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Backward Design Step 6: Select Learning Activities

Select Learning Activities for your course

STEP-6: ACTIVITIESIn course design, the identification of activities is contextualized within the online and face-to-face modalities. Instructors have to think about the kinds of activities that support course learning outcomes and module learning objectives. For traditional and hybrid courses, one should also consider where those activities are best located to facilitate the best outcomes with the least investment of time. The following section will guide you through the activities to consider and a design framework to situate those activities. William Horton's Learning By Design model is very helpful for instructors in designing activities. The model helps instructors design activities with different levels of complexity and purpose.

The following are elements to consider in designing course activities:

  • Description & purpose
  • Modality (for traditional/hybrid courses) (pre-class, in-class, post-class)
  • Sequence in learning pathway
  • Required knowledge
  • Time on task
  • Supported Course Learning Outcomes (CLO)
  • Supported Module Learning Objectives (MLO)
  • Supported competencies (if relevant)
  • Bloom's Taxonomy level
  • Grading Details
  • Feedback
  • Belonging
  • Growth mindset
  • Technologies used
  • Instructor Time to Facilitate Activity


Activity Description and Purpose

In designing activities, determine the purpose of the activity. The following are types of activities that yield specific learning outcomes.

Horton's Absorb/Do/Connect

Absorb Activities

Read, watch, and listen

Absorb activities inform and inspire. [They] enable motivated learners to obtain crucial, up-to-date information they need to do their jobs or to further their learning. In absorb activities, learners read, listen, and watch. These activities may sound passive, but they can be an active component of learning. Of the three types of activities (absorb, do, and connect), absorb activities are the ones closest to pure information. Absorb activities usually consist of information and learners' actions to extract and comprehend knowledge from that information (Horton 67).

When to use Absorb activities

Because absorb activities provide information efficiently, they are ideal when learners need a little information. They are especially helpful when [learners are] just updating current knowledge. Absorb activities are also an efficient way to extend current knowledge and skills. Learners who understand the fundamentals of a field can increase their knowledge by absorbing new details that elaborate a theory, concept, or principle. Additionally, absorb activities are good partners to other kinds of activities. Often, they are used to prepare learners for do activities. The absorb part of the partnership orients the learner, sets the context, establishes vocabulary, introduces principles, and supplies instructions needed before the learner can engage in a highly interactive do activity. Absorb activities are best for highly motivated learners. They are not inherently interesting. However, they are highly efficient for individuals who can focus their attention and are motivated enough to expend the effort (Horton 68).

Do Activities

If absorb activities are the nouns, then do activities are the verbs of learning. They put people in action. They elevate learning from passive reading and watching to active seeking, selecting, and creating knowledge. Doing begets learning (Horton 129).

When to use Do activities
  • Provide safe, encouraging practice to prepare learners to apply learning in the real world.
  • Motivate learners by activating curiosity for material learners might otherwise consider boring.
  • Prepare for absorb activities by showing learners how little they know about the subject and making clear the value of the information they are to absorb.
  • Enable learning by exploration and discovery (Horton 130).

Connect Activities

Link to prior learning, work, and life 

Connect activities help learners close the gap between learning and the rest of their lives. They prepare learners to apply learning in situations they encounter at work, later in learning efforts and in their personal lives. If absorb activities are the nouns and do activities the verbs, connect activities are the conjunctions of learning (Horton 163).

When to use Connect activities 

Connect activities aim squarely at increasing the application of learning. So use connect activities when...

  • APPLICATION IS CRUCIAL — The success of individuals, organizations, or societies depends on learners applying skills and knowledge...
  • APPLICATION IS NOT ADEQUATE —Learning is applied but not in enough depth or by enough people...
  • YOU TEACH A GENERAL SUBJECT — Broad principles and concepts can be applied in varied situations. You cannot include enough examples and custom activities to prepare learners to apply the learning in every possible situation they may encounter...
  • LEARNERS CAN NOT MAKE CONNECTIONS BY THEMSELVES  — Sometimes, seeing the connection between abstract subjects and daily life takes extraordinary effort. This in-the-clouds stigma plagues mathematics, science, philosophy, and other subjects. Many learners lack the experience, motivation, or creativity to make connections on their own (Horton 165).

