Where to Start: Backward Design

Backward design

“Backward Design” is an approach to creating curriculum, subjects, and even single class sessions that treats the goal of teaching as not merely “covering” a certain amount of content, but also facilitating student learning. Backward design prioritizes the intended learning outcomes instead of topics to be covered. (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005) It is thus “backward” from traditional design because instead of starting with the content to be covered, the textbook to be used, or even the test to be passed, you begin with the goals.

Backward design involves a 3 stage process:

  1. Identify desired results
  2. Determine acceptable evidence
  3. Plan learning activities

UbD: Stages of Backward Design

Adapted from Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd edition). ASCD.

The desired results are your intended learning outcomes (ILOs). Even if you have not articulated them explicitly, you have some set of goals and some image of what succeeding at those goals looks like. Ask yourself: what should students know or be able to do at the end of this course? (Lang, 2010) With a sense of your desired results, you can then consider “acceptable evidence” of obtaining these results, the measures you use to determine whether a student’s performance meets the goals you have for them. This evidence is often gathered through assessments: exams, projects, and assignments. “Learning activities,” then are what you do with students to help them achieve the desired results. These are the lectures you give or the activities and practices you facilitate.

Generally, in a backward-designed course, curricular decisions flow from left to right in the figure above. However, during your design process, you may need to iterate among phases: making some revisions to previous phases of your design (e.g., you may find that you need to alter your learning outcomes if they cannot be assessed).

Defining intended learning outcomes

The process of designing a subject, then, begins with defining the goals or intended learning outcomes for the subject. Traditionally, learning outcomes often take the form:

“By the end of this course students will be able to [ACTIVE VERB]…”

This model useful for two reasons:

(1) by using active verbs, we articulate actions that students will be able to do. These actions can be observed and compared with our desired results; 

(2) it puts the focus on students (note: it is not “By the end the course the instructor will have…”), and advances the ultimate goal of backward design–-to facilitate learning, not simply to “cover” content.

When selecting an appropriate verb that accurately describes the desired level of skill or knowledge students will obtain, some find it useful to refer to different models like Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) or Fink’s Taxonomy (2013) and the associated verbs for each. See additional resources below.

Qualities of effective intended learning outcomes


Since the point of defining ILOs is to provide a design focus for your course and to clarify goals for students, specificity is very important. In your statement of your learning outcomes, it should be clear exactly what the goal is. In particular, beware of words like “understand” or “know.” Exactly what it means to “understand” or “know” something is open to interpretation. An undergraduate’s level of “understanding” of a topic and that of the instructor will vary wildly, and it will be difficult for students to know which level of understanding they should be aiming for. When developing ILOs, ask yourself how you will know that a student “understands” the material – what will they need to do, or say to demonstrate their understanding?  Your answer to this question should provide you with more specific (and measurable ILOs.


Looking ahead to step two of backward design, you will need to identify evidence that an intended learning outcome has been obtained. If a learning outcome is not measurable, then we will not be able to know whether or not our course successfully achieved its goals. Contrary to a popular assumption, this does not mean that the leaning goal has to be quantitatively measured by some objective instrument (like a multiple-choice test). Valid and accepted measurements will vary from discipline to discipline and include both quantitative and qualitative measures. As the course designer, you decide what kind of measurements will work best for your subject. The important thing is that there is some way to identify whether or not learning outcomes are being met.


Your learning outcomes should be achievable for the students in your class and achievable in the time allotted to your subject. Crafting realistic learning outcomes requires some understanding of students’ prior knowledge and skills in your subject. An unrealistic learning outcome sets students up for failure.


Learning outcomes describe what students know or can do, not what the instructor does. Remember that “students” is the subject of the generic learning outcome stem shown at the beginning of this section. The goals for your course should not be stated in terms of what the instructor will cover, but rather in how the students will change, facilitated by the instructor’s guidance.

ILO examples from MIT subjects

From Physics II (8.02)

The intended learning outcomes of this course are to tease out the laws of electromagnetism from our everyday experience, using specific examples of how electromagnetic phenomena manifest. You will be able to:

  • describe, in words, how various concepts in electromagnetism come into play in particular situations
  • represent these electromagnetic phenomena and fields mathematically in those situations
  • to predict outcomes in other similar situations.

Notice that a general learning outcome (“tease out the laws of electromagnetism…”) is rather non-specific. However, the instructors have analyzed and described what it means to be able to tease out these laws with three much more specific ILOs with active verbs (“describe in words,” “represent…mathematically,” and “predict”) that describe what actions students will take to show that they can tease about the laws of electromagnetism.

