academic calendar than we are to the needs of our students.
To be sure, when all is said and done and the semester is underway, these organizational features will be evident in almost any course. But in a well-designed course they are surface features, rather the than organizing principles themselves. These principles—the ones that help us decide what we assign, how we teach it, how we assess it, and in what order—only emerge when we step back and ask ourselves: what sorts of students is this class aiming to attract? Where am I trying to take them? How will I get them there? How will I know whether they've arrived?
Rather than starting with the content or the "means" (lectures, textbooks, problem sets, exams), Backward Design begins at the end by asking "What should students learn in this course?" and " What should they know or be able to do by the end?" Within the framework of Backward Design, the student's assimilation of content—often thought of as an end in itself—gets rethought as a means to higher-order goals, e.g., applying content learned in the course through practice and recognizing the transferability of skills learned in the course to contexts beyond it.
Whether you're a professor designing a new course from scratch or a Teaching Fellow planning an individual section, the best place to start—and a touchstone to which you can, and should, return—is the set of learning goals you have for your students. The idea of starting with "learning goals" might feel like a distraction from the content which is at the heart and soul of your course; at worst, it might feel like a buzzword trying to stand in for expertise. In fact, though, while many of us start with content when we're designing our teaching, that feeling is itself an intuition that's often masking the discrete goals and waystations through which we passed in our own development from novice to experts—whether it was a book that we survived, and that every generation of students in our discipline must survive; or an experiment that made a particular concept come into immediate, jarring focus. What learning goals help us do is interrogate these intuitions so that we can remind ourselves why we got excited about pursuing our expertise in the first place, and which modes of teaching or kinds of assignments helped us the most.
Assignments constitute the very core of a course. After all, they often are the only moments in a semester in which your students’ learning is rendered visible to you—and indeed, often to them as well. From high-stakes essays, projects, and problem sets, to low-stakes (perhaps even ungraded) activities, measuring learning is a prelude to learning more: the assessment should help teachers and students adjust their respective efforts.
We recently asked a cohort of undergraduate and graduate students how, in a word or short phrase, they would define the function(s) of a syllabus. The results were impressive: while several answers (like "a contract") repeated as one might predict, others (like "a recipe book," "a user's guide," or "a provocation") reminded us of just how many audiences—and how many ends—this genre is meant to serve. Faculty (not to mention job market candidates) often compose syllabi as much to demonstrate their mastery of a topic to other instructors as they do to inform their students. While there is no single model of an "optimal" syllabus, there are at least some features which students report finding especially useful.
Course catalogue materials—namely, the title of your course and brief course description which students see through the my.harvard portal—may seem somewhat disconnected from the process of course design. You may consider these aspects of your course to be mere "advertising" (or, depending on how you believe students select their courses, to be altogether irrelevant). Yet composing an apt course description can be folded into the writing of your syllabus to great effect. Challenging yourself to describe the central issue(s) of your course, the kinds of material students will encounter, and the goals which you have for them by the end of the semester in a brief paragraph can be just the thing to clarify the voice in which your syllabus and assignment prompts will speak.