Backward Design for the Development of DISK Course Modules

If you create a new course, it is crucial how to design. All preparation work should have been done: You know the expected learning outcomes; you know the target group and all other necessary parameters.

Some months ago, I had an interesting conversation with a schoolteacher about the planning and implementation of lessons.

Case study – the schoolbook

The starting point

This teacher mentioned that, at the beginning of the school year, some of his colleagues use a simple system: They take the schoolbook, count the pages (from the index), calculate the number of weeks available for teaching, and divide the number of pages by the weeks. Now they know how many pages they must do each week and their planning is completed.

Hearning this, I was a little bit surprised and asked if that works. The feedback was: Yes.

What do you mean – is this a practicable approach?

Here are my considerations:

  • If this really is done this way, the approach is completely inacceptable for me. Besides other issues, I miss the clearly defined learning goals. Obviously, the teachers trust the book authors that they have taken the learning goals from the curriculum and integrated all of them into the book content.
  • Additionally, it is unclear for me how the learning success can be evaluated. Since there is no clear definition of the learning outcomes – how can the teacher assess the learners progress and the reaching of the learning aims?

These are only two ideas I had, and they do not cover all the considerations I did in this case.

The DISK approaches

In the DISK project, the partners used a Backward Design approach. This methos used a typical top-down structure as it is very common in industry and economy (We will explain the two structures top-down and Bottom-up later).

Figure 1: This depiction shows the approach to Backward Design (Original: Developed for the FAdE Erasmus+ Project)

Here are the major cornerstones of Backward Design:

  • Define the learning aim (or training goal) well.
    This means a detailed description of the learning aims, well-structured and designed. In consequence, it is crucial to know the description because this defines explains the assessed items to evaluate the learning outcomes. If you do not know the learning outcomes, how will you assess anything?
    Hint: In the DISK project, we always used competency-based learning aims. These descriptions were further used for the Self-evaluation Mandala.
  • When you have defined the learning outcomes, you can plan their assessment. Nevertheless, this is a complex process. You must care about emphasizes in the learning outcomes, you must plan the method (formative or final assessment), and the assessment implementation.
    Basically, various implementation types exist for the implementation of assessments. Thereafter, you may have a final oral exam as well as a formative assessment with observation of learners’ behaviour and group-based work. Accordingly, other options were technology-based assessments using multimedia and interactive tools, learners perform them with their electronic devices under given conditions.
  • Knowing what to assess, you can care about the content that will bring the learners to the expected learning outcomes. Obviously, all assessed topics must be covered by the created content, as well as all content must be foreseen to reach all the expected learning outcomes.
    Hint: In the frame of individualization, you may create some extra content for interested learners. This content is not compulsory, but an added value for a specific group of learners.

Implementation of DISK Modules into the MOODLE course

The development of the learning content in the DISK course followed the Backward Design: All partners used a template to define the learning outcomes (competency based). These descriptions of the competencies were used to create the Self-Evaluation Mandala (for each of the 15 modules).

The next step was the creating of an assessment plan. The partners agreed to have minimum one formative assessment and a final assessment in each module.

With this material, the development of the training path followed as a final step. This way of content creation took into account the Learning Platform MOODLE. The content description was accomplished with the specific assignment to the used MOODLE activity. This enabled an efficient peer review of the defined training paths and as well an effective content creation.

Top-Down development versus Bottom-Up

Top-Down always means to start from the intended end. You define the expected outcome, and in a stepwise refinement you create a breakdown structure into the details.

A typical example is the development of a family car: You define the car as a means of transport for a typical family.

In the stepwise refinement, you check the average number of children in families, and use this information for the decision of the number of seats. To estimate the space needed for the trunk is another critical step. Additionally, you check other related issues in a family and following this read thread you get finally the complete description of the features of the car. By the way, this is the way the web-based car configuration tools work: You decide on the basic car type, select the engine, the featured down to the color of the seats.

The Bottom-Up approach starts from details to the final product. Even with this approach, you must know what the outcome will be. Nevertheless, the description of the outcome is not precise. An example is to build a Lego house (with your children).

The expected outcome is a house (without any further details). You have a box filled with various Lego bricks, and you start to build. You create the basic structure of the house by fixing the ground plan (or layout) with bricks. After this, you start to build the walls, and they include windows and doors. The next element is the roof and finally, step by step, the house develops until the house is finished.

The bottom-up process can be used in creative work, where you have a diffuse aim and reach it step by step, adding items of features.

Top-down and Bottom-up – explained simply

The top-down approach goes from the general to the specific, and the bottomup approach begins at the specific and moves to the general. For designing a course, this means that



Learning outcomes … are at the beginning of the considerations … are the last step of the planning
Learning content … is created finally at the end of the design process …. stands at the beginning of the design process

Figure 2: Top-Down and Bottom-Up approach visualized

Without doubts, the development of schoolbooks influenced this kind of bottom-up design (in the 70th and 80th of the last century). Evidently, the typical approach was content-centered and the schoolbook, that was well-developed from schoolbook publishers, acted as the “secret curriculum”. Certainly, many teachers cared mainly about the learning content and tried to find well-fitting assessments to evaluate the knowledge of the students (in context with the thought content).

Today we have an entirely different approach, which is reasonable. Learning is outcome-oriented, and these learning outcomes are usually competencies (or skills related to knowledge).


Backward Design proved as an excellent approach to create learning modules of courses. The well-defined structure of the process enables creating complex course structures, including appropriate assessments.

About the Author: Peter Mazohl is a professor and an Educator and Researcher. As the head of the EFQBL, his research focuses on modern, technology-enabled teaching and training methods. He holds the Global Master Level II degree for Flipped Learning 3.0.

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