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]

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


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.


  • 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?