Teaching and Learning Resource Center

Using Backward Design to Plan Your Course

Consider this scenario:

Professor Buckeye's To Do List for his course reads as follows: TO DO LIST [checkmark] Brainstorm key concepts/topics...  Which do I feel okay teaching?  Which will students like? [checkmark] Find textbook/readings... Ask around department for what others used. [checkmark] Sequence key topics into units. [checkmark] Plan assignments for each unit... What from my last course can I adapt to this subject matter? [checkmark] Create course syllabus.
What issues do you spot in Professor Buckeye's course planning process as you read through his To Do List?

Professor Buckeye has been asked to teach an introductory course on a standard topic in his discipline—it’s a course he’s never taught before and it’s not exactly in his area of expertise. Since it’s already the beginning of summer, he has only a few months before he’ll be distributing the syllabus...

He takes out a notebook and jots down a To Do List for planning the course. 

Check, check, check... The plan for Professor Buckeye's course is well under way! 

So what’s the problem?

Take a look at Professor Buckeye's To Do List to the right. Note how many of the key course decisions were made based on factors like the following:

  • Instructor preferences and comfort
  • Assumptions about what students will enjoy
  • Disciplinary traditions like using a standard textbook and readings
  • Trial and error, or making small adjustments to what he's done before

This common approach to course design looks reasonable at first glance, but it also presents some challenges. As experts in their fields, instructors are not always the best judges of what their more novice students might find engaging. And while some disciplinary traditions exist for good reason, others may have developed by chance or worked better for previous generations than today’s learners. Finally, recycling the assignments from a former course may not always be the best fit for a new course. Considering activities that worked well (or not well) in the past is an important part of developing as an educator, but relying too much on previous ideas can lead us to get stuck in our comfort zones, stifling innovation and the opportunity to develop new skills.

We can do better! Whether you're teaching a new course or one you've taught 10 times, adapting an in-person course for the online environment, or even planning a single assignment, it's important to be intentional about your design choices. Backward design is a framework that helps educators plan instruction around what matters most—student learning. This topic will walk you through the backward design process step-by-step, giving you an effective model for planning your next course.  

UX Tip


Where do you typically start when you are designing a new course? Have you ever planned a course like Professor Buckeye did? How did it go? Is there anything you would change about that course now? 


In a standard content-oriented approach to course design, the design process begins by identifying course content. From there, the instructor plans lectures, activities, and assignments to help students engage with that content. If those lectures, activities, and assignments are effective, students will learn something about the content. Depending on the quantity and quality of learning that results, the instructor might decide to try other teaching strategies the next time they teach the course.

Backward design flips this standard process on its head. Rather than starting with decisions about course content, the backward design process begins by asking you to determine what you want students to learn. Assignments are then developed, with the aim of allowing students to practice and demonstrate that learning. It is only toward the end of the backward design process that decisions about course content finally appear, guided by reflection on what students will need in order to perform well on the assignments. In other words, while traditional course design focuses on planning what and how to teach, with the hope that good teaching will lead to learning, backward design encourages teachers to focus the planning process directly on student learning.

Although backward design has been around for some time (Tyler, 1949), Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe are often credited with its current prevalence. In Understanding By Design (2005), Wiggins and McTighe explain backward design as a three-stage approach to course planning (p. 17-18). The table below lists these three stages, alongside the tasks and considerations that are central to each stage.

Backward Design StageTasksGuiding Questions
Stage 1: Identify desired results.Create learning goals and outcomes.What do you hope students will achieve by the end of your course? What should they know, understand, and be able to do
Stage 2: Determine acceptable evidence.Develop assessments of student learning.What opportunities will help students practice and achieve the learning outcomes? How will they demonstrate their learning?
Stage 3: Plan learning experiences and instruction.Choose course content and teaching strategies.What content supports the course learning goals and outcomes? What learning activities will help students engage with that content? What technologies can deliver the content or engage students in the learning experiences?
UX Tip

Ohio State history

Long before Wiggins and McTighe popularized backward design, Ralph Tyler was working with fellow faculty at The Ohio State University to improve data gathered from assessments. As early as his 1934 article, “Some Findings from Studies in the Field of College Biology,” Tyler details how he helped faculty sketch out the ideas of needs analysis, backward design, and setting behavioral objectives. In Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe reference Tyler as the originator of behavioral objectives (2005, p. 20). 

