Backwards Design Basics

Drawing from the framework of backwards design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), this page outlines pedagogical tools and resources to help and guide you as you prepare to teach your course.

Backwards design is a process for course development that focuses first on identifying student learning goals and scaffolding assessments and teaching methods around these goals to help students master these activities.  Designing “with the end in mind” begins not with instruction and curriculum first, but rather views these activities as a means to helping students learn.  This process is guided by three overarching questions:

  • What do you want students to be able to do as a result of having taken your course?
  • What will you accept as evidence of having achieved those goals?
  • How will you guide students through activities that allow them to practice?

The following article describes course design in response to these three questions.

Student Learning Goals

What Do You Want Students To Be Able To Do?

The first step in the course design process involves defining student learning goals – that is, what you would like students to be able to do as a result of your instruction.  Wiggins and McTighe (2005) suggest organizing your goals into three broad areas:

  1. Content goals refers to the “nice to know” facts, information, concepts, resources, or texts, that students should be familiar with, but not necessarily master.
  2. Skills goals refers to the important knowledge (facts and concepts) and skills (processes and methods) that you determine students should master.
  3. Enduring knowledge goals refers to the overarching concepts and themes that students should remember well beyond their taking the course, and are retained even after the details of learning in the course are forgotten.

Part of the design process is distinguishing between what knowledge is “nice to know” (content) versus the knowledge that is important (skills) and should last over time (enduring), and designing instruction accordingly.

One helpful framework for defining student learning goals is Bloom’s Taxonomy, which helps instructors classify learning goals and distinguish between more simple and concrete outcomes in comparison to more complex and abstract outcomes.  You may consider more simple and concrete goals for earlier in the semester and build to more complex and abstract ideas as students continue to grow in their progression from novice to expert in your content area.

Interested in finding out more about writing lesson objectives?  Review What are learning objectives and how can we use them? (Ambrose, Bridges, Lovett, DiPietro, and Norman, 2010).


What Will You Accept As Evidence?

The second step, once you have determined your learning goals, is to design assessments that measure student achievement of these goals.  The challenge of instruction involves designing assessments that are closely aligned to the student learning goals you have defined in step 1.

Often, traditional methods of assessment in higher education (essays, tests, or presentations) are effective ways to assess student progress towards mastery of the learning goals.  However, it may be the case that less traditional assessment formats, including problem-based, case-base scenarios, video recordings of real-world activities, or other assessments are the most accurate way to assess a student learning goal.  For example, the assessments of many practice professions (e.g. social work, teaching, nursing, business, law, etc.) examine the student’s ability to engage in a professional activity, like teaching a lesson, conducting a clinical assessment, drafting mock legislation, or presenting a press release.

For additional assessment resources, review the UDL On Campus site for assessment which frames assessment in the context of Universal Design for Learning.


How Will You Guide Students Through Activities?

Consistent with backwards design, instructional decisions made regarding teaching methods to guide student progression toward learning goals comes after goals and assessments have been developed.  Designing your course with the goals first allows you to choose the methods you think will most effectively help students learn.

The debate over the use of traditional lecture and discussion formats in comparison to other methods continues in higher education – you can review the debate in two articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education, In Defense of Lecture and The Lecture Fail Project. Perhaps a guiding question for navigating these debates can focus less on “Am I a lecturer or not?” to “What teaching activities and methods can I employ to maximize the chances that all students learn?”

In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain (2004) writes, “Great teachers are not simply great speakers or discussion leaders; they are, more fundamentally, special kinds of scholars and thinkers… their focus is on the nature and process of learning rather than on the performance of the instructor” (p. 134).  In other words, consider approaching your course design process with a focus not so much on what you do – but rather, what your students are doing to learn in your course.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.