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Backward Design Step 1: Identify Situational Factors

Identify the situational factors that may impact your course design

Whether designing a new course or redesigning an existing course, the first step is identifying and reviewing the factors affecting major design components. Fink identifies these components as learning goals, feedback/assessment, and teaching/learning activities. If situational factors are not taken into account while developing these components, you risk developing a course that doesn’t work for the students, doesn’t meet institutional goals, and doesn’t achieve the course outcomes. Fink identifies the following situational factors to consider.

Fink's Situational Factors

Specific Course Content

  • How many students are in the class?
  • Is the course an upper‑level, lower‑level, or graduate course?
  • How long and frequent are class sessions?
  • In what room will the course be taught? How is it configured (Fink 69)?

External Expectations

  • What does society need and expect in terms of the education of these students, in general, or concerning this particular subject?
  • Are there accreditation requirements that affect the goals of this course?
  • What curricular goals has the institution or department affected this course (Fink 69)?

Subject Nature

  • Is this subject matter convergent (working toward a single correct answer) or divergent (working toward multiple, equally valid interpretations)?
  • Is this subject primarily cognitive, or does it have physical elements?
  • Is the field of study relatively stable during rapid change, or are competing paradigms challenging each other (Fink 69)?

Instructor Characteristics

  • What prior experiences, knowledge, skills, and attitudes do you have regarding this course?
  • Have you taught this subject before, or is this the first time?
  • Will you teach this course again in the future, or is this the last time?
  • Do you have a high level of competence in this subject, or is this new material for you (Fink 69)?

Learning Characteristics

  • What is the life situation of the students at the moment: full‑time, part‑time, family, and work?
  • What life or professional goals do students have related to this course?
  • What are their reasons for enrolling?
  • What prior experiences, knowledge, skills, and attitudes do the students have (Fink 69)?

Supportive Classroom Environment & Sense of Belonging

In this first stage of backward design, course design should also consider ways of measuring and fostering a supportive classroom environment. In the article "Support, Belonging, Motivation, and Engagement in the College Classroom: A Mixed Method Study," Zumbrunn, McKim, Buhs & Hawley present a model that elaborates on the relationship between classroom environments and student academic success. This model outlines the role of building and facilitating supportive classrooms to foster students’ sense of belonging and, in turn, increase their sense of self-efficacy and engagement and, ultimately, achievement. Their model consists of six elements: 

  • Supportive classroom environment — The environment in which students feel safe, supported, and valued throughout the learning process. This can include an instructor’s investment in the class, the degree to which learning and teaching are described positively, respect for student opinions, flexibility, the availability of instructors and peers, the approachable instructors and peers, and many other factors.
  • Belonging — Belonging in the classroom can be a ‘feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together’ (McMillan and Chavi, 1986).
  • Self-efficacy —  The students’ beliefs about their academic capabilities for a specific task (Bandura 1986).
  • Task value — A student’s beliefs about an academic task's potential importance, usefulness, and enjoyment (Wigfield and Eccles 2002).
  • Engagement — The time and energy students invest in educationally purposeful activities (Kuh 2003). This includes things like attendance and instructor ratings of student course engagement (Betts and Rotenberg 2007). Engagement, as Kuh defined it, has two components: the time and effort that students invest in activities that lead to success (what the student does); the resources institutions use to encourage students to participate in and benefit from activities that lead to success (what the institution does).
  • Achievement — A student's performance in the class, including grade, completion, success with defined course learning outcomes or competencies, or independent/personal goals for the course.

If we want to have high levels of engagement and achievement, this model tells us that we must first design and facilitate a supportive classroom environment. This can include:

Situational Factors Worksheet


  • Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1986(23-28).
  • Betts, L. R., & Rotenberg, K. J. (2007). Trustworthiness, friendships and self‐control: Factors that contribute to young children's school adjustment. Infant and Child Development: An International Journal of Research and Practice, 16(5), 491-508.
  • Fink, L. Dee. Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
  • Kuh, G. D. (2003). What we're learning about student engagement from NSSE: Benchmarks for effective educational practices. Change: The magazine of higher learning, 35(2), 24-32.
  • McMillan, D. W., & Chavis, D. M. (1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of community psychology, 14(1), 6-23.
  • Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (Eds.). (2002). Development of achievement motivation. Elsevier.
    Wilson, D., Jones, D., Bocell, F., Crawford, J., Kim, M. J., Veilleux, N., ... & Plett, M. (2015). Belonging and academic engagement among undergraduate STEM students: A multi-institutional study. Research in Higher Education56, 750-776.
  • Zumbrunn, S., McKim, C., Buhs, E., & Hawley, L. R. (2014). Support, belonging, motivation, and engagement in the college classroom: A mixed method study. Instructional Science42, 661-684.

Keywordscourse design, backward design, situational factorsDoc ID106846
OwnerTimmo D.GroupInstructional Resources
Created2020-10-27 11:10:39Updated2024-04-15 08:52:53
SitesCenter for Teaching, Learning & Mentoring
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