To describe backward design and why it is a useful framework for creating a course

To delineate the steps and processes of backward design

To present case examples that help to illustrate the steps of the backward design process 


Backward design is an iterative and learner-centered process that encourages instructors  to plan their courses with the end in mind. This means that instructors start by thinking about their students and the situational factors that may impact and amplify their teaching, move to create their learning objectives, think about how to best assess those objectives and then plan the course content and day-to-day activities. The process of backward design helps to make an instructor’s goals transparent to students while giving students an artfully created roadmap that, when followed, allows them to succeed. As educators plan their course, there will be times where they will need  to go back and tinker with each step of the backward design process. At the end of planning the course, instructors should see that the learning objectives, assessments and activities plans align. The process below summarizes the key steps outlined by Wiggins and McTighe (2005) and Fink (2013). There are also more thorough workbooks from McTighe that you can follow to help you with your course planning. 


Step One: Who are your students and what are the situational factors that will impact your class? 

Course affordances and constraints: There are many factors that go into building a course that instructors will want to attend to before creating their learning goals for the semester. For example, what are the curricular requirements? Is the course part of a larger sequence? What are the space and time limitations? 

Students’ prior knowledge and assets: Furthermore, it may be worthwhile for instructors to think about the students they are teaching – what might one already know about the students in a class? What will the students know (or what does one hope that they will know) before the course? What assets might students bring to the class? How can one feature student strengths? 

Previous experience with teaching the course: If the course was taught before, what went well the last time and what could go better?

Culturally relevant pedagogy – Consider how students’ cultural assets, lives and different types of knowledge will be crucial to the success of the course. 

Step Two: Identify desired results 

This step is where the instructor gets the chance to dream. What should students know, understand and be able to do at the end of the course? What long-lasting impression will the students ascertain? At this point, instructors will want to think about creating solid learning goals to frame the assessments and content of their course. Instructors may consider using a taxonomy to help guide the goal-creation process. Taxonomies help instructors scaffold material by showcasing how different cognitive, social and/or emotional processes build on one another as students move toward mastering course material. If time permits, instructors can move through the full taxonomy throughout the course. Some courses, for example introductory courses, may not allow for every step of the taxonomy but can be modified so that levels of higher order thinking are still ascertained within the course of the semester. Two widely used taxonomies are Bloom’s (2001) revised taxonomy and Fink’s (2013) significant learning experiences. There are other taxonomies such as Marzano’s (2000) New Taxonomy that may be better suited to a particular course. 

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Remember –  What basic concepts do students need to know for the course?

    Sample verbs: memorize, duplicate, define

Understand – How will students explain basic concepts and ideas? 

    Sample verbs: classify, discuss, explain, locate, recognize

Apply – How will students utilize and apply course concepts and ideas to new situations?

    Sample verbs: execute, implement, solve, operate

Analyze – How will students draw connections and synthesize class ideas and concepts? 

    Sample verbs: differentiate, relate, compare, examine, question, test 

Evaluate – How will students explain the value and promise of a particular idea? 

Sample verbs: appraise, defend, judge, critique 

Create –  How will students engage in original assignments that ask them to produce original work using course concepts?

Sample verbs: design, construct, develop, author 

Significant Learning Experiences (D. Fink)

Foundational Knowledge – what key information or ideas will students need to engage with in this course?

Application Goals – What kinds of thinking (critical, creative, practical) will students engage in and what skills will they gain as a result of this course?

Integration – What information or content will they analyze, synthesize and then create as a result of this course?

Human Dimension Goals– What will students learn about themselves and others as a result of this course?

Caring Goals – What values will students consider throughout the course? 

Metacognitive Goals – How will students assess their own understanding throughout the course and how will they know they have become an expert? 

Step Three: Determine acceptable evidence

Now that the learning goals have been created, instructors will want to think about building assessments that will allow students to showcase what they have learned. There are two major types of assessments, formative and summative, both described below.

Formative Assessmentmuch more powerful than summative assessments, formative assessments are commonly low stakes, shorter assignments that allow students to practice a course concept and get feedback. 

