Backwards Course Design Model

–Dr. Tim Kochery–

The Backwards Course Design method for developing curriculum is a prominent concept from the book Understanding by Design (1998), by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. This process emphasizes that the most effective way to produce a course is to begin by establishing the desired learning outcomes, and identify the types of assessments that will evidence that those competencies have been attained. They recommend course planning should begin by determining the appropriate assessments and work backwards to assure providing sufficient learning resources, activities and practice to prepare learners for achieving the desired objectives.

This is a very prevalent form of project management, whereby you define the preferred end result, and then create a detailed plan which delineates the action steps required to achieve that outcome. For course design, this entails analyzing and determining the learning stages that need to take place in order to develop the intended learning competencies. Therefore, Backwards Course Design starts by defining the desired end-results of the instruction, and suspends considering the teaching strategies and activities until later on in the process. In other words, Wiggins and McTighe maintain that you can’t start planning how you are going to teach until you know exactly what you want your students to learn. “Teaching is a means to an end.  Having a clear goal helps us educators to focus our planning and guide purposeful action toward the intended results.” (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998)

Wiggins and McTighe propose that the backwards course design process begins by applying these three steps and related questions:

  1. Identify the desired results
  • Establish the learning goals for the course
  • What should students, know, understand and be able to do?
  • How do you narrow down and prioritize the content?
  1. What knowledge should the students be “familiar with”?
  2. What knowledge should be mastered – “important to know and do
  3. What are the major ideas and “enduring understandings” that the learners should retain?
  4. Determine acceptable evidence
  • How will you decide that the students are progressing at mastering certain knowledge and skills?
  • How will you evaluate and determine that learners have demonstrated sufficient competence?
  • What will verify student success at meeting the course goals?
  • What student performances will confirm adequate achievement?
  • Analyze various assessment methods to ensure that they measure for the exact learning that we want the students to attain
  1. Plan the learning experience and instruction
  • What are the best resources and activities for developing the students’ ability to meet your learning goals?
  • Select learning assignments that provide ample practice for developing new capabilities and competencies
  • Provide assessments that focus on applying new knowledge and skills

These deliberations will help create effective learning objectives which are linked to appropriate assessments, and that demonstrate varying degrees of competency. Determining appropriate Learning Objectives helps inform the learner about expected levels of performance, as well as guide the structure, content, and learning activities of the course. The Course objectives should derive from the learning outcomes and competencies, which help define the suitable assessment measures. Therefore, the course content should provide learning materials and activities that align with the associated assessments to help facilitate and assure student success. The learning activities should prepare learners for the competencies that will be evaluated, and include sufficient practice and constructive feedback to accomplish the intended learning objectives. The following diagram demonstrates the stages of the backwards design process.

Backwards Course Design Process

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Begin by determining Learning Goals, Outcomes or Competencies

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Create specific Learning Objectives to attain the competencies

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Define the Assessments that will evidence achievement

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Create the Learning Activities to prepare for Assessments

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Identify the instructional resources and materials to support the learning activities

This method might appear “backwards” because it starts from the opposite end of the planning process that is frequently used to design courses. Quite often, the development procedure begins by thinking about how to provide ample instruction for the vast amount of content that needs to be squeezed into a narrow time frame. This places undue emphasis on mere “coverage” of the instructional materials, and often lacks coherence to tangible, prescribed, and higher-order learning competencies. In contrast, Backward Design delays considering teaching strategies until towards the end of this process, and starts by delineating the desired results of that teaching. To determine those preferred outcomes, one needs to decide what is most critical and essential for students to know. What is the main purpose of the instruction, and what assessment activities can best demonstrate recognizable proficiencies? One of the most prominent considerations should be – what knowledge, understandings, skills and competencies are most significant for the students to recall and transfer? After those learning outcomes have been established, it is important to construct the learning objectives and assessments that align with those goals, and then proceed to determining the instructional methods and materials that will inform, support and prepare the learner to attain those competencies.

One starts with the end – the desired results (goals or standards) – and then derives the curriculum from the evidence of learning (performances) called for and the teaching needed to equip students to perform. (Wiggins and McTighe, 2000)

 backwardscoursedesign

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