Types of Learner Interactions

In the article "Designed Learner Interactions in Blended Course Delivery", Reba-Anna Lee and Brian Dashew define three types of learner interactions that can be used as guides to help develop online activities that engage students in multiple ways to take advantage of the affordances each type of interactivity provides.


Lee and Dashew's model includes two key components that consider learner-content interaction. The first is the availability of instructor-generated or instructor-provided content for students. The second is the possibility of a more constructivist model wherein students create content. In other words, effective instructors are competent in the development of both teacher-centered and learner-centered content (Lee and Dashew 70).


To facilitate these learning interactions, the instructor must employ many online communication tools to bridge the distance and time separating the instructors from the students. Communication tools might include discussion boards, synchronous chat rooms, course announcements, and course messages. A primary job for an online instructor is to select which communications tool to use and then deploy it effectively in the course (Lee and Dashew 72). Note: Lee and Dashew are talking about online courses specifically, but the interaction type also applies to blended learning. It is important to remember that, unlike online instruction, blended learning allows the instructor to meet with and communicate with students in a face-to-face environment. The goal and challenge of designing learner/instructor interactions is to know when and how to use each format to support a unit's learning objectives.


Developing a strong learning environment is essential to a successful learning experience for the learner. A key part of this environment is the learner's interactions with other learners, which help to build a strong learning community. The more effectively a learning environment is created, the better the experience is for the learner and the instructor. The learner puts a large value on their interactions with their classmates. To benefit from the expectations of their students, the instructor needs to move the course from being teacher-centered to student-centered learning as they move from the face-to-face mode to the hybrid model (Lee and Dashew 73).


In the article "Active-Constructive-Interactive: A Conceptual Framework for Differentiating Learning Activities," Michelene T. H. Chi provides a taxonomy of activities that facilitate different kinds of student engagement with content in ways that support different cognitive outcomes (Chi 77).

Active–Do something physically.

  • Look, gaze, or fixate
  • Underline or highlight
  • Gesture or point
  • Paraphrase
  • Manipulate objects or tapes

Constructive–Produce outputs that contain ideas beyond the presented information.

  • Explain or elaborate
  • Justify or provide reasons
  • Reflect
  • Predict outcomes>
  • Infer new knowledge
  • Repair misconceptions

Interactive–Dialogue with others on a topic.

Guided Construction
  • Respond to scaffolding
  • Revise errors from feedback
  • Argue, defend
  • Build on partner's contributions
  • Create content incorporating both partner's contributions

Modality (traditional/hybrid courses)

Fink's Castle Top Model

From Fink's Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, the Castle Top Model situated different activities in different locations based on the affordances of each modality.

  • Pre-Class Activities  Present new information and facilitate the building of knowledge. These activities often occur online as they do not require interactions with other students. They prepare students for later activities that encourage deeper learning. Often, pre-class activities include some reflections that students do that are tied to in-class activities. 
  • In-Class Activities Build on foundational knowledge developed in pre-class activities. May address misunderstandings, questions, or reflections that took place before class. These activities often occur in class as they benefit from interacting and sharing ideas with other students. 
  • Post-Class Activities Facilitate reflection, application, evaluation, and/or synthesis of learning that has already taken place. These activities often occur outside of class because they include activities like individual reflection. 
Modality Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Modality In-class activity


example learning pathway

A learning pathway is a design plan for how students interact with course content in a guided and supported manner. A learning pathway begins with identifying where students start on Bloom's Taxonomy and ends where the specific module learning objective is targeted. In the example above, the learning pathway begins at the remember stage and ends at the evaluate stage. A well-developed pathway will provide some assessment at each level to allow students to know whether they are progressing adequately. It will also provide learning activities that address each level  — not skipping levels. As you identify activities in the learning pathway, specify the order in which the activities occur.

Sequence Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Sequence activity #6

Required Knowledge

Identify the knowledge required to be successful in the activity and identify where students should have received that information.

Required Knowlegde Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Required Knowledge Content presented in pre-class readings and micro-lecture

Time on Task

When considering an activity, estimate how long it will take a student to complete it. This includes the knowledge they will need and mastery of the content upon which the activity is based. Considering a student's total time on all activities in a given day is equally important. The following resources can guide requirements and ways of estimating workload.
VIEW FEDERAL CREDIT HOUR DEFINITION The Credit Hour - UW-Madison Policy Library
VIEW COURSE WORKLOAD ESTIMATOR (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Time on Task Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Student time on task 35 minutes

Supported Course Learning Outcomes

As you design each activity, review your course learning outcomes to identify those that are being addressed through the activity. An activity may support multiple outcomes.

Supported Outcomes Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Supported Course Learning Outcomes CLO1, CLO2

Supported Module Learning Objectives

As you design each activity, review your module learning objectives to identify those that are being addressed through the activity. An activity may support multiple outcomes.

Supported Objectives Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Supported Module Learning Objectives MLO3, MLO4

Supported Competencies (if relevant)

As you design each activity, review your list of competencies to identify those that are being addressed through the activity. An activity may support multiple competencies.

Supported Competencies Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Supported AACN Essentials Competencies 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 7.2, 9.6

Bloom's Taxonomy Level

As you develop activities for your module, identify the level(s) of Bloom's Taxonomy supported by the activity. Plot these activities along the learning pathway to ensure all levels between the starting and ending levels are supported. Visit the Evidence of Understanding page to review Bloom's Taxonomy content.

Bloom's Taxonomy Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Bloom's Taxonomy Level(s) Analyze, Evaluate, Create

Grading Details

Determine whether or how the activity will be graded.

Grading Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Grading Graded. Participation points are assigned upon submitting the group's recommendation.


Some form of feedback is vital to communicating to students the importance of the activity we put before them. This feedback can occur in a variety of ways. 

  • Individualized feedback: The instructor or TA reviews each student or group's performance on an activity and provides customized feedback.
  • Rubric-based feedback: The instructor or TA utilizes a rubric to assess and provide structured feedback on each student or group's performance.
  • Summarized feedback: The instructor or TA summarizes the performance of students or groups.
  • Selective feedback: The instructor or TA selects a few students or groups to review performance and provides feedback. 
  • Generalized feedback: The instructor or TA only provides feedback on their generalized student or group performance observations.
Feedback Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Feedback Selective feedback. Upon completion of the case study, each group submits their recommendation for points, but the instructor randomly selects three tables to report their findings and provides feedback to those groups alone.


In the Belonging document, we reviewed the relationship between a supportive classroom environment, its contribution to a sense of belonging, and the resulting impact on student achievement. As you design the activity, review the Inventory of Supportive Instructor Practices and identify some classroom management, teaching techniques, or interpersonal interaction elements you could implement to create a more supportive classroom environment. 

Belonging Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Belonging elements
  • Classroom Management: The instructor is competent with the technology used in teaching.
  • Teaching Techniques: The instructor related topics to current situations. 
  • Interpersonal Interactions: The instructor tells students when they do good work.

Growth Mindset

In the article "Nursing Students' Mindsets Matter," Cheryl Williams provides three tenets of cultivating a growth mindset:

  • Show students how believing your brain can grow as you learn new things (neuroplasticity) can influence learning and potentiate academic success.
  • Students must feel as if they belong in the classroom.
  • Praise students for the process, not talent.

    Citation: Williams, C. (2020). Nursing Students' Mindsets Matter. Nurse Educator, 45 (5), 252-256.
Growth Mindset Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Growth mindset

When groups submit solutions to the case study that are not optimal, first, thank them for their attempt. Find places where their decision-making was correct and help them identify where they misinterpreted information. Reinforce the Reflect stage of the clinical judgment model; normalize the review of their decision-making processes.

Technologies Used

Document any technology you will use to facilitate the activity. Ensure there is some campus or school-based support for the technology if a problem occurs.

Technologies Used Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Technology Used

Shared Google Slide to submit group recommendations

Instructor Time to Facilitate

Another essential element to consider when thinking about an activity is the time it will take you to facilitate it. This includes the time to interact with students to achieve the desired outcomes in an activity and the time it may take to process the results of an activity and provide feedback on student performance. Factor the support staff and/or teaching assistants' role in facilitating these tasks. This design process aims to minimize the amount of out-of-class time an instructor must spend facilitating the activity.

Instructor Time Example
Example: Diabetes Case Study
Instructor time to facilitate 15 minutes to review group recommendations, 20 minutes to review the remaining group's recommendations. 5 minutes to provide corrective feedback at the next class session.

Activity Design Worksheet

Keywordslearning activities, assignments, absorb, do, connect, learner, content, instructor, active, constructive, interactive, Chi, Horton, Lee, Dashew, backward designDoc ID104664
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2020-08-05 11:53:46Updated2024-04-23 08:08:29
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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