Backward Design

photograph of wooden trail marker post with directional arrows

Learning, at its best, is like a journey. It can potentially take us from where we are now to new levels of awareness, understanding, and imagining what might be possible in the future.

When we imagine the beginnings of a journey in other contexts; such as a travel journey or a fitness journey, for example, the following questions most likely come to our attention:

  • What’s our destination?
  • How will we know we’re on the right road?
  • How will we get ourselves there?

Designing a learning experience that is transformative, like a great journey, begins by considering the same 3 questions. The questions underlie the steps of a sound course design model, the first of which is to define our learners’ final destination, or desired learning outcomes. Identifying the end results for our learners first is referred to as “backward design.”

The Backward Design Model

The order of the steps to the backward design process is significant. The first step -- thinking about what we’d like our learners to be able to do immediately after, 5 years after, 10 years after our courses conclude, helps us anchor everything we do in the course to a pre-defined end.

The second step of the model is to plan the types of evidence we would need to determine if learning has occurred, through various forms of assessment. Assessment helps our learners know whether they are on the right road and whether our instruction is leading them there.

Finally, in the third step, we plan the vehicles of learning, or the learning activities and instructional materials (multimedia resources, simulations, projects, problem sets) that would help our students get to our pre-defined end, and support evidence of learning.

Backward design has been widely adopted to develop college/university-level courses for both online and face-to-face environments. A major benefit of this model is that it centers us on teaching our learners what they need to know and not on covering textbook chapters (often filled with nice to know). In fact, another name for Backward Design is “Learner-Centered Design.” Using it as the design model and communicating expected course learning outcomes grounds our courses, making it clear to learners why they are being presented with the selected course materials and assignments.

The backward design model is presented here in visual form:

infographic containing information on backwards design

You can download this infographic as a PDF document at

Developing a course in this manner helps us avoid 2 major course design flaws:

  1. Coverage approach: Racing to cover as much texbook content as possible without any connection to desired learning outcomes (overwhelming learners with "nice to know" instead of zeroing in on "need to know.")
  2. Activity approach: Designing activity after activity related to the theme of the course but not tied to any sort of learning outcomes.

Mapping Your Course

To help you chart the steps of the backward design model for your own courses, a course map template can be found here: Course map template.

Your course map sets the direction for the learning experience. Once established, you can begin to sketch out the content framework for the course -- which is the topic of the next unit.