Moving Forward By Looking Backward

by Jessica Mansbach

If you sit down with a learning designer at the School of Professional Studies to talk about a strategy for designing or redesigning your course and they suggest beginning with the end of the course in mind, you might find that strategy confusing or counterintuitive. But then the learning designer explains that approaching the course with the end in mind will help you identify clear goals for the course and specific skills and areas of knowledge you want your students to be proficient in by the end of the course, and this strategy makes more sense. In this blog post, I will discuss this strategy of beginning with the end in mind, also known as backward course design.

What is backward design?

Backward design is a popular approach to the course design process developed by Jay McTighe, a well known-educational consultant, and Grant Wiggins, President of Authentic Education. In their often cited book Understanding by Design (2005), Wiggins and McTighe explain that well structured courses are designed backward.

Instead of beginning the course design process by asking “What content should I cover?” when instructors use a backward design approach they first ask, “What do I want my students to learn?” This focus on students’ learning–what students should know and be able to do by the end of the course–forces you to think systematically about the steps you will need to take to help students achieve these learning goals (Designing Courses Backwards, Stanford University Teaching Commons).

The image below depicts the three steps of the backward design process.

Retrieved from Educational Technology
Retrieved from Educational Technology

Step 1: Identify the desired results.

What areas of knowledge, skills, or attitudes do you want students to develop by the end of the course?

As you brainstorm the answers to this question, you may come up with quite a large list. To bound the scope of the list into a realistic set of goals for a ten week course, there are several strategies you can use. Wiggins and McTighe (2005) recommend answering three questions in order to help you make decisions about what content is most important for students’ learning.

  1. What are the “big ideas” and key concepts students should remember by the end of the course? Even if students do not recall details related to the content after the course ends, they should remember these “big ideas.” These “big ideas” should be included in the course.
  2. What content should students be experts in by the end of the course? Examples of this type of content include facts, procedures, and behaviors. Are there key terms in your discipline students should know? This content should be included in the course.
  3. What are the “it would be great if students remember these ideas, but not pivotal to their learning the big ideas” concepts? This content might be included in the course if there is room for it.

Wiggins and McTighe (2005) argue that by answering these questions you can make decisions about what areas of content will help students reach the course learning objectives.

For example, if you are teaching a class on instructional design, one of the desired results or big ideas you might want students to master is using an instructional design theory to create a workshop.

Step 2: Identify acceptable evidence of student learning.

What knowledge and skills will students demonstrate to provide evidence of their ability to meet the course learning objectives? How will you know students are mastering the behaviors and attitudes you have identified for them?

During this part of the backward design process, you will make decisions about how to gather evidence of students’ learning. To give students opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways, select multiple types of assessments. For example, you can assign tests, research papers, journal entries, or group presentations. When students do more than one type of assessment, you can assess their knowledge in different ways. A critical part of the backward design process is ensuring that there is alignment, or a match, between what you want students to learn and your plan to assess their learning (Understanding by Design, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching).

For example, to gather evidence about whether your students can use instructional design theory to create a workshop, it would not make sense to give them a multiple choice test because that assessment would not give students the opportunity to demonstrate whether they can create a workshop. Instead, you may want them to create a workshop presentation or write a workshop script so that you can see how well they understand how to use instructional design theory.

Step 3: Plan activities and select instructional materials.

What kinds of activities will students engage in and what kinds of instructional materials will students review in order to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to meet the course learning objectives?

Examples of activities and instructional materials include discussions, readings, and short videos. It is important to note that decisions about the kinds of activities and instructional materials students have access to are made after you determine what you want students to know and how you will measure if students know it. Careful thought and analysis are required in order for you to determine how well the activities and instructional materials align with the course learning objectives and assessments (Understanding by Design,Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching).

For example, giving students readings about instructional design allows them to learn about the instructional design theory they will use to create the workshop. Providing students with a short video clip of a workshop you have developed using instructional design theory helps them envision what they should be able to do.

If you are interested in using backward design to design or revise a course, please speak with your learning designer.


Designing Courses Backwards, Stanford University Teaching Commons
Understanding by Design, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching).
Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Ascd.

Additional Resources

Fink, L. D. (2003). Integrated course design. Idea paper, 42.

Lund, A., & Hauge, T. E. (2011). Designs for teaching and learning in technology-rich learning environments. Nordic journal of digital literacy, 6(04), 258-271.

McTighe, J., & Thomas, R. S. (2003). Backward design for forward action. Educational Leadership, 60(5), 52-55.

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