Benefits of Using Backward Design

An instructor mapping ideas at a whiteboard.

Wiggins and McTighe and other scholars have presented several arguments in favor of a backward design process.

Backward design:

  • Is focused on results. To make well-reasoned choices about our teaching (including what and how we teach) we must first know the results we want to achieve. In other words, we must know exactly what we want students to learn (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 14-15). Only then can we begin to consider the activities and content that will help students achieve that learning.
  • Prioritizes “understanding” over “coverage.” There just isn’t time in a semester to cover everything about a course topic—if we begin the design process by choosing content, we immediately face difficult choices about what to eliminate with no framework to guide us (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 16-17). In contrast, when we begin the design process with learning goals and learning outcomes, we can make well-reasoned decisions about content and all other aspects of our course—including assignments, grading criteria, and lesson plans. In this way, we teach for understanding, not coverage (p. 45).
  • Helps us identify and impart big ideas, key concepts, and crucial skills. Beginning with content can also lead to a messy course loosely organized around a series of disparate topics. It may be difficult for students—and even the instructor—to discern the relationships between concepts, identify the most important information to learn, or see the point of a given unit (or the entire course, for that matter). In contrast, starting with learning goals and outcomes helps us identify the “big ideas,” key concepts, and crucial skills of our course early in the planning process. We can then structure the course to draw students’ attention to these elements, helping them connect the dots between topics and see the bigger picture (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 45).
  • Makes assessment of learning more targeted and intentional. When we have clear learning goals and outcomes, we can collect targeted feedback about student learning instead of general feedback about their performance and preferences (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 271-273). If we align the expectations for all our assignments, quizzes, tests and so on directly to those goals, it becomes easier to measure whether students are achieving the learning we set out for them to do. Clear and specific learning goals also help us create clear and specific instructions for assignments, provide more focused feedback to students, and facilitate more purposeful and coherent classroom discussions. Read more about Designing Assessments of Student Learning.
  • Helps students see the purpose of their learning. When we design a course around clear learning goals and outcomes, we can—and should—transparently explain them to students from the get-go. This supports students to see the rationale for our course design choices and the purpose of the work they engage in throughout the course (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 15-17). Research shows that students who have clear learning goals related to understanding, task mastery, or future achievement are more engaged with course material and study more deeply, reflectively, and consistently (McGregor & Elliot, 2002; Somuncuoglu & Yidirim, 1999; Miller et al., 1996). By connecting each element of a course to learning goals, backward design puts us in the best possible position to motivate students to care about and invest time in our course activities.
  • Supports students to succeed. The limited number of studies that compare methods of course design suggest students in backward-designed courses may outperform those in traditionally designed courses (Hodaeian & Biria, 2015). When instructors approach course design with intentionality and communicate a well aligned set of learning activities in a transparent manner, it increases the likelihood that more students will accomplish the intended learning (Dee Fink, in Fashant, et al., 2020).
  • Enhances our self-awareness and development as instructors. Using a step-by-step process like backward design leads instructors to articulate more clearly their instructional choices and teaching methods. There is research showing that working through a backward course design process furthers instructors’ teaching expertise by improving their metacognition about teaching (Johnson et al., 2017). Backward design can help educators feel more prepared to plan a course (Graff, 2011) and the resulting lesson and unit plans are more highly-ranked by experts in curriculum development (Kelting-Gibson, 2005).
  • Makes courses more adaptable. Course content might need to change over time for a variety of reasons. Some fields, such as medicine, are constantly evolving or reliant on emerging technology, new research, and scientific discovery. In the humanities, instructors may strive to keep courses relevant to current events or new theories and perspectives. If we start course planning with learning goals and outcomes, it is easier to update content and learning activities later in response to such changes, rather than having to redesign the entire course. Instructors who take turns teaching a course, or who teach different sections of a course might also select different content closer to their areas of expertise without altering course learning goals and outcomes.  
UX Tip

