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Course planning - Plan assessment, then activities, then content
Course planning - Plan assessment, then activities, then content

How you can use backwards design and constructive alignment to get a more focused course.

Caitlin Foran avatar
Written by Caitlin Foran
Updated over a week ago

Learning often uses what is called "backwards design". In Course planning - Set the goals, we talked about how we begin with the end in mind by setting the goals.Β 

Then, once we've got the goals, the tracing backward continues.

  1. Assessment - How can learners show that they know?

  2. Practice - What practice and activities will learners need?

  3. Content - What is the "need to know"?

So, what does this look like in practice?

The column on the left is what typically happens when you start with the content. However, starting with the content tends to focus on the transmission of information rather than learning.


Once you have refined your outcomes, it's time to think about how your learners will be able to show they've done these things.

The good news is, if you've managed to write really good outcomes the assessment falls right out.

If you find your outcomes don't easily lead to how learners can show they know. Look again at your outcome and ask:

  • What does success look like for my learners?

  • What can they do?

  • Does my outcome match my idea of success?


You've got your outcomes and assessment tasks - how can you let learners practice these skills and get some early feedback on low stakes activities?

We find blooms a great model to use again. Just find the level of your outcome, then create activities for practice from the levels below and up to the same level as your outcome.

For example, if our assessment is to critique a weekly food plan. We see that this fits with the evaluate level. So, we could use these sorts of activities from the different levels.

What you might notice is that the borders between these levels can blur easily. That's okay. Just ask yourself, if a learner can do this assessment, what other (slightly easier) things can they also do? Those are your practice activities.

Use this activities that align with assessment sheet as a handy prompt when you're stuck for ideas. Even if you don't use the exact activity, hopefully it acts as a launching point for your other creative ideas.


We're finally at the last stage of learning design - content and resources. This is where we ask, what do we need to teach or show learners to complete the activities and assessment?

As we mentioned when we first introduced backwards design, this way of doing things, means you're only including the "need to know" we don't want to over burden learners with things that won't actually help them complete the assessment.

Let's say we decided to include all of the practice activities above to get our learners ready for their assessment - What content would we need to cover? What would our "big rocks" be?

Here's what we think we'd need to cover:

  • Foods belong to different groups

  • The kinds of foods in each group

  • What we mean by balanced diets

  • How much of each group you should have in a balanced diet

The last step

Once you've got your assessment, practice activities and content, you need to check they actually align. In other words, does the content give them enough information to try out the practice activities? Will the practice actually help them to achieve the assessment?

Here's an example of alignment:

  • Content: How much of each group you should have in a balanced diet.

  • Practice: Put food groups in order of what should be eaten most often.

  • Assessment: Create a food pyramid that shows the right balance of food types.

Here's an example of misalignment:

  • Content: The kinds of foods in each group.

  • Practice: Match food to the different groups they belong with.

  • Assessment: Create a balanced diet plan for a week.

In this misalignment example, the content would give them enough information to do the practice, but knowing which foods belong to which group doesn't directly lead to learners being about to create a balanced diet plan. A better-aligned assessment would be: Create a presentation or infographic showing which foods are in which groups.

Note: You are allowed to have more than one content or practice item to reach an assessment. But, breaking it down to very specific assessment tasks can make reaching alignment much easier.

What next?

Often, because this step is relatively detailed, it tends to be finished off after you've identified your audience, defined the flavour and set the goals. So if you've not done any of those, dive in and get started.

If you've have already done those steps - check that everything matches up:

  • Is your assessment proof that your learners have met the goal?

  • Does your content and activities you've got planned follow the flavour you defined?

  • Do the activities and way we've decided to present the content match up to what we said our audience's needs were?

  • Is the assessment open enough to allow a variety of learner experiences?

Once you've checked that everything lines up, you're probably ready to set the finer details of setting the style.

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