Planning a Course: Learning Outcomes and Backward Design

When planning or revising a course, scholarship tells us to start with the end in mind, i.e., to start with specific and measurable learning outcomes (goals, objectives). The learning outcomes build the foundation of any lesson, course, or program. All other elements are aligned with them, meaning that they are closely related and support progress toward those learning outcomes. 

Once we know what specific and observable outcomes we expect from our course, we can design backward, i.e., opposite to the chronology of the students’ learning experience. The guiding principle for this process is called backward design and 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.

Part 1: Measurable Learning Outcomes

Determine Learning Goals

What do you want your students to know (knowledge), do (skills), and feel (values, attitudes) at the end of a [lesson, course, or program]?

Learning goals are interchangeably called learning outcomes or learning objectives in the scholarship. No matter the choice of terminology, the common idea is to identify statements that outline what learning one can observe and measure upon completion of the learning experience, be it a lesson or a whole program. Hence, it is helpful to articulate learning objectives by completing this prompt:

“At the end of the [lesson, course, program], students will/should be able to _____.” 

It is helpful to use so-called “action verbs” (see resources below) that describe observable/measurable learning behavior in one’s learning outcome statements. In turn, it is recommended to avoid verbs such as to understand, to know, or to learn because they describe complex processes within a learner that cannot be observed and measured as such.

To identify our learning goals, we usually draw from the three domains of learning, i.e., cognitive, affective, and psychomotor learning. The following two taxonomies are used frequently by instructors to consider the nature and scope of their learning outcomes:

With course-level learning goals in place, consider how to conceptually structure your course, which may be week by week and/or possibly bigger units. Identify module/unit learning outcomes and map them to the overarching course-level learning outcomes. The process of explicitly breaking down end goals into intermediate goals helps students to focus and feel motivated by understanding the rationale behind the work they are asked to complete.

Articulate Learning Goals Consistently

Use your syllabus as a tool for learning and a companion for students as they proceed through your course. It helps students to easily find specific and measurable learning outcomes as well as a list of course assessments that are clearly connected to the learning outcomes.

Consider posting the course and module/learning outcomes in a variety of places in D2L (e.g., course home page; syllabus; D2L module descriptions; course module/unit agendas or instruction pages) to stress the role of learning and learning goals in your course design. Remind yourself and your students explicitly of your unit- and course-level learning outcomes to clarify goals and expectations, uncover the rationale and purpose of materials and activities, and practice accountability.

Part 2: Planning Your Course Using Backward Design

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

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.