Talking about Learning

Do you ask your students to articulate what, how, and why they are learning in your course? Wiggins and McTighe believe students should be able to answer questions like the following about their course content and activities: "What’s the point? What’s the big idea here? What does this help us understand or be able to do? To what does this relate? Why should we learn this?" (2005, p. 16-17)

An instructor teaches a large lecture.

In Practice

This section will break the stages of the backward design process down into the following steps:

  • Step 1: Formulate the learning goals for students in your course.
  • Step 2: Articulate learning outcomes to align with your learning goals.
  • Step 3: Design assessments of student learning that align with your learning outcomes.
  • Step 4: Choose the course content students need to succeed on those assessments.
  • Step 5: Plan teaching strategies and learning activities that help students practice and prepare for those assessments.

As you read—or work—through the guidance for each step below, keep a few things in mind:

  • Sometimes you may not have full agency to decide all aspects of your course design. Certain components, like learning outcomes or required textbooks, may be pre-established by your department. Backward design can still help you plan intentionally for the elements of your course over which you have control.
  • Backward design is a useful process for planning the parts of a course, not just your overall course design. You can use it to design a single assignment or class activity, a lesson plan, or an individual unit or module.
  • While the steps are presented in a recommended order, the backward design process is iterative. You might rethink earlier decisions as you work through each step. For example, while writing your assignments, you might realize that your learning outcomes need to be revised. 
  • The most important thing is to maintain alignment between all the components of your course as you work through the process. Your assessments of student learning (assignments, quizzes, exams, and so on) must align to your learning goals and outcomes. The content, teaching strategies, and learning activities you plan must support students to succeed on those assessments and meet your learning outcomes.
UX Tip

Inclusive Course Design

As you backward design your course, you should be planning with all students in mind. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for focusing curriculum and course design around the diverse needs of learners. UDL aims to achieve the highest level of functionality and user-friendliness for as many learners as possible by intentionally designing outcomes, assessments, and materials in ways that promote equal access and positive learning experiences for every student. Backward design and UDL are complementary frameworks for course planning, as each are centered on student learning and purposeful, proactive course design.

Read more in Universal Design for Learning: Planning with All Students in Mind.

Building a Course Plan

When using the Step-by-Step Guide below to plan your course, you'll want to keep your ideas organized. A Course Plan template like the one pictured here helps you outline your course week-by-week, articulate how you will sequence course content, and solidify the timing of learning activities over the semester. Complete the columns of the template in order as you proceed through each step of backward design. Laying out your Course Plan this way will enable you to see the big picture as you work, so you can ensure that all components of your course stay aligned. 

Think of your plan as a "course skeleton" rather than as a detailed roadmap. Use as many rows as you need to outline the entire semester. Be prepared to review the columns for alignment, move things around, and update your Course Plan as needed as you progress through each step. 

What should students be able to do? Begin with an action verb.
Include the graded quizzes, assignments, or exams for the week.


Sequence course topics and themes. Note materials and ancillary resources.


How will I help students understand and engage with the content? How will students practice and prepare for the assessments?


Your completed Course Plan should lay out, in brief, the weekly assessments, course content, and teaching strategies and activities that align to the learning outcomes you create in Step 2 below.

A Step-By-Step Guide to Backward Design

Click on each step for further details, key considerations, and guiding questions to walk you through backward designing your Course Plan.

Step 1: Formulate the learning goals for students in your course.

