Instructional Design Strategies for Online Teaching

Many decisions go into creating an online course, including answering “Where should I begin?” This page is intended to provide faculty with an overview of three instructional design strategies that can be helpful for designing an online course: 1) Backwards Design 2) Scaffolding and 3) Module Guides.


  • While this page covers Backwards Design and scaffolding with particular focus on online teaching, the principles and practices are applicable to designing in-residence courses as well.

  • Each of these instructional design strategies are significant topics (in the case of Backwards Design and scaffolding, with books and conferences devoted to them). This page is intended to be a brief introduction to these strategies to aid faculty with foundational approaches to designing an online course.

Objectives of this Page

  1. Consider instructional design strategies, such as Backwards Design, for transitioning a course from face-to-face to online.

  2. Recognize the importance of course structure, including scaffolding content and practice and the use of Module Guides in D2L, to support learning and include the appropriate rigor.

For faculty who would like to receive feedback on their Backwards Design and scaffolding plans, there are opportunities at the end of each section for faculty to share their plans and receive feedback.

Backwards Design

What is Backwards Design?

As a design strategy applied to numerous fields, Backwards Design essentially means to begin planning by focusing on the end goals. If successful, what will the end product be? When applied to creating a course, Backwards Design focuses on beginning by articulating what students will have gained (skills or new ways of thinking) upon successfully completing a course. Then, the faculty member considers how they can assess whether or not students have achieved those objectives. After deciding on ways to measure whether or not students have met course objectives, faculty determine what topics, activities, and methods of instruction will be most helpful to prepare students to succeed on those assessments.

Two of the leading scholars on Backwards Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, describe how this approach to course design starts: “We don’t start with content; we start with what students are expected to be able to do with content. What would real use of the content look like? What should students ultimately be able to say and do with the content if they ‘get it?”” (7).

What is “backwards” about this approach to course design is that many faculty often begin planning a course by first choosing the topics or skills to cover. They then decide what assignments to include to assess students’ knowledge or ability on those topics. Backwards Design reverses those steps.

For an example of a traditional, and less focused, approach to course design, let's consider teaching a brand new literature course in Science Fiction. We might first choose the major texts (books, films, and video games) and Science Fiction concepts to study in the course. Once we have the course reading list and topic list, we would plan the necessary lectures and activities. Lastly, we would decide on the course assignments to include. A problem with that approach is that it can cause faculty to lose focus of the bigger picture, the question of “What do I really want someone to get out of this course?”

A Backwards Design approach to designing that same Science Fiction course would involve approaching the below questions in this particular order

  1. What skills or knowledge do I want students to leave this course with?:

  2. How can I tell whether or not students have gained those skills or knowledge?

  3. What activities, lessons, and texts should I include to prepare students to demonstrate those skills or knowledge?

What Are the Benefits of Backwards Design?

The benefit of Backwards Design is that it provides faculty with a intentional process for planning their online course that focused on learning. By starting with the end in mind, a faculty member can prioritize what is important to include in the course to get students to those objectives rather than simply trying to cram everything possible into the course. We can ask, “Is this helpful for meeting a clear objective?” The focus on learning objectives first, before activities, helps to fulfill advice of scholars of online learning that "design focus should be on the learning aspect of the course, and not the teaching" (O'Keefe et al. 15).

An Example of Backwards Design

The video below provides an overview of Backwards Design and describes designing a Filmmaking 101 course, as an example.

Steps to Using Backwards Design to Plan an Online Course

One approach to using Backwards Design is to answer the three questions below, laid out by L. Dee Fink’s in his "A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning ,” as part of a larger approach to course planning.

  1. What do I want students to learn? (Learning Goals)

  2. How will students (and the teacher) know if these goals are being accomplished? (Feedback and assessment)

  3. What will the teacher and students need to do in order for students to achieve the learning goals? (Teaching/Learning Activities) (Fink 5).

Template for Using Backwards Design

Below is a Word Doc template that can be downloaded and filled out to help faculty plan a full course, a unit, or an individual lessons using Backwards Design. To fill out the template, replace the red text with specific information about your course.

Backwards Design, Understanding by Design, Template

Anyone wishing to complete the template and receive feedback from CETL is invited to send an email to Tyler Roeger, Director of CETL, at


While Backwards Design provides steps that can be used for designing a course, unit, or individual lesson, scaffolding is a teaching approach that considers the pacing and structure of assignments and activities.

What is Scaffolding?

