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Start with the End in Mind To Create Better Online Courses

Beginning with the end in mind is the whole foundation of goal setting.

  • What do you want?
  • What does it look like?
  • Now map out the steps to get there!

For training providers and instructors, beginning with the end in mind is also not a new process. UBD, “Understand by Design,” is a long-established teaching framework developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins.  You will mostly read about UBD: Understanding by Design, in regards to university courses, but if you understand the core principles outlined below, it can absolutely transform an eLearning course into a best-seller!


Three Simple Parts:

  • Step 1: Identify Your Desired Results
  • Step 2: Determine How You Assess Learners
  • Step 3: Build the Course Through Instruction & Learning Experiences

What you are trying to do is think about the learners you want to take your course. In marketing, that is called the Buyer Persona, and that marketing process will lead you to a similar framework. Of course, you want to understand how to market your courses, but before you can even get to that point you need a good course to bring to market!

“In teaching students for understanding, we must grasp the key idea that we are coaches of their ability to play the ‘game’ of performing with understanding, NOT tellers of our understanding to them on the sidelines.” 1

In the normal course creation process, an instructor plans out the lessons and sections. Then they design the slides, edit them, and finally, records the material. All that is left to do is to upload it and start selling.  I know that this seems so much easier than starting at the end, but over the years of designing courses, I have seen experts in their field develop courses that were not successful at all.  They either took their face-to-face teaching and tried to duplicate it for eLearning, or they didn’t focus on the most important component of a successful online course: the learner.  That is why the UBD (beginning with the end in mind) process works. 

What I am asking you to do is think about the outcomes for your learners before creating anything.  The planning framework helps to answer one critical question: What is it about this subject (your course) that is essential for learners to know by the time they have completed the course?


Thinking About the Learning Outcomes

Every great course has a big idea behind it. There is a reason that you want to teach this subject. Many instructors have years of experience in a specific field. They want to put together an eLearning Course to help others interested in this area of expertise. Online learning is an incredible perk of the Internet and probably the only real benefit of a year struggling through the Pandemic. Someone wants to learn about a subject without enrolling in a formal education program, so they seek out eLearning opportunities to grow their skills, move up in their career, or completely change their life in some way. But as an instructor, it benefits you, your course sales, and the learners enrolled if you begin creating your course with precisely what you want them to understand once they finish.

Once you know where learners finish, you can think about the specific goals of each section you will teach.

  • What is the skill they need to acquire?
  • What must the learner develop through the material that they can now implement in their workplace or life?
  • What exactly must your students understand about your subject when finished?

These are questions that you ask and answer with each new section or concept being taught.

Have you tried a Workbook?

I find it helpful to start a course with the workbook. Workbooks are amazing tools to further learning and ensure that the most critical concepts do not escape your students. 

The workbook should be divided into the main goals or understanding of your course. Those goals and understandings are numbered and these numbers become the sections of your course broken down. Once the main sections are created, it’s time to focus on the process of helping students to learn and process the big goals. In other words, what are you going to put onto that workbook page? Returning to the three-step example, it is not just any questions in a workbook that you are placing here, but essential questions.

What Are Essential Questions?

  1. Essential questions are open-ended and require more than a yes or no.
  2. They are thought-provoking and require a learner to be intellectually engaged in the answer.
  3. They call for more than simple recall of facts but are an evaluation of the materials.
  4. They signal to a learner some important transferable idea or skill (the reason they took the course!)
  5. Essential questions usually raise additional questions.
  6. The answers should require some justification rather than a short answer.
  7. And finally, essential questions indicate concepts that will be revisited again and again. That is what makes them so crucial to the learning process.

Considering all the elements of an essential question, you can now fill in the sections of your workbook with questions and activities. You know that step one is complete when you can see that your learners are not just participating in your course by filling out the answers or doing the activity, but they can take their knowledge and do something with it in their real life once the course is complete.


Reflection and Assessment

If your course offers a certificate or certification at the end, then most likely, you are testing their ability to know, understand and recall the essential concepts. Most certificate courses require a score of 70% or better, but what if you could offer a process of reflection that would push most learners up to the 90 to 100% level? Not only would that make the learner happy, but it also means that your course is indicating a more straightforward path to success.

Success usually means that learners are more satisfied, and if they are happy with your course and the outcome, they will talk about it to others. From a marketing perspective, that is a very good thing!

How do you measure a person’s ability to understand your course materials with a deeper goal of implementing the concepts into their lives?  

This is where the quote above becomes clearer: How can you be more than a “teller” of the information and actually “coach” your learners to implement the knowledge?

The Answer:

re·flec·tion /rəˈflekSH(ə)n/

1. serious thought or consideration.

Reflection requires more than recalling facts. It puts learners into that uncomfortable position of rereading materials because their minds may have wandered off for an instant while their phones vibrated. One of the best examples I know of taking step one learning outcomes and combining them with step two reflective activities is the teacher who is instructing people to read.

