Backward Design

Backward Design

class in progress

Backward design is, as the name suggests, a process for designing curricula, courses, and lectures by working backwards from big-picture learning goals. The concept, introduced by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005), suggests that instructors create assessments, activities, and course content that are explicitly aligned with the broader learning goals of the unit. This is different from the traditional content-driven approach to learning design, which focuses on course content first and only secondarily tries to align that content with learning goals.

The premise of backward design is that instructors should clearly articulate what they expect students to learn, do, and understand by the end of the learning unit (Davidovitch, 2013). The learning unit could consist of a lecture, a course, or an entire program. Ideally, backward design principles should be threaded through all levels of a course or program to ensure that learning goals are aligned. Regardless of level, backward design shifts the focus of course design from content to outcomes. This move is important because it shifts the focus from the teacher to the student, thus centering student learning and creating a more engaging and enjoyable learning experience.

Implications of Backward Design

Backward design as a technique encourages instructors to begin designing each learning unit by determining the ultimate learning goals of the unit and then working backward to decide on appropriate assessments and content to meet those goals. This is distinct from more traditional content-driven approaches to learning in which instructors choose content first and then hope that learning will result. Such approaches, however, generally fail to produce sustainable results or deep understanding because they depend on students merely memorizing facts that are promptly forgotten after an exam or course (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

According to Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005) foundational book Understanding by Design, backward design is a three-step process. First, the instructor identifies the overarching learning goals for the class and the big ideas or important skills they want students to take away from the class. Second, the instructor determines what would constitute evidence of a student having learned those ideas or skills. Third, the instructor chooses readings and class activities that will effectively prepare students to complete the selected assessments and demonstrate understanding.

Backward design lends itself well to scaffolding student learning (Childre, Sands, & Pope, 2009). Scaffolding refers to an instructional technique in which the instructor provides support to learners while incrementally developing new skills or understanding by building on students’ prior knowledge (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). Because learning outcomes are clearly articulated from the beginning with backward design, creating activities and assessments that scaffold understanding to build toward ultimate learning goals becomes more straightforward.

Why Backward Design?

Backward design offers the following benefits for students:

  • Clear learning goals and expectations for students in online classes
  • Real-time clarifications in response to student questions

A 2007 study by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the leading accreditation organization for business schools, stressed that online learning “requires careful attention to learning design…selection of appropriate delivery technology, and a focus on student learning outcomes” (p. 15). In other words, online education can benefit tremendously from the conscious use of backward design.

Backward design offers the following benefits for instructors:

  • Practicality and authenticity in activity-focused teaching
  • Content-focused teaching that supports sustained learning

Creating courses through a backward design process can help instructors avoid what Wiggins and McTighe (2005) call the “twin sins” of traditional learning design: activity-focused teaching and content-focused teaching. Activity-focused teaching involves lots of engaging and hands-on activity for students. However, it often has no clear learning goals guiding the activities, and thus, sustained learning is unlikely to occur. This can also lead students to feel that the work they are completing has little value in their lives outside the classroom.

Content-focused teaching entails simply trying to get through a set amount of content in a specified timeframe, but again, this approach could ignore overarching goals. Solely focusing on content can leave some learners behind as instructors rush to cover the material. Having goals and standards for determining student achievement can ensure that students are reaching the learning expectations.

Approaches to course design that focus more on what students need to be able to do rather than simply what they need to know has been shown to sustain learning transfer better than traditional content-based teaching (Bryan, 2015; Washer, 2007). For instance, students in a graduate public health program reported learning more and finding material more engaging in courses that combined backward design and active learning (Crossman, 2017; Ozdemir & Duffy, 2017). This finding is significant because higher student engagement leads to better retention of material.

Indeed, backward design is well suited to the use of active learning pedagogies since both aim for student-centered classes wherein learners develop the ability to apply skills and knowledge to a variety of issues. Active learning, as Bonwell and Eison (1991) suggest, is a teaching method that “involves students doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (p. 19) and has been shown to foster student engagement and performance (Hattie, 2005). Note that active learning is distinct from “activity-focused teaching” because it requires students to think through the activities being done and, ideally, actively apply them to real-world issues. Activities like having students analyze issues, respond to current events via discussion boards, or work through case studies are examples of active learning techniques that can be incorporated into online classrooms.

Backward design also has key benefits for instructors, including an enhanced ability to prioritize content delivered to students, better time management both inside and outside the classroom, more engaged students, and more frequent opportunities for feedback on student comprehension (Reynolds & Kearns, 2017). These benefits can help increase instructor efficiency and student retention.

Putting Backward Design Into Practice

Imagine that you are tasked with teaching someone to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (PB&J). Traditional course design may direct your focus towards content: the history of the PB&J, the different variations of the sandwich, and the multiple varieties of the two ingredients.

When using backward design, starting with what you would like students to accomplish by the end of the lesson is the key. In this case the goal is for the students to be able to make a PB&J sandwich on their own.

Next, you would identify key outcomes to reach that goal such as:

  • Identify the components of a PB&J
  • Gather the required materials to make a PB&J
  • Assemble a PB&J

From these outcomes, you can determine assessments that meet them. For our purposes, the culminating project will require the students to record themselves making a sandwich.

Finally, you get to design the activities that they can use in their video to reach these outcomes. Maybe to demonstrate their understanding of what makes up a PB&J sandwich, students can create a shopping list based upon the lecture on different peanut butters, jellies, and breads. For their video, they must record a segment including their shopping trip to confirm that they know how to find items in a store and another showing their sandwich assembly.

As this example suggests, backward designed courses work well with teaching approaches that emphasize student involvement in active learning and authentic tasks, such as problem-based learning (PBL). PBL is an instructional approach based in cognitive psychology that requires students to work through complex, open-ended problems that help develop skills that can be used beyond the classroom (Shankar & Nandy, 2014; Savery, 2006).

Rather than approaching the class from a perspective of saying, “Well, I’d really like to do this activity or use that reading,” the instructor should first consider their big learning goals for the class. Ask yourself:

  • At the end of the course, what do you want your students to take away?
  • What specific skills, products, or knowledge should they know after completing the class?

Next, what would be evidence that students have actually learned what the instructor wants them to learn? This is where to think about what kind of assessments and assignments would effectively evaluate students’ learning. Ask yourself:

  • How will I know that students have acquired the skills or knowledge that I want them to?
  • What kind of assignment or assessment will most effectively allow students to demonstrate the kind of knowledge I want them to take away from this class?
  • Are these activities and assignments feasible within the constraints of this class (your time, students’ time, tech resources, etc.)?

Finally, the instructor should select readings and create activities that will effectively prepare students for those assignments and assessments. (Tip: one great way to set clear expectations is through carefully designed rubrics.) Ask yourself:

  • How will I set my students up to be successful?
  • What resources do I need to provide them to be able to complete assignments and assessments successfully?
  • How will I effectively use class time and asynchronous materials to advance student skills and knowledge?
  • How can I design class activities that use active and experiential learning techniques to increase student engagement and knowledge retention?

These questions can help guide an instructor in any discipline through the process of backward designing a class for the first (or 50th!) time.


It is important to remember that course design is an iterative and on-going task (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005; Neal & Hampton, 2016). Instructors should consider student feedback and evaluate how well class activities are accomplishing overall learning goals, and then make adjustments to the course based on those evaluations. We may not get it right the first time, but just as our students learn better through well-designed courses, as instructors, we also learn more about our own teaching styles, preferences, successes, and challenges when we work through a well-crafted and reflective design process.


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