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Backward Design

  • Course Design

Last modified: October 3, 2022

There are many ways to design and organize your course. Backward Design is helpful for ensuring that your objectives, assessments, and lessons are securely aligned.

The Backward Design Process

a diagram depicting the backwards design process from objectives to assessments to learning artifacts and lessons

Backward design is a way of planning your course so that all of the instruction, course work, and assessments are aligned with the objectives of the course. The main idea behind the process is to eliminate assignments or material that is done just for the sake of doing it or because it's always been part of the course. Backward design asks instructors to take an intentional view of their course and course material to determine what is truly essential and beneficial and what is extraneous or busy work.

Stage 1: Identify Desired Outcomes of the Course

The first stage is about articulating what knowledge students should gain in this course. What skills will they need for the courses that follow this one? What information will they need to retain and use after this course? 

These questions help instructors prioritize concepts so that instruction can be focused on the desired outcomes of the course and not get distracted by tangents that are related but not necessary to the objectives.

So, to begin your backward design, start by writing specific objectives for your learners to achieve by the end of the course. These are your destination and the rest of your planning will establish the road map to get your students there.

Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence of Mastery

Once you've decided on your desired outcomes, the next step is to determine how you will know that students have met those outcomes. What evidence will constitute mastery of the subject matter? This is the beginning of alignment. Your assessments and evaluations should measure student performance and proficiency in relation to the desired outcomes of the course.

What kind of assessment would best display your students' proficiency level in your subject matter? How can you measure student progress throughout the term? Here are some assessment methods that you could use to evaluate your students' grasp of the material:

  • Practice problems
  • Short or Long writing assignments
  • Lab projects
  • Traditional exams

Stage 3: Design Instruction and Resources

This is the stage at which instructors should begin building lessons around the established outcomes and assessments. At this point, you should know what you will expect students to know or do in order to be considered proficient. Lessons and activities should support those expectations. Instructional time should include:

  • Background knowledge, context, fundamental skills needed to achieve the expected outcomes
  • Activities to practice the skills or use the required knowledge
  • Materials and resources that support the learning and mastery of outcomes

Backward Design Template

For help with organizing your course using backward design, use this template. You can use it to design your overall course, individual units, or individual lessons. Backward design can be used at all levels of planning. 

Backward Design Template