Two Examples of Learning Outcomes

#1 Basic Learning Outcome: To Read. The assessment for this is relatively easy. The learner can either read the words or they cannot. It is a pass-or-fail process. But what about offering learners a bigger goal combined with reflective activities?

#2 Revised Learning Outcome: To Love To Read. How would you start to assess a learner for that goal?

Reflection and assessment require you to think about different learners as unique and turn your workbook questions into activities that allow them to reflect and create “explanations” of their learning in more creative ways. It is a simple trick of applying knowledge to something the learner already loves.

Let’s go back to the “love to read” goal.

If you ask your students to give a list of all the books they read over the summer, with the student who read the most earning a prize, can you safely say that your learning outcome was achieved?  Having raised two kids who were given this exact activity at the end of each school year, I can tell you that there are many (many) ways to read lots of books and not love reading. But one insightful teacher asked the students to do something different.  

The activity given was to read as many books as possible over the summer and then, at the end of the break, create a story based on all the characters in the books they read. The teacher asked them to draw pictures and create a book of characters, with the student being the main character. Now we have an activity of reflection. Not only did this require the reading of multiple books, but it also meant that the students had to find one character from each book that resonated with them and then create a conversation for a story. The activity required a process of thinking, interpreting, empathy, self-discovery, and applying what they discovered. It also needed out-of-box thinking on the teacher’s part.

Note: There was no official data collected that particular summer, but I can tell you personally, that my children and their classmates spent a lot of their summer break time talking about the books they were reading and discussing the characters they liked or didn’t like. They were able to take the assignment and discuss it with each other– on their own — because they were curious about what their friends discovered in the books they were reading.  Did they all become lifelong readers who loved to read?  No clue, but it certainly was a more interesting summer from prior years!

What activities could you offer your learners to create an understanding of your course materials? A podcast, a collage, a video, or even a paper. With all the technology today, many of your learners will be more comfortable in one medium than another. The goal is for them to learn and reflect, not to master paper writing or test-taking. So think as a coach and allow your learners to express themselves in creative ways.


The Learning Plan aka Your Course

Finally, we are at the beginning of your course creation process: the materials, the slide creation, the visuals, and the physical part of offering a course to learners. Look at your workbook questions and activities and thread them into your materials. Break down the considerable body of knowledge you are imparting on them, and offer tiny, shorter sections with moments for activities and reflection. Introduce YouTube videos to further their learning but be sure that you introduce them first and provide guidance on why you want learners to view this video–along with some question or activity at the end that ties the materials together.

Your course content should support the learning outcomes in step one. Let’s pause for a moment and think about our reading teacher example. Instead of making the number of books the metric for success, she offered her students the opportunity to dive deeper into fewer books, creating reflective experiences that might direct them into a reality where they love to read rather than are required to read. This activity is a more authentic way to assess each student’s ability to read and determine whether they will love to read in the future.

Sometimes when we begin with the end in mind, that two-hour certificate course turns into a seven-part masterclass. Or think about it as a 101 Course that can be a prerequisite to part two or three with more in-depth learning opportunities–and, of course, more options for you to teach!

Critical thinking and problem-solving are skills that are always in demand in the workplace and life! Why talk “at” learners when you can “coach” them into a place of real learning and experiences for taking your expertise and bettering their life?


Find Your Course Success

The final stage of course building comes once you have learners in your course. With each learner, you can see how well you did in the planning and creation–the subject of a whole other article.  One thing may be certain, however.  If you have created courses in the past from beginning to end, or even developed a workbook alongside a course, by shifting to the end first, I am confident you will find the creation process more clear. Clarity and simplicity usually go hand-in-hand, and anytime we can move through our work easier, then the whole process may accomplish much more than intended.  

The UBD System is quite extensive and any of the resources below will give you a deeper understanding of the process.  But if you just want to get your course created in the best way possible, follow these three steps–including the workbook–and you will find that your courses can be some of the most in-demand through reviews and referrals by your students.  I call that success!

Now, as course creators, it is up to you to start by thinking about who your learners are: What do they look like? What do they want? Now work toward that course with the goal of guiding this learner to the knowledge and skills provided by your expertise!   I encourage you to take a step back and look at your courses from their perspective, bringing in the steps outlined above, and guiding them to the skills that you intended.  Their success will be your success–through accolades, testimonials, and referrals.  

Source: Originally published on Early Childhood Maven by Maria Bereket. Maria Bereket is a Content Strategy & Creator | Digital & Social Media Marketer | Online Learning Designer | Early Childhood Programs & Advocate


  1. Bowen, Ryan S., (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/understanding-by-design/.
  2. Wiggins, Grant, and McTighe, Jay. (1998). Backward Design. In Understanding by Design (pp. 13-34). ASCD.

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