Scaffolding, as a teaching approach, can mean many different things. This page defines scaffolding as breaking down major projects and assignments into component parts, or stages, and providing support structures for students to succeed at the individual tasks. When scaffolding assignments and projects, resources like templates, project proposals, and focused exercises are used to aid students in completing the major component parts of an assignment, with the goal that students are then able to complete such projects without such support in the future (once the scaffolding is removed).

The counter to scaffolding would be to present major concepts and competencies in a lesson and then to expect students to go off and return with a completed project, with minimal feedback along the way and no support structures to aid students in completing the individual components and with few opportunities low-stakes practice.

An example of scaffolding that is often used when students are working on research projects is to require students, before they submit the final project, to submit or present a topic proposal and other component parts, such as research summaries and multiple drafts. The instructor would provide feedback on some or all of those components before grading the Final Draft.

In some courses, as the course progresses and students develop competence in the course objectives, the individual support pieces are removed so that students gain experience in making independent decisions regarding what tools to use and how to accomplish assignments.

What are the Benefits of Scaffolding?

The benefits of scaffolding include

  • Students receive frequent feedback from the instructor and from their peers on more low-stakes assignments before the final draft of major projects

  • Scaffolding is based on research in learning theory that emphasizes students developing competence in individual tasks that are later contextualized in a larger application (Ambrose et al. 102).

  • Separating projects into stages models for students how approach time and project management skills

For online courses, especially, scaffolding provides helpful structure for students and avoids outdated models of “correspondence courses” in which a student was mailed course materials and then independently completed work to be mailed back.

Examples of Scaffolding

The brief essay linked to below describes several approaches for using scaffolding in online learning and focuses on a central example of ways to scaffold learning in an online Intro to Natural Sciences course.

"Scaffolding Online Student Success"

Steps to Using Scaffolding to Plan an Online Course

The essay linked below includes a list of helpful directions to help faculty begin scaffolding assignments and lessons. Examples of steps to take include

  • "Write a brief description of each major assignment/assessment which should include the necessary skills you intend to evaluate using the assignment/assessment.

  • Ponder what prerequisite skills are necessary for students to have in order to be successful on this assignment/assessment and list them." and several more.

"Scaffolding Student Learning: Tips for Getting Started"

Template for Planning an Online Learning with Scaffolding

The template below adapts the steps suggested in the "Scaffolding Student Learning" essay into questions that can be answered to help faculty consider scaffolding or an assignment.

Scaffolding Assignment Template

Module Guides

After using an approach like Backwards Design to choose the most helpful assignments and assessment to measure learning and determining the lessons/activities that will support students to succeed on those assignments, it’s important to consider how to electronically organize and present the content to students.

Module Guides are an organization tool within D2L that can aid faculty in deciding how to structure the presentation of information and activities in a lesson and also provide a roadmap for students to follow. Essentially, a Module Guide is a page within a module that states the purpose (learning outcomes) of the course unit or lesson and lists the different learning resources and activities. You can think about a Module Guide as a lesson outline or road map for students to follow. Module Guides can be considered a communication tool as they are a helpful way to articulate the purposes and expectations of lessons and units.

The word "Module" is used since D2L organizes information in the Content section in modules and because D2L offers Module Guide templates for any faculty to use.

D2L offers several Module Guide templates that can be filled out and tailored to your lessons. The various Module Guide templates differ in appearance but include the following areas of information to be included with each course unit.

  • Overview of the Unit

  • Objectives: What Students will Learn or Be Able to Do Following the Unit

  • Outcomes: The Deliverables that Students Will End the Unit With

  • Learning Resources: The Content (slides, videos, text, audio) That Students Will Engage With

Faculty interested in using a Module Guide template should reach out to the ECC Distance Learning Office at to gain access to the D2L Module Guide templates.

Alternative to using a Module Guide Template, faculty can create their own Module Guides by including a version of the bolded information above with the "Create a File" option in a D2L module. Place that created file as the top item in a module in the Content section of D2L to give students a clear place to start each module.

An approach to thoughtfully organizing course content that is an alternative to the Module Guide templates in D2L is demonstrated in the video below. Laura Haske, Associate Professor I in Paralegal, explains her system of using Google tools to simplify updating materials and to make content easier for students to navigate,


Ambrose, Susan A. et al. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Fink, L. Dee. A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning, Jossey-Bass, 2003.

O’Keefe, L, et al. Delivering High-Quality Instruction Online in Response to COVID-19: Faculty Playbook, 2020. Every Learner Everywhere,

Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units, ASCD, 2011.