Backward Design

As a concept that is useful for building effective courses, backward design is as simple as it sounds. The main principle of this method of design is to begin your conceptualization of the course by thinking about the kinds of learning you hope students will achieve at the end of the course. Once you have thought broadly about this, you can move to constructing your specific learning outcomes, and–from there–to designing assignments and activities. Finally, this approach allows you to them choose the best course materials (textbooks, etc.) that will help you meet these goals. This approach puts the spotlight directly on student learning and, in doing so, maximizes the efficacy of your course. Backward design can also be very useful for developing or redesigning entire curricula too.

Three Stages of Backward Design*

Stage 1

: Identify desired results

  • What should students know and be able to do as a result of your course and curricular innovation? That is, what knowledge domains, skills and abilities, or attitudes do you expect to cultivate?
  • What enduring understandings are desired? What are the big ideas that you want your students to take away?
Prioritizing Learning Goals illustrated by concentric rings with enduring understanding at core
Prioritizing Learning Goals from “Teaching for Enduring Understanding” by Mark Sample (Source:
Stage 2

: Determine acceptable evidence

  • How could you or will you know you have been successful or reached your goals for student learning?
  • How will you know if students have achieved the desired results?
  • What will you accept as evidence of student understanding and proficiency?
Stage 3

: Plan what needs to happen for desired results

  • What do students already know – or think they know – coming in that you can build on?
    • How will you get feedback to find out what they know?
    • How might you deal with students who are not as prepared as you had guessed?
  • What knowledge (facts, concepts, principles) and skills (processes, procedures, strategies) will students need in order to perform effectively and achieve desired results?
  • What activities will equip students with the needed knowledge and skills?
    • Consider what needs to happen in the classroom, outside of the classroom, and in lab (if applicable)
    • What subtleties are there to this material? What did you find difficult about it? What have students found difficult about it in the past?
  • What will need to be taught and coached, and howshould it be taught, in light of student learning goals?
    • What class activities will you create to help students practice key concepts (e.g., discussion questions, case study analyses, data interpretation, etc.)?
    • How is your classroom time best spent? Face time with your students is a precious commodity – is your time best spent helping students solve problems? discussing critical ideas? analyzing visual and written texts? presenting supplementary material? reviewing main points?
  • What materials and resources are best suited to accomplish your goals?

Note: A version of this information is available to download as an MS Word document.

*Information taken and adapted from Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe (2006). Understanding by Design (2nd Ed.),Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ.