Pedagogy Resources

UAF eCampus's Collection of Resources for Building Better Courses
All Pedagogy TopicsReference the Glossary

Backward Design

Establish alignment throughout course development stages

What is Backward Design?

Backward Design is a framework, also referred to as Understanding by Design, that encourages a three-stage design process. According to the framework, coined by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, course builders and faculty must establish  learning goals for students before  developing course materials and assessments. Key to the design process is alignment between three stages of course development: identifying outcomes, developing assessments, and planning learning activities.

See also the pages on this website about Big Ideas, Enduring Understandings, and Essential Questions, three components of the framework.

Three stages–outcomes, assessments, activities–represented in a graphic.

How Can I Use Backward Design  in My Course?

You can use Backward Design  to help you thoroughly plan or revise a course. The framework will  guide you through the design process, step-by-step. Use Wiggins & McTighe’s book, Understanding by Design, to break the process down and help you notice opportunities for alignment in your course. Or use the chart below to map your course onto the Backward Design framework. See also the pages on this website about Big Ideas, Enduring Understandings, and Essential Questions, three components of the framework.

A main tenet of Backward Design is that course designers move from learning objectives backwards through assessments and activities. However, design is a messy, nonlinear process. You may establish two goals before linking to assessments, and in the process you may come up with a new goal as well as an idea for an unrelated learning activity. It is fine to move backward and forward through this process.  Most important is that your outcomes are strong and that your assessments and activities build reliably toward those outcomes.

Considerations for Online Courses

The design process can feel overwhelming — how do I create an entire course before I even meet my students and learn their interests? How do I incorporate new research in my field? Is it even possible to plan ahead for everything? Because online courses must have at least some infrastructure in place before being delivered — modules built in Blackboard, for example, or a website with course schedule and materials for students — online teachers can benefit immensely from using a framework like Backward Design to help them build their course in advance of delivering it. Use the materials and links here to initiate the process, but don’t go it alone! Our design team is here to help. Learn more about us and check out upcoming workshops and events.

Research Foundations

Ally, M. (2004).  Foundations of educational theory for online learning.  Theory and Practice of Online Learning, 2, 15—44.

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

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2012). Understanding by Design ® framework. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

In Practice

Fundamentals of Graphics, Animation, Audio, and Video for the Web

Taught by  Christen Bouffard, this course includes Tutorials and a Resources section, both available across the site via the main menu. The course’s weekly lessons are also thorough and clearly organized.

Backwards Design with Owen Guthrie

UAF Instructional Designers

This page has been authored collectively by the experts on the UAF Instructional Design Team. Let us know if you have suggestions or corrections!

Instructional Design Team, UAF eCampus