Designing Backward

What goals do you have for your students? What is it that you want them to know—and what do you want them to be able to do—by the time they've finished your class?

In backward design, you build your course not around predetermined assignments and activities, but around the skills and knowledge you want your students to gain from the experience. Maybe you want them to know how to perform a certain kind of analysis, or to have a critical understanding of a particular theory and its shortcomings, or to know what things changed in a specific historical moment, or to be able to gather information using your discipline’s methodology; there are many possibilities, and you might have many goals for a single class. In backward design, you anchor the development of a course in a careful articulation of the learning goals—just what it is that you want students to learn—and work backward from there.


The “backward design” model exemplified here is developed in considerable detail by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding By Design. While most of the examples in that book come from K-12 education, their method can be adapted to university education.

This model suggests three stages. Any given teacher might move through them in order, or circle back, or some combination of the two. The syllabus design process—especially if one is developing a new course or radically revising an existing course—is often iterative, as work in the later stages leads one to revise what one did in the early stages.

What goals do you have for your students? What is it that you want people to be able to know and do by the time they've finished your class?

Erica Halverson
Associate Professor
University of Wisconsin-Madison
via YouTube

Here are the three phases of backward design:

  1. Articulate your expectations: Articulate as clearly and succinctly as you can your learning goals: what you expect your students to learn. This may well include a range of things: particular knowledge, skills, an understanding of various aspects of the discipline, etc.
  2. Define evidence of learning:
    • Identify what you will count as evidence that students have met those goals. What do students need to do in order to demonstrate the learning you want for them?
    • Design the specific tasks and assignments that will allow students both to practice and also to demonstrate to you their knowledge and skills. These could include papers, problem sets, examinations, and many other kinds of activities. (Note that the practicing and the demonstrating are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One assignment might not only provide students the opportunity to practice but also be an opportunity for you to assess their developing competency.)
  3. Structure the class to help students pursue the goals: The next step is to decide what the students will need (from you and from others) in order to complete the assignments you have developed. This could include, for example:
    • lectures you present in class
    • assigned readings
    • sample problem sets
    • focused class discussions
    • small group work in or out of class
    • laboratory research projects
    • modeling, where you illustrate how to complete the assignments

In this step you’ll also build a semester-long schedule for these activities and assignments, creating the structure that builds to these goals in a feasible and achievable way.

In short, by using backward design, an instructor chooses all course materials and activities in order to support an end objective rather than defining the end objective as a summary of the materials covered along the way. Backward design emphasizes the importance of leaving students with transferable skills, practice in disciplinary methods, and lasting epiphanies. Giving an extra meta-level of foresight to the goals of a course can yield a course with greater impact.

The Key Components of Integrated Course Design

The three key components are learning goals, teaching and learning activities, and feedback and assessment. The three components interact with each other. They are also influenced by situational factors.

from L.D. Fink, A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning

Planning backward has been helpful. I can now more clearly specify what knowledge and skills are really essential, given my goals for the unit.

Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe

Additional Resources

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