Backward Design

What is backward design?

Backward design is a three-stage process for designing a course:

  1. Identify outcomes or the desired results of learning.
  2. Determine what counts as acceptable evidence of learning.
  3. Plan learning experiences or instruction that will lead students. to achieve your outcomes and provide evidence of learning.

Instructional designers call this process “backward” because one starts with the outcomes and works backward towards daily lessons. One strategy for arraying course experiences is called “scaffolding”—building on prior knowledge to reach new knowledge. A detailed overview of scaffolding can be found here.

This process is most closely associated with a book called Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005). You can read a condensed version of the book if you like or watch the video below to learn more.

How does backward design relate to digital democracy?

The structure of your course speaks volumes to students. When learning outcomes, activities, and assessments work together, students know what to do and how their work contributes to their overall success in the course. At a time when face-to-face communication is at a premium, the structure of the course stands stands in for the check-ins at the beginning of class, where the instructor orients students to how the activities of the day contribute to the overall goals of the course. When the course itself makes transparent connections between outcomes, activities, and assessments you and your students do not have to lumber off to a web conference to discuss these matters. Moreover, students who are not able to attend a web conference are not left out.

How can backward design help me?

Backward design ensures that your outcomes, activities, and assessments work together. As William Strunk, Jr. said of writing: “sentences should contain no unnecessary words… for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts” (Elements of Style, Rule 17.) So too should a course contain no unnecessary work. Backward design helps you determine which elements of your course to keep (those that help students meet the course outcomes as measured by the assessments) and which elements may be edited out (those which do not help your students show mastery of the course outcomes).


Diagram showing a "triangle" of intended outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and assessment.

Backward design implies a linear method (albeit in reverse) where one starts with outcomes works backward to assessment and then back again to daily learning activities. In an ideal world, that would be true. But in reality it is more useful to think of backward design as a process that instructors can enter at any of the three points and then use the other two to triangulate their course design.

For example, you may have a really great group project that you think will make a great assessment. To ensure the project fits in your course you will want to attach learning outcomes to it and plan daily activities that will lead your students toward being successful on the final project. This group project is every bit as aligned as one which started with the outcomes and proceeded backward to the assessment (group project) and back again to the daily activities. The key idea is that all three sides of the triangle should work together.

Applying Backward Design

Backward design may be useful for updating your course in multiple ways.

First, you will want to see that your assessments provide evidence that your students have mastered your learning outcomes.

Second, as you consider the various ways students may access your class (face-to-face, online, synchronous online, etc.) you will want to see if your daily activities are aligned equally well in each learning environment. For example, if you do a think-pair-share in a face-to-face lecture so that students can practice key concepts, you will want to do a similar activity in the online environment, such as a journal activity where students explain key concepts in their own terms. The activities don’t have to be the same but they should provide an equivalent experience that is equally well aligned with assessments and learning outcomes.

Finally, backward design serves as a way to check if something is worth doing (does it align?) and a method for incorporating new elements that you can’t resist doing (how can it be made to align with the outcomes, assessments, and learning activities?).