From Unified Engineering (16.01-16.04), Prof. Seven Hall

Students graduating from 16.030/040 will be able to:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the fundamental properties of linear systems, by explaining the properties to others.
  • Use linear systems tools, especially transform analysis and convolution, to analyze and predict the behavior of linear systems
  • Gain an appreciation for the importance of linear systems analysis in aerospace systems.

Measurable Outcomes (assessment method)

  • Students graduating from 16.030/040 will be able to:
  • Explain the importance of superposition in the analysis of linear systems. (concept test, homework, quiz)
  • Explain the role of convolution in the analysis of linear time-invariant systems, and use convolution to determine the response of linear systems to arbitrary inputs. (concept test, homework, quiz)
  • List and apply properties of the unilateral and bilateral Laplace transforms. (concept test, homework, quiz)
  • Use Laplace transforms to solve differential equations and to determine the response of linear systems to known inputs. (homework, quiz)
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the stability and causality of systems and the region of convergence of their Laplace transforms, by correctly explaining the relationship, and using the relationship to determine the stability and causality of systems. (concept test, homework, quiz)
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the relation among the transfer function, convolution, and the impulse response, by explaining the relationship, and using the relationship to solve forced response problems. (concept test, homework, quiz)
  • Explain the relationship between a signal’s bandwidth and its duration, and use that relationship to predict and explain the bandwidth requirements for aerospace applications such as Loran navigation, amplitude modulation, etc. (homework, quiz)

With this detailed set of ILOs, we see exactly how the three general ILOs in the first section will be measured. Relatively immeasurable outcomes (e.g., “Gain an appreciation…”) are analyzed into the homework and exam tasks through which students can show that they have gained such an appreciation. This second set of ILOs also provides much more detail, specificity, and measurability. In contrast, the 3 general ILOs help students understand the course’s scope and aim in a more digestible way.

From Management Communication for Undergraduates (15.279)

Good communication is one of the keys to a successful career no matter what field you choose, and many different skills contribute to a professional’s capacity to communicate well. The objective of 15.279 is to help you improve the ability to:

  • Formulate an effective communication strategy for any message, in any medium, and in any situation.
  • Write clearly, concisely, and convincingly.
  • Create impressive formal presentations that are delivered with confidence and poise.
  • Give and receive feedback that will improve yours and others’ communication.
  • Listen for understanding
  • Work effectively with others in small groups or teams.
  • Understand and negotiate the difference in communication between yourself and people who are not from your culture.

This last example provides intended learning outcomes for a subject focused more on soft skills, where measuring student ability objectively is significantly more nuanced and difficult. However, these ILOs still communicate crucial information to students about what good communication looks like to the instructor and help them better understand what will be expected of them in the course.

Aligning assessments & instruction

With intended learning outcomes in hand, the next step of the backward design process is to create assessments that appropriately measure students’ attainment of intended learning outcomes. Various kinds of assessments can fill this role, as long as the assessment task is closely aligned with the action  described in the ILO. 

The scope of your assessments should be in line with the outcomes, and the balance between concepts and skills in these assessments should match that presented in your ILOs. Moreover, in assessments, you should strive to measure the kind(s) of engagement described in your intended learning outcomes. If your ILO states that students will be able to describe some phenomenon, don’t use a true/false or multiple-choice question to measure their attainment of this outcome. Rather, ask them to describe it. How you evaluate and grade an assessment should also track with your intended learning outcomes. If your ILO states that students will be able to analyze the relationship between two concepts in a term paper, then grammar and conventions should not be a large part of the grade, particularly if they can satisfactorily complete the analysis. A well-designed rubric can help you align your assessments to your intended learning outcomes.

Once the assessments are aligned to the intended learning outcomes, the job of in-class instruction becomes much clearer. Instead of asking before each class session, “what am I going to cover today,” in-class time can be devoted to helping students actually achieve the desired learning outcomes – and ultimately succeed on the various assessments.

In a sense, this is “teaching to the test.” But, in a subject with well-defined intended learning outcomes and assessments aligned with them, succeeding at these assessments is the evidence that students have met the subject’s goals.

Additional resources

Action Verbs for Fink’s Taxonomy and Bloom’s Taxonomy, Teacher & Educational Development, University of New Mexico School of Medicine.


Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing : a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. Longman.

Biggs, J.B. (2005). “Aligning teaching for constructive learning.” Higher Education Academy Discussion Paper.

Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: cognitive domain. David McKay Company.

Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: an integrated approach to designing college courses, revised and updated. Jossey-Bass.

Lang, J. M. (2010). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Harvard University Press

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd edition). ASCD.