Tip #587: Designing Backwards

“If I see an ending, I can work backwards.”  Arthur Miller

My curriculum design process for clients typically begins by meeting with a subject matter expert (SME). We work together to identify the goals and the learning objectives. I may take the lead in proposing the learning activities, but the SME provides the focus and context.

I then organize everything into a lesson plan that is sufficiently detailed so that both the SME and I know what content is necessary for both the reference pages and learner activities.

It is a logical step-by-step collaborative process that usually operates very smoothly. I may have to refocus some content and ask for clarification on occasion, but the SME actually does the heavy lifting.

I tell the SME what I need (a questionnaire, a case study, etc.) and the SME provides the raw material I can use to design the activities. The SME also provides multiple choice questions for any quizzes as well as the answer keys for all activities, including the quiz.

That is my typical curriculum design process when I am creating client-specific technical learning programs.

But not this time. This time it is essentially a paper process. The SMEs have provided written lesson information sheets with proposed learning goals, objectives and key content that are broad and all encompassing. They have also sent me various documents (including previous training materials) containing both relevant and non-relevant content. I do have access to SMEs if I have questions and they will provide case studies upon request.

However, it has been essentially left to me to do most of the work- of sifting through content, paring it down to a manageable amount of information, identifying a logical flow, and creating the reference materials, learning activities, quizzes and answer keys.

To do all this, I have found that I need to work backwards.

This is my process right now as I am designing the participant manuals:

  1. I identify and define acronyms.

2.  I identify and define terms as accurately but simply as possible.

  1. I look through all of the content and distill it down.
  1. I think about how it can be logically organized.

5.   I draft reference pages for the key content.

  1. I place the reference pages in order.
  1. I determine where learning activities should be inserted.
  1. I decide what learning activities will be useful.
  1. I design the learning activities and necessary worksheets.

10.   I test myself on the learning activities to make sure the content supports the activities so I can reasonably complete the activities and answer the questions.

  1. I pull key content and design multiple choice questions to create a Checking for Retention activity.
  1. I list the titles of all documents in sequence in the Table of Contents.
  1. I categorize the documents in the Table of Contents to identify the module titles.
  1. I create the agenda using those module titles.
  1. I write the learning objectives to reflect the key content and level of learning required by the learning activities.
  1. I double check the original source documents to make sure that all key content is represented in the learning objectives.
  1. If content is missing, I perform steps 1-15 all over again.

In preparation for creating the lesson plan/facilitator guide, I annotate the Table of Contents with the learning activities and projected time requirements for each activity and each module. I do my best to fit everything into the hours allocated for the training day.

I also check to make sure that there is a learning activity to either check for comprehension or provide a skill practice activity within each module. If there isn’t one, I design and insert it.

It isn’t until I actually begin to create the lesson plan/facilitator guide that I finally determine the learning goals, basing them on the learning objectives.

Talk about a seriously backward curriculum design process!

Yet, so far it appears to be working. By the time I am writing the lesson plan/facilitator guide, I have the goals, learning objectives, module titles, learning activities, answer keys and time frames ready to be inserted.

I’ve completed the participant manuals, PowerPoint slides and lesson plan/facilitator guides for 5 days of technical training in this fashion. They are currently in a review queue, awaiting edits and corrections by the SMEs.

In the meantime, there are 20 more days of training to design. If I discover another (possibly better) method for curriculum design on a project of this nature, I’ll definitely let you know.

May your learning be sweet.


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