Design Courses Using Backward Course Design

Design Courses Using Backward Course Design

In backward course design, the initial planning and designing of a course focuses on the desired end results and learning outcomes before any content, assessments, activities, or projects are developed. This is an effective way to design both online and in-person courses, as it aims for all course content (and the entire learning experience) to serve a specific purpose and to be mapped back to the course’s learning outcomes.

To design your course using backward course design, perform each of the three phases to determine what students should know after taking the course, decide how to assess what students learned, and then plan the learning experience and instructional methods to achieve the end results.

After performing each of these phases, you will have a comprehensive course map to guide you throughout content creation.

Determine What Students Should Know After Taking the Course

In the first phase of backward course design, clarify the goals and objectives of the course. Ask yourself the following questions to better understand what the learner should know when they are done:

  • What are the large concepts that frame the ideas about what learners should understand, know, and do?
  • How does this course fit into the overall program?
  • What topics should the learner understand?
  • What knowledge should the learner know?
  • What activities or tasks should the learner be able to do?
  • What skills should the learner have after taking the course?
  • What types of results are acceptable?

Start with the big picture and identify the chunks of content that fit within that picture. Once you clarify the general themes of the course:

  1. Use the big picture to write course competencies.
  2. Use competencies to define learning outcomes.

The learning outcomes become the statements that directly answer the questions about what the learner should know, understand, and do after taking the course.

Decide How to Assess What Students Learned

The goal of the second phase of backward course design is to decide how to assess what students learned and the extent of their understanding. This is the second phase of the process because it informs us about what qualifies as successful learning.

In this phase, ask yourself:

  • What evidence is required to show us that the learner achieved the goals defined in phase 1?
  • How do we evaluate student proficiency?
  • What assessment types should we use?
  • How will those assessment types advise our instruction methods and course content?

Use the answers to these questions to define how you will assess each of the learning outcomes identified in phase 1.

Plan the Learning Experience and Instructional Methods

In the final phase of backward course design, create a plan for learning that is based on the desired end goals of the course (phase 1) and will help prepare learners for the assessments that gauge their grasp and proficiency of the information (phase 2).

As you start this phase, ask yourself:

  • How do we create content so that learners know the information?
  • What activities will help learners understand the information?
  • What projects, assignments, or activities, will help learners do something with the information?
  • What resources are needed?
  • What technology can we leverage to support the learning outcomes?
  • What experiences do the learners need to have to gain exposure and interact with the subject matter?
  • How do we best use our time to accomplish these goals?

Use these questions to help create opportunities for learners to retain information in the short and long term. 

When planning the learning experience and instructional methods that you will use throughout the course, consider the qualities that make an effective and engaging course. To create an online course that is both engaging and effective:

  • Set clear performance goals and base them on real-world activities and challenges
  • Make sure students understand the purpose of the content
  • Consistently link learners back to the big picture
  • Provide interactive alternatives (don’t just rely on text)
  • Use problems, puzzles, and mysteries to guide activities
  • Create opportunities for collaboration and group work

There are many considerations that go into designing an online course. By using the backward course design method, you have a better chance at designing a purpose-driven, learning-centered course.


Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

Author: Katherine Baeckeroot

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