Backward Design

This mini-primer provides a brief overview of backward design, which was popularized by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in Understanding by Design.

The three stages of the backward-design process are illustrated in the diagram below:

Backward design diagram (explained in following text)

This backward design can be applied to a program, course, or single lesson. The design questions that guide each stage of the process are listed below.


Identify desired results.

  • What relevant goals (program outcomes, course outcomes, learning objectives) will this design address?
  • What are the big ideas that you want students to come to understand in this unit?
  • What will students know and be able to do as a result of this unit?
  • What will students eventually be able to do as a result of the knowledge and skills they gain in this unit?
  • What provocative questions will foster inquiry, understanding, and transfer of learning?

Determine acceptable evidence.

  • Through what tasks (homework assignments, quizzes, in-class activities, projects, exams) will students demonstrate their learning in this unit?
  • By what criteria will students' performance be evaluated? 
  • How will students be guided to reflect upon and self-assess their learning in this unit?

Plan learning experiences and instruction.

  • What learning experiences and instruction will enable students to achieve the desired results?
  • How will the design of the unit
    • help the instructor to know students' prior knowledge?
    • help students to know what is expected?
    • hook students and hold their interest?
    • help them experience the big ideas and grapple with the content?
    • provide opportunities to revise their understanding and work?
    • allow students to evaluate their work?
    • be organized to maximize student engagement?

Backward Design in College Classrooms


Research on the Impact of Backward Design

Winkelmes, M.-A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Weavil, K. H. (2016). A teaching intervention that increases underserved college students’ success. Peer Review, 18.

  • Courses and assignments that are more transparent increase students’ sense of confidence and belonging, the quality of student work, and student success in the course. “Transparent” courses and assignments integrate aspects of backwards design, including clear descriptions of the purpose/goals of the assignment, what skills students will practice and what knowledge they will gain from the assignment, what excellence looks like, and how students will be evaluated.

Levine, L. E., Fallahi, C. R., Nicoll-Senft, J. M., Tessier, J. T., Watson, C. L., & Wood, R. M. (2008). Creating significant learning experiences across disciplines. College Teaching, 56, 247-254. 

  • Using Fink’s taxonomy to redesign a course is linked to significant improvements in student learning in the areas of foundational knowledge, application, human dimension, and learning how to learn.

Reynolds, H. L., & Kearns, K. D. (2017). A planning tool for incorporating backward design, active learning, and authentic assessment in the college classroom. College Teaching, 65, 17-27. 

  • Using backwards course design in a non-majors college biology course resulted in positive outcomes for instructors (enhanced ability to prioritize content delivery to students, better time management, improved experience of lecture preparation, more frequent feedback on student comprehension) and students (more engagement).

Armbruster, P., Patel, M., Johnson, E., & Weiss, M. (2009). Active learning and student-centered pedagogy improve student attitudes and performance in introductory biology. CBE Life Sciences Education, 8, 203-213.

  • A course redesign in introductory biology which included aspects of backwards design (creation of learning goals for each lecture, alignment between assessments and learning goals, and reordering the content into broader themes) led to significant improvement of self-reported student engagement and satisfaction and increased academic performance.

Wang, X., Su, Y., Cheung, S., Wong, E., & Kwong, T. (2013). An exploration of Biggs’ constructive alignment in course design and its impact on students’ learning approaches. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 38, 477-491. 

  • Students in courses where instructors have aligned learning outcomes and assessments, compared to those in less aligned courses, are more likely to adopt deep learning approaches and less likely to use surface learning approaches in the course.

Fulmer, S. M. (2017). Preparing a learning-focused syllabus (Weekly Digest #64). The Learning Scientists Blog

  • Students who receive a “learner-centered syllabus” have more positive perceptions of the instructor, course, and syllabus. Findings from several research studies are summarized in the image below - see website for additional information and references.

You are welcome to contact one of our faculty developers to discuss your teaching ideas, concerns, or questions, related to this mini-primer, or any other topic related to teaching and learning. We are happy to work with you via email, phone, or Skype, or meet with you in your office or at the OIA.