Summative Assessment – summative assessments are larger projects typically done at the end of the year. 

Step Four: Plan learning experiences and instruction 

Now it is time to plan the day-to-day activities, content and experiences that will allow students to master the learning goals through their assessments. At this point you may want to consider the sequence of content and skills that will need to be addressed throughout the course. 

Pick the content – Think about the content that best aligns with the learning goals and that may also mirror what you will look for in your assessments. 

Break down your assessments into classroom activities – Consider looking at the different ways for students to show mastery throughout the semester and break those activities down into manageable pieces where students can try components of the assessment and receive immediate feedback. 

Use Active-learning – Browse through and pick active-learning activities that will bring course content to life and allow students to engage with their own understanding. 

Learning Outside of the Classroom – Consider field trips or out of classroom learning experiences that will help to illustrate class concepts and material. 

The Assignment Repository – Here are some of the ways in which Lafayette faculty are assessing their students.

Case Example: 

Professor X is going to teach a new course on young adult novels in the US from the early 1900s. Typically, this professor has planned for courses by first picking their course texts, breaking the texts up over 15 weeks and assigning a literary analysis paper for the end of the semester. However, this time the professor has decided to engage with the backward design process and quickly realizes a few things about their class.

Situational Factors and Knowledge of Students:  

  • The course fits within a creative writing sequence and counts toward a minor in creative writing, so perhaps the literary analysis component is not as worthwhile. 
  • The course will have a cohort of international students that may have different experiences with young adult novels in their home countries and may be able to contribute this knowledge in interesting ways. 

Identify Desired Results:  

  • Since the course is in a creative writing sequence one of the desired goals may actually be for students to create their own young adult story for a child in a particular context. However, in order to get there, students will also need to be able to identify the key features of a young adult text as it applies to the political and social climate of a particular time period and analyze how writers use rhetoric and language to compel their audience. 
  • This particular professor also realizes that with an international class, there may be a compelling reason to engage a wider set of texts or create a chance for students to compare their own experiences with YA novels in different times and cultural contexts. 

Determine Acceptable Evidence:

  • Knowing the aforementioned information, this professor decides that their summative assessment will be a young adult short story that students craft over the course of a semester. The short story will have to be annotated to include the reasons why they chose a particular storyline and theme. In order for students to craft their stories, they will need multiple opportunities to deconstruct young adult texts within a particular time period and then use that information so set up their own short story for young adults. 

Plan the day-to-day Activities: 

In order to build up to the short story assessment the professor decides to do the following over the course of 15 weeks: 

  • The first weeks: The professor will begin by looking at the historical context and why writers in the early 1900s US were writing young adult fiction.  
  • The professor will ask students to read and deconstruct a text together using active learning. 
  • The professor will also assign mini essays on the rhetoric used to compel a particular young adult audience.

The middle of the semester: The professor will begin by having students look at different time periods and places and start thinking about what kinds of young adult short stories may have been necessary for kids during that time period and place. 

  • The professor will have students share different plotlines with one another and talk about how they connect to the historical and cultural context of the place and time they picked. 
  • The professor will bring students to the Easton Public Library for a discussion with a librarian in the young adult section. They will have students ask questions about the most popular young adult books and why the librarian thinks they are compelling for today’s youth. The professor will also have students browse through the young adult section and think about the context of young adults in Easton, PA. 

End of the semester: The professor will have students bring in drafts of short young adult stories and obtain feedback from their peers and the professor. 

  • The professor will prepare writing circles where students can read their short story drafts aloud and get feedback from their peers.


Backward design is a helpful framework that encourages instructors to begin with the end in mind so that students can easily follow how the learning goals of a course are linked to assessments and activities. By following the steps outlined above, instructors can set themselves and their students up for success. 



Anderson, L.W., Krathwohl, D.R. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York, New York: Longman. 

Bloom, B. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook One. New York, New York: Longman. 

Fink, L.D. (2013). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Marzano, R.J., Kendall, J.S. (2007). The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.