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 appropriate assessment methods followed by learning activities. 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.

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] This gives backward course design a stronger direction with an end goal in sight.

Traditional vs backward.jpg

Traditional course design is instructor-centered, it focuses on the topics that the instructor chooses to lecture on and "gives students little information about the level of understanding they should strive for or the skills they are to learn" (Wood, 2009). In contrast, backward course design is student-centered; learning goals explicitly describe what the student should accomplish by the end of the course and informs students of the true essence of the course.


Newmann and Wehlage (1995) examined the relationship between student learning outcomes and understanding-based instructional practices called "authentic pedagogy." McTighe and Sief (2003) reference that authentic pedagogy and its assessments support the principles of Understanding by Design (as cited in Noble 2011). Researchers focused only on social studies and mathematics and gathered data by observing classes, reviewing assessments, and analyzing student work products (Young 2005). The results showed that authentic pedagogy boosted academic performance of students across all grade levels in elementary school, middle school, and high school. Furthermore the study revealed that achievement benefits were equitable and equally improved the performance of students from minority backgrounds. Refer to Newmann's book for more information.

Similarly Smith, Lee, and Newmann (2001) investigate the relationship between forms of instruction and learning in elementary school in Chicago. They focused on didactic lecturing and interactive lecturing. Didactic lecturing similar to traditional course design is teacher-centric where the "teacher functions as the main source of knowledge - the expert" whereas interactive lecturing, like backward course design, is student-centric where the teacher acts as a facilitator prompting students to ask questions, pose problems, and communicate thoughts. The results indicated that interactive lecturing had positive gains in achievement after one year whereas didactic lecturing had negative impact.

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.


McTighe and Wiggins (2012) demonstrate a simple framework to guide curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Identifying learning goals are critical in this process especially to focus on "transfer of learning." In this framework factual knowledge and skills are not taught for their own sake but as a means to achieve "transfer of learning," the ability to apply what they learned to other aspects of their life. For example: applying mathematical knowledge, skill, and reasoning to solve real-world problems.

Advantages: [2]

  • Students are less likely to become overwhelmed by the factual details missing the entire point of the topic.
  • Instruction focuses on the overall outcome of the course and not individual lesson plans, daily lessons can be constructed with regards to the learning goals.
  • Assessment is designed before lesson plans and so instruction is focused on equipping students with the necessary tools for the assignment, which are in line with the essence of what students need to know.

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?