Backward Course Design: Alignment of Learning Outcomes, Assessments & Activities

What is backward design? 

Instructors may approach designing their courses in a number of ways, but an evidence-based method for approaching course design is backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2012).  Backward design does not mean that you approach course design from the wrong direction, but instead that you approach it with the end in mind. That is, you make course design decisions based on what you want your students to be able to do or know by the end of your course (i.e., based on the course learning outcomes). Applying the backward design process entails first developing learning outcomes, then designing assignments to measure students’ achievement of those learning outcomes, and finally planning the course activities, content, and lectures to help students build towards those outcomes. 


Graphic comparing traditional and backwards course design. The top row is labelled “Traditional” course design and has the three steps of 1) identify content, 2) deliver content and 3) assess knowledge of content, with arrows between them to indicate order. The second row is labelled “backwards” course design and has the three steps of 1) clarify learning outcomes, 2) determine how to assess learning, and 3) plan learning experience, with arrows between them to indicate order.

Why backward design? 

Applying a traditional “forward” course design model might start with identifying content or a textbook, then determining how to deliver that content, and finally assessing students’ understanding of that content. The traditional approach to course design is instructor-centered, in that the instructor chooses the course content and how to deliver it, without taking into consideration how well that content aligns with the goals for what students should learn. In contrast, backwards design is a student-centered, intentional approach to course design. It allows the instructor to make strategic decisions about what content and activities to include in the course, which can help to reduce and streamline content. Backward design also supports clarity and transparency; students will recognize the value and purpose of the course and assignments, since the why around instructional decisions is made clear. Finally, backward design centers the learner, rather than the subject matter or the activities, which is a more equitable, inclusive, and effective approach to course design. 

How does the backward design process work? 

Step One—Learning Outcomes 

The process of backward course design starts by articulating learning outcomes. Learning goals are the “fuzzy”, nebulous, or broad things that we want our students to be able to do after our courses. Goals may be hard to measure, but they are often the big-picture things that we hope our students come away with after our courses. Learning outcomes are specific, measurable, and student-centered statements that describe what we want our students to be able to know, do, or achieve by the end of our course. Learning outcomes should be written from the student’s perspective. For instance, “By the end of this course, students will be able to…” Learning goals, the broad, big-picture things that we hope students come away with after our courses, may inform your learning outcomes, but clear, measurable learning outcomes are the foundational component of effective course design. Using learning outcomes consistently can both benefit our own instructional decision-making, but also help guide our students as they learn. Read more about developing effective Learning Outcomes. 

Step Two—Designing Assessments  

Once you have established your learning outcomes, the next step of backward design is to identify how you are going to assess whether students have successfully achieved these outcomes. For instance, will students complete research papers, reflections, presentations, internships, group projects, experiments, performances, exams, quizzes, or something else entirely? What assessments will allow students to practice with, and receive feedback on, the skills that you expect them to develop? 

Step Three—Plan the Learning Process 

After you have determined how you are going to assess whether students achieved their learning outcomes, you can start to plan the learning experience. The learning experience includes both the course content, such as lectures, readings, videos, and other instructional materials, as well as in-class learning activities. In other words, you should think about the “what” and the “how” of the learning experience.   

The in-class learning activities should help your students progress toward mastery of the learning outcomes through interactions with content, instructor, and peers. They are a helpful tool to scaffold the learning process so that students can practice key skills before a high-stakes assessment, such as an exam or a research paper. You can find some examples of active learning activities here. 

Learning outcomes: What should students know or be able to do by the end of the course? 

Assessments: What types of assessments will demonstrate that students have achieved the learning outcomes?  

Instructional content, strategies, and tools: What content and instructional materials are necessary to include to support students in their achievement of the learning outcomes? What learning activities will provide students practice and help you to monitor student progress? 

How can instructors ensure alignment during the course design process?

Learning outcomes, assessments, and instructional strategies should be in alignment; meaning that they should reinforce one another. The readings you assign, the content you include, and the activities that you plan for students to engage in should all build towards the outcomes you want your students to achieve. Assessments should measure and demonstrate how well students have mastered the learning outcomes. Course content, and instructional strategies and tools should be chosen and designed to help students to work towards those assessments of outcomes.  

When outcomes, assessments, and instruction are aligned, both students and instructors benefit. Misalignment can lead to decreased student learning and motivation. If students are unsure of why they are completing an assessment or reading a text, their motivation is likely to suffer. If your instructional strategies do not provide students with opportunities to practice the skills that they will be assessed on, then they will not be prepared to achieve the learning outcomes. If students are assessed on skills that are not articulated in the learning outcomes, they will be frustrated by the lack of clarity and consistency. 

Not every assessment method or instructional strategy fits every type of learning outcome. You can self-assess your alignment between course learning outcomes, assessments, and learning activities by creating a course alignment table. Some assessments and instructional strategies may apply to more than one learning outcome; however, you should not have any assessments or instructional strategies that don’t serve to achieve your learning outcomes. 

As you are making decisions about your course design based on learning outcomes, ensure that you are including variety and multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement, key components of equitable teaching under a universal design for learning (UDL) framework. Read more about UDL here. 

Aligning assessments and outcomes

Below are a few learning outcome “action words” and assessments that could align with those outcomes. Note that this is not an exhaustive list of assessments or action words, and that students likely are able to demonstrate mastery of a given learning outcome in multiple ways (e.g. both through a podcast recording or an essay).  

Students will be able to… 

…investigate, critique, evaluate.  

  • Assess via student-designed research project, case study exam question, experiment 

…collaborate, identify multiple perspectives. 

  • Assess via group task, project, or presentation; peer editing; debate 

…demonstrate, implement, create, apply. 

  • Assess via internship, group project, experiment, performance, research project, artifact development (e.g. infographic, podcast, etc.) 

…analyze, synthesize, evaluate. 

  • Assess via research paper, exam questions, multimodal project 

…describe, compare/contrast, critically examine. 

  • Assess via research paper, demonstration, group project, performance 

…communicate, distribute, explain. 

  • Assess via presentation, social media post, podcast, video 

Finally, keep in mind that course alignment is not fixed; rather, alignment should be an iterative process that requires continually checking in with your outcomes, assessments, and instructional strategies. The first learning outcomes that you write might need to be adjusted and updated,  feedback from assessments may reveal that students are not achieving the outcomes as intended, or activities may lead to rethinking outcomes or assessment methods. Instructors always have the option to realign as needed!