Backward course design

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Backward course design is a method of designing educational curriculum by setting learning goals for students and then planning learning activities and appropriate assessment methods. This is contrasted with traditional course design where textbooks and learning activities are chosen first to create a syllabus without identifying learning goals. Backward design was first introduced to curriculum design in 1998 by McTighe and Wiggins. See Wiggins' website.

Traditional Course Design versus Backward Course Design
Starts by choosing textbook and content to cover, then formulating a syllabus and preparing homework & exam papers Starts by creating learning goals for the course, designing assignment to measure if goals are being met, and then preparing classroom material
Instructor centered - not giving students necessary information about what they should learn from the course Student centered - explicit learning goals inform students what is expected of them in the course

The central idea in backward course design is to "teach toward the "end point" or learning goals" whereas in traditional course design there is "no formal destination identified before the journey begins." [1]


Childre, Sands, and Pope (2009) discuss the implications of backward design in two classroom environments. In a second grade classroom, the general and special education teacher chose to implement it in social studies and language arts. With the backward course design approach students who normally did not participate eagerly engaged in the activities and performance increased for all students, with and without disabilities. In the high school classroom the backward design approach "facilitated the equal participation of students with disabilities in all aspects of the classroom learning community." While traditional approaches fail to engage students with disabilities, the backward design approach makes learning meaningful for all students.


How to

Grant and McTighe (2010) offer a 3-stage design process for backward course design.

Stage 1 Stage 2 Stage 3
What long-term learning goals are sought after? What performances and assignments will reveal evidence of targeted knowledge? What activities and lessons will lead to the achievement of results in stage 1 and success at assessments in stage 2?
What essential concepts will students be required to explore in the course? What criteria will be used to assess performance in light of the desired results from stage 1 How will the course be structured and sequenced to optimize time and achievement?
What factual knowledge and skills should students acquire from the course? What other evidence (quizzes, problem sets, presentations) will be collected to achieve desired results? How can the course be tailored to the different needs, abilities, and interests of students?