15 Resources on Backward Design to Guide Your Courseware Implementation

Written by: Christie Forgette

Backward course design has been influencing classroom practices since 1998 with the publication of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s seminal book Understanding By Design and its 2005 second edition. Wiggins and McTighe define backward design as a planning framework that uses student learning outcomes as the starting point for curriculum design, performance assessments, and classroom instruction. Educational researchers have applied backward design concepts in a variety of educational contexts, and most recently, instructional designers have been using backward design principles to develop and deploy courseware.

At its core, backward design prioritizes intentional design. As a white paper summarizing Understanding By Design explains, the three broad stages of backward design are to

  1. identify desired results;
  2. determine assessment evidence; and
  3. plan learning experiences and instruction.

This is in contrast to course planning that starts with themes to cover, favorite texts, and preferred assignments.

By focusing on learning outcomes, backward design can help reduce barriers to equity, particularly in the digital and remote learning environments that minoritized and low-income students disproportionately rely on. Because the process centers on students’ needs, backward design pushes the instructor to consider equity from the start.

The following resources will help interested instructors incorporate backward design practices while developing new courses or redesigning courses to include courseware or other digital learning technologies.

Resources Elaborating on Wiggins and McTighe

Wiggins and McTighe’s work has been featured and elaborated on in many places.

The Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching includes a comprehensive guide to backward course design and provides an overview of Wiggins and McTighe’s concepts. The guide includes a video of a workshop given by Wiggins on the broader concept of understanding by design. It also describes the benefits of using backward design and includes a template for instructors to use as a planning framework.

Salt Lake Community College features two videos by McTighe and Wiggins in discussion about backward design. Along with the videos, the site has advice on how to align course outcomes with course content.

The Backwards Podcast, hosted by the author and educator A. J. Juliani, offers an interview and discussion with Jay McTighe breaking down backward design and its use in the classroom.

Putting Backward Design into Practice 

Centers for teaching and learning at individual colleges and universities often create unique resources on backward design. Many of them include downloadable templates or have multimedia explanations of the design concepts.

The CUNY School of Professional Studies Course Design & Development Tutorial  covers implementation of backward design in an online course and features a section on increasing instructor presence and social presence through backward design.  

A resource at Indiana University Bloomington Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning suggests using Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl’s Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing as a guide for writing learning outcomes. It features a backward course design model structured by four fundamental questions.

The University of Colorado Boulder Office of Undergraduate Education offers an explainer article that highlights the value of backward course design in supporting international students studying in the United States.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Teaching + Learning Lab has a “Where to Start: Backward Design” that provides several discipline-specific examples of learning outcomes that are measurable, realistic, and student-centered.

The University of Rochester Arts, Sciences, and Engineering Teaching Center features an illustration neatly summarizing the backward design process.

An image presents "Teaching for Understanding," and the three steps of the Backward Design Model: Determining learning goals and objectives; planning assessments; and planning learning activities.

University of Rochester Arts, Sciences, and Engineering Teaching Center


The University of Kansas Center for Teaching Excellence  features a useful podcast (and transcript) focusing on how instructors can use backward design to construct their courses. The conversation includes several real-world experiences from instructors designing their classes. 

The University of Central Florida Faculty Center offers a recording of a helpful slide presentation overviewing the concept of backward design.

Deeper Dives into Backward Design and Other Related Resources

Every Learner Everywhere published Adaptive Courseware Implementation Guide, which elaborates on how backward design can support the implementation of new courseware.

In an interview for the Every Learner Everywhere blog, one of the co-authors of Adaptive Courseware Implementation Guide, Tia Holiday of Intentional Futures, discusses how backward design can help reduce barriers for minoritized and low-income students and create a more equitable classroom by focusing on course outcomes. Holiday notes, “It forces faculty members to have conversations around the physical tools, resources, or time students will need to be successful.”

Finally, the Digital Learning Hub in the Teaching + Learning Commons at UC San Diego provides a practical way to get started with backward design by exploring its Online Course Mapping Guide, developed by instructional designers. It leads the user through the process of mapping a course “from finish to start.”

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