When you create your course learning goals, you describe how you want students to change internally as a result of taking your course. Learning goals broadly state what students should know or care about by the end of a course or curriculum. Set aside specific content—remember, that comes toward the end of the backward design process—and think about the big-picture, lasting impact you want your course to have on students.

There is not a set number of recommended goals to write for this step. You’ll probably have somewhere in the range of three to seven learning goals for the course you are designing.

Guiding Questions:

  • How do you hope the course will change students as people?
  • What will shift about the way they see the world?
  • What about the course will stick with them five years from now?
  • How will the course impact their personal or professional lives outside of school?

When considering these questions and writing your goals, it can be easy to focus on what you want your students to know or understand about the subject matter. But many of the most exciting and memorable learning experiences go beyond the acquisition of new knowledge. Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning (2013), a framework that details six types of learning that produce these experiences, can help you develop many other kinds of learning goals.

  • Foundational Knowledge: What ideas and information should students learn in the course, or reactivate from their prior knowledge?​​​​​​
  • Application: What skills, strategies, or new kinds of thinking can students acquire from this subject or discipline?
  • Integration: How can students connect this course to other courses and their life and work experiences?
  • Human dimension: What can students learn about themselves and others through investigating this subject or discipline?
  • Caring: What will students come to appreciate, value, or feel as a result of this course?
  • Learning how to learn: What will students discover about how they learn and how they can direct their own learning in the future?

When you’re ready to write your course learning goals, note that they typically begin with imprecise or “fuzzy” verbs that you cannot observe, such as “know,” “understand," "believe," "learn," "appreciate," and "interpret." Write your goals in student-friendly language; after all, students will need to understand the course goals before they can achieve them.

Review these sample course learning goals:

      A. Students will understand the impacts of climate change globally and locally.
      B. Students will know ways that human activity has contributed to climate change. 
      C. Students will learn a range of proposed solutions to the climate crisis.
      D. Students will appreciate the urgency of the climate crisis. 
      E. Student will value our environmental resources.

Once you have three to seven course learning goals drafted for your course, consider how you will share them with students. How will you communicate the value of the goals, or demonstrate their relevance to your students’ lives?

Your Course Plan: Add your course learning goals at the top of your Course Plan template to reference as you work through later steps.

Step 2: Articulate learning outcomes to align with your learning goals.

To evaluate the success of a course, you must be able to observe the internal changes you identified in Step 1 happening in your students. So in Step 2, you create learning outcomes that describe how those internal changes will manifest externally. Your learning outcomes clarify exactly what it looks like for students to meet your learning goals. Learning outcomes should be specific and stated in concrete, observable, and measurable terms.

Guiding Questions (for each learning goal):

  • When a student meets this learning goal, what are they able to do?
  • What does it look like in practice for a student to achieve this goal?

To thoroughly describe what meeting your goals looks like in practice, you will likely develop at least three to four learning outcomes for each goal. If you have a goal that has zero corresponding outcomes, it should not be a learning goal for your course. If you have a goal that has far too many corresponding outcomes, there may be another goal floating among them that you haven't articulated yet. If you have learning goals that are closely related, you may have learning outcomes that correspond to more than one goal in your course.

Learning outcomes often take a form like the following:

  • Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to ______.  
  • By the end of this course, students will be able to ______.  

Use specific action verbs to express exactly the kinds of skills you want your students to develop. Ensure that various, appropriate levels of challenge are represented in your outcomes so you can measure how close students are to achieving the learning goal.

Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956)—a common framework for thinking about and articulating learning outcomes—can help you identify appropriate skills and action verbs when writing your outcomes. In the revised taxonomy from 2001, the six categories reflect how learners interact with knowledge. Learners can: remember content, understand ideas, apply information to new situations, analyze relationships between ideas, evaluate information to justify perspectives or decisions, and create new ideas or original work.

