Backward design is a strategy instructors can use to maximize the likelihood that students achieve the desired outcomes for the course. Imagine instruction is like archery. The teaching strategies and instructional materials are bow and arrows, and what we want students to get out of the course is the target. Backward design helps make sure the arrows are actually aimed at the target. When instructors design their teaching without the target in mind, they often miss the mark.

For example, many instructors would like for their students to develop critical thinking skills. If all of the course is mistargeted toward covering factual knowledge, students won't learn to think critically about the facts they are learning, how those facts came to be known, how the facts relate to one another, and how they can apply their factual knowledge in new contexts such as the next class they take.

How it works

Backward design starts with the learning goals for the course, instead of the subject matter. What do you want students to be able to do by the end of the course: Think critically? Summarize primary literature? Evaluate an experimental design? Build a scientific argument? Understand the relationships among DNA, chromosomes, genes, cells, and organisms? Develop a greater appreciation for how scientific knowledge is generated?

Course-level earning goals lead to lesson-level learning objectives - what students do to demonstrate that they have achieved the learning goals. For example, how would you know if students can think critically? Perhaps they can evaluate whether a dataset supports a conclusion. How would you know whether students understand the relationships among DNA, chromosomes, genes, etc.? Perhaps they can accurately draw and label a diagram that explains how they are related.  Outcomes are the evidence that students have achieved the objectives. 

Once objectives are defined, then it is time to design activities that students will do in and out of class to achieve the objectives and realize the outcomes. The activities can be before-class readings or lectures, in-class worksheets, quizzes, homeworks, or other experiences during which students practice the desired performance (e.g., analyzing datasets, solving problems, making predictions justified with background reading, etc.) and get feedback from instructors, teaching assistants, peers, or automated systems. 

What it looks like

Desiging backward takes time and practice, so participating in a workshop or using a guide helps. Here are three video guides about the process:

Learn more

For more on Backward Design, see:

For examples of curricula developed using backward design, see: