Backward Design

How do you approach the design of your course? Teachers often discuss the broad topics and content we teach in our courses. A standard curriculum and instructional design method is to plan by units or lessons, chunking content into topics, sequencing lessons, and creating assessments to measure learning. However, topic-driven planning may lead to poor student engagement because students need help to see the relevance of their learning and to connect how the knowledge is transferable to their future. What if you were to design a learning experience by reflecting on what you hope students will be able to do as a result of your course? Backward design is a framework that has proven invaluable for course design in various instructional contexts.

What are the benefits of Backward Design?

Backward design was introduced by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design as a results-focused instructional design process. In backward design, planning begins with the desired learning outcomes and works backward to create the curriculum, instruction, and assessment. There are several benefits of using backward design to design a curriculum.


Beginning with the end goal in mind helps teachers and students understand the purpose of the learning and what they are working towards.


Backward design ensures alignment between learning goals, assessments, and instructional activities. When assessments and instructional activities are aligned with the learning goals, it is more likely that students will achieve those goals.


Backward design is a flexible approach that allows for adjustments throughout the curriculum development. For example, if assessments or instructional activities are not aligned with the learning goals, they can be adjusted to support student learning better.


Backward design promotes accountability by providing evidence of student learning. Assessment results provide feedback on student progress and inform instructional decision-making.

Higher-order thinking skills

Backward design encourages higher-order thinking skills by focusing on understanding and application rather than memorization. Students are more likely to retain information and skills when they understand the purpose and context in which they are learning them.


Backward design helps instructors and learners manage and prioritize their time by focusing on learning outcomes. The process helps to use time wisely by concentrating on the most critical activities that will contribute to student success in meeting the learning outcomes.

a drop of water balanced on a single blade of grass

To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction

Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

The Backward Design Process

Backward design is a three-step process. 

Step 1: Identify the learning goals or desired results

The first step is identifying the desired learning outcomes. This first stage asks instructors to imagine the future with a long-term view and consider what students know, understand, and can do. Learning outcomes help instructors design a curriculum based on what the students will do rather than what the teacher does. Consider situation factors to help align outcomes, assessments and teaching and learning activities with the instructional context to help meet student needs. To create learning outcomes, use action verbs that lend themselves to assessment so they can evaluate whether a student has achieved the outcome. Each learning outcome should be measurable, student-centred, and focused on different levels of learning (refer to Bloom’s taxonomy of learning). 

Step 2: Develop assessments

Once the learning goals are identified, the next step is to develop assessments that measure the achievement of those outcomes. These assessments should be aligned with the learning goals and provide evidence of student learning. The backward design framework encourages teachers to plan assessments before planning teaching and learning experiences. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe  suggest that this helps teachers clarify their goals and improve student performance. As well, when planning assessments, consider that learning develops over time as a result of ongoing inquiry. So, assessment should be collected over time in a continuum of assessment instead of as a single event (for example, a test at the end of instruction). Assessment does not always need to be formal or summative — refer to CIEL’s Formative Assessment Blog for more information about formative assessment.

Step 3: Plan learning experiences and instruction

After the assessments are developed is the time to plan appropriate instructional activities to help students achieve the outcomes. These activities should be designed to prepare students to complete the assessments successfully. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe suggest several key questions to consider: What are the knowledge and skills students need to perform effectively and reach the desired results? What activities will provide students with the needed knowledge and skills?  What will need to be taught and how? What materials and resources will help students accomplish these goals? Note that the instructional planning order is significant. Plan the assessment first, only then plan lessons that will contribute to student success on that assessment. 

Finally, evaluate the curriculum to determine its effectiveness. The evaluation involves reviewing the assessment results and student feedback to determine if the learning goals were achieved and if the curriculum needs to be revised. With a backward design approach, the curriculum is designed with the end goal in mind, ensuring that instruction and assessments align with the desired learning outcomes. Backward design can help us make better decisions as teachers to ensure student-focused relevant education.

This blog is only an introduction to backward design. We invite you to join the upcoming roundtable discussion for a facilitated conversation on backward design. It is an opportunity to share your ideas and hear what other instructors are doing as well. We’ll be happy to discuss design options that can be adapted to most situations. And, of course, you likely have your own questions about backward design that we have not addressed.

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And, as always, we encourage you to contact us for a conversation about this or any other teaching and learning topic.