Consider the sample action verbs for each Bloom's category below:

  • Remember: list, define, recall, underline, state, label
  • Understand: identify, explain, describe, recognize, translate, discuss
  • Apply: demonstrate, assign, illustrate, interpret, practice, use
  • Analyze: compare/contrast, categorize, solve, differentiate, examine, diagram
  • Evaluate: assess, decide, judge, rank, critique, research
  • Create: compose, construct, develop, imagine, plan, design

Read more about Bloom’s Taxonomy and see more Sample Bloom’s Verbs.

TIP: Aligning your goals and outcomes in a table like the one below will help you clearly articulate learning outcomes that support each goal. Review the sample learning outcomes in the table. Do they describe concrete, observable, and measurable actions that can demonstrate whether students are achieving the learning goal?

Learning goalsLearning outcomes
A. Students will understand the impacts of climate change globally and locally.

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

A1: Identify regions of the world most affected by the climate crisis.

A2: Explain why some regions are more affected by climate change than others.

A3: Describe effects of climate change on the environment (e.g., forest fires, droughts, more severe storms, rising temperatures, rising sea levels).

A4: Predict human consequences and health impacts of the climate crisis (e.g., population migration, food access, air quality issues, infrastructure damage, increased disease and mental health concerns).

A5. Reflect upon the impacts of climate change on their local communities and in their everyday lives.

A6: Analyze evidence and data that show climate change is escalating.

B. Students will know ways that human activity has contributed to climate change.




C. Students will learn a range of proposed solutions to the climate crisis.




Your Course Plan: Draft learning outcomes for each of your course learning goals. Then think about where you will address these learning outcomes over the weeks of the semester. Add them to Column 2 of your Course Plan. A given outcome is likely to appear multiple times across your course (each outcome must be addressed at least once). ​​​​Rememberyou will be able to revisit and adjust your plans as you work through later steps.

Step 3: Design assessments of student learning that align with your learning outcomes.

At this point, you have determined what students will know and be able to do by the end of your course. The next step is to create opportunities for students to show that they are achieving those learning goals and outcomes. In other words, Step 3 will center on developing the assessment of learning for your course, including assignments and other graded types of assessment such as quizzes, tests, and projects.

Guiding Questions:

  • How will I measure whether students have reached the appropriate level of understanding?
  • What assignments and other graded assessments will help students demonstrate that they’ve met one or more of the learning outcomes? For example, if one of your goals is for students to transfer what they have learned outside of the classroom, you could design an assignment around a realistic problem, scenario, or case study.

Since you need to track student progress with respect to all course goals and learning outcomes, each outcome should be tested by at least one assessment of student learning. It should be possible to think of several ways to assess a given learning outcome—if you can only think of one way to assess an outcome, then it is probably an assignment. 

For your most important learning outcomes, you may need to develop multiple opportunities to measure students' progress over the duration of the course. This will also give students the chance to practice and apply skills in a variety of contexts, incorporate feedback, and get the practice they need to meet upcoming challenges in the course. For these same reasons, your assessment methods will ideally incorporate various degrees of difficulty or skill integration over the semester.

Guiding Questions:

  • What will be the order and timing of the various student assessments throughout my course? What will be challenging but doable at the beginning of the semester? What will help students demonstrate their learning at the end?
  • What kinds of feedback will students need on their assignments and assessments to achieve my learning goals and outcomes? 
  • What scaffolding will students need to perform well on any higher-stakes assignments?
  • What grading criteria or rubric should I use to assess the learning outcomes for each assignment? ​​​​​

Read more about Designing Assessments of Student Learning.

Your Course Plan: Consider when graded assignments, quizzes, exams and so on that align to your learning outcomes will appear in your course. Add them to Column 3 of your Course Plan. Rememberyou will be able to revisit and adjust your plans as you work through later steps.

Step 4: Choose the course content students need to succeed on those assessments.

So far you have defined your course learning goals and outcomes and planned your assessments of student learning. In Step 4, you will choose the course content that will support students to succeed on those assessments.

Course content includes any textbooks, readings, and media you choose for students to engage with, as well as the content you create yourselffor example, your lecture presentations and any overviews, text, and video you develop for your CarmenCanvas modules. An important part of aligning content to your assignments and assessments is limiting or eliminating material that is redundant or unnecessary. In other words, if it does not align to a learning outcome, you probably do not need to include that content. 

Think explicitly about how to organize your content logically given your course subject matter. Possibilities include sequencing it chronologically, around key themes, from simple to complex disciplinary skills, from theory to application, and so on. Also consider any “parallel content” you will include in your course. This is the material you present alongside your main course content to support students with the necessary disciplinary knowledge or foundational skills that underpin or relate to it. You might think of parallel content as the ancillary resources that will help students complete assignments and activitiesfor example, instructions for research methods, citation guides for works cited, and “how to” articles for using technology tools.

Guiding Questions:

  • How should I sequence and organize my course content? At which point will students need each piece of content to complete assignments? How will the concepts presented build on each other to help students understand the bigger picture? How deeply will students need to understand each piece of content before moving on?
  • What content will students be able to learn independently outside of class, and what content will they need support to learn?
  • How will I select inclusive course content that presents multiple perspectives, highlights the contributions of a range of individuals and groups in my discipline, and helps students see their identities, experiences, and interests reflected in the course?
  • What additional resources will be helpful for students as they complete my course assignments?
  • Beyond discipline-specific content knowledge, what disciplinary methods, practices, patterns, tools, and technologies will students need to learn? What ancillary resources can I provide to support their understanding?

Your Course Plan: Identify course content (and any parallel content) students will need each week to be successful on upcoming assignments and assessments. Add them to Column 4 of your Course Plan. Remember—you will be able to revisit and adjust your plans as you work through later steps.

Step 5: Plan teaching strategies and learning activities that help students practice and prepare for those assessments.

At this point, your Course Plan is well underway. You have selected learning goals, learning outcomes, assignments, and course content. The final step is to select the teaching strategies and class activities that will help students engage with that content, apply their learning on assignments, and meet your outcomes. Do you see how the backward design process helps us keep these course components aligned?

Research shows that retrieving and using information is a critical piece of achieving learning (Karpicke & Roediger, 2008). As such, students must have multiple opportunities to practice and apply the specific knowledge and skills they need to perform well on assignments and be successful in your course. Reflect on your assessments of student learning from Step 3 to determine the teaching methods and learning activities that will best support students to succeed.

Guiding Questions:

  • How can I provide opportunities for low-stakes practice before students are graded on higher-stakes assignments?
    • Which skills or sub-tasks are needed for my assignments? Which ones will be difficult for or entirely new to my students? How can I help them practice?
    • What kinds of problems are students likely to encounter as they complete my assignments? How can I prepare students to solve them?
  • What skills will I need to model for students before they can practice them themselves, and when will this be most useful? What will students need to do or investigate on their own, and when will this practice be most useful?
  • Where should I integrate peer interactions or small-group activities so students can learn from and support each other?
  • How can I prepare students to keep learning about my course subject on their own after the course has ended?

Students will also need support to know how to prepare for assignments, to evaluate their work, and to understand their performance. Consider how your teaching strategies and learning activities will explicitly prepare students for assignments and how you can provide tangible feedback on their progress. For example, you might present exemplars and non-exemplars of student work, incorporate checklists for self- and peer review, or simply walk through and discuss the assignment instructions and rubrics you develop explicitly with students.

Guiding Questions:

  • How (and when) will I check in with students to make sure they are prepared for assignments? How will I identify challenges or learning bottlenecks I didn't see coming?
  • How (and when) will I provide feedback to students on both low-stakes practice activities and higher-stakes assignments? What scaffolding will support students with larger or more complex assignments?
  • How