Working Backwards from Learning Outcomes

Backward design is an approach to learner-centered course design help students understand the purpose of a course, and how to navigate their learning to achieve the desired outcomes. It also helps you, the instructor, ensure that all elements of your course support the most prioritized aspects of student learning.

Thinking of your course as a road trip, Backward Design serves as a roadmap that guides us through the design process.

Backward Design: A Road Trip Analogy*

With no roadmap, students navigating our courses might only pass by landmarks that they like and miss really critical priorities.​  Backward design helps us to make sure that a course introduces the most important skills, strategies and content, and that both the instructor and student know how they are progressing towards those goals along the way.  It proposes three steps to course design, which we can frame with the following analogies to questions about our road trip.

  1. Where do we want to go? (Course Outcomes) ​
  2. How will we know if we have arrived? (Assessments) ​
  3. What will we need to help us get there? (Instructional methods, activities, course materials, course schedule) ​

When these three course components (outcomes, assessments, and instructional methods) support one another, they are in alignment. 

* After Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Getting Started – Learning Outcomes

Course learning outcomes encompass the goals you have for your students’ learning. They are also known as course goals, define the general purpose of a course and paint the big picture. From the broad course goals flow more specific and concrete learning objectives. The learning objectives must to be constructed in ways that allow both teacher and student to assess whether the objectives have been met during the course of study. For more see Designing Learning Outcomes (Teaching@Tufts)

To establish a backdrop for all that follows, some find it helpful to draft a course ‘story’ that one might tell on the first day of class. Some questions to help frame the story include: why is it exciting (or important though not so obviously exciting)? Why should students care? What is the course and what is it not? From this departure point, a logical next step is to describe the intended learning objectives for the course that will help you and your students to achieve your overall course goals. Each component in the course should link back to those overarching goals.

Designing pathways for learning – Course Assessments & Learning Activities

If you define the outcomes clearly enough, the learning activities that are most salient should become readily apparent, and the assessment strategies much more focused. Ask yourself: What skills will demonstrate achievement of the learning objectives? What content is required to support the development of these skills? What are the desired long-term learning outcomes (i.e. what do you want your students to remember in 30 years?)

The Benefits of Backward Course Design

  • During the course design process, the content should be distilled and prioritized. The learning outcomes will become underlying themes which thread the course together. Backward course design will allow you to create a road map: where are we now and where are we headed?
  • When students understand the course goals, they can then understand how each assignment will help them work towards these. Students will be able to see the road map of the course and identify the relevance of each activity, exam, quiz, or assignment.

Additional Resources

Return to the landing page DESIGNING A COURSE