Course Papers

Backward Design

It is a common approach to start developing course content, then the assessment. In backwards design the end goals are determined first, then the assessment, and finally the course content and activities. 

The process for backwards design includes identify desired results, determine acceptable evidence, and plan the learning experience.

Identify desired results is determining what you want students to know or be able to do.  Start with a broader identification of the goals.  Identify any possible standards or guidelines that influence the curriculum.  Sort through topics that should be covered, desired skills that should be acquired and resources available to use in the educational process. Determine curricula priorities by what the students should be familiar with, what is important to know and what they should be immersed in for a higher-level understanding.

Determine acceptable evidence takes consideration of what evidence needs to be collected to determine the course has been successfully completed.  This includes assessment methods throughout the course, which could be formal or unformal. Wiggins & McTighe (1998) considers the assessments to be the anchor of the course.

Finally, plan learning experiences and instruction.  This is actually developing the course content and activities based on the assessments from step two, which are derived from the goals set in step one.

Critique of strengths, appropriate use, and limitations

Initial design of the backwards methodology was first adopted for STEM; however, Davidovitch (2013) discusses how all disciplines could benefit.  The logic being this approach could be designed to encourage students to find relative information and contribute to their own development. In the learner-centered adaptation that Davidovitch (2013) discusses the goals are provided and students contribute to the direction of the course content.  This was illustrated with a course in history where each student recommended learning materials based on individual interests.

Criticism comes from planning the assessment before the course content. Culatta (2021) notes this is looked at as “teaching to the test.”  Instead of a criticism this could highlight a viable use for test preparation. In addition, an assessment does not always mean a test, it can be discussion participation, or achievement in activities. 

The literature did not highlight limitations, but there was not a lot of discussion on how knowledge develops either.  In my opinion backwards design could be stronger when combined with Bloom’s taxonomy.  For example, when initial goal setting and big picture planning is done it could incorporate basic to more challenging objectives.  This would facilitate learning foundational tasks, challenging those tasks and application in novel ways which would promote knowledge development. 


Culatta, R. (2021) Backward Design. Retrieved from

Davidovitch, N. (2013) Learning-centered teaching and backward course design – from transferring knowledge to teaching skills. Journal of International Education Research, 9(4), 329-338

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998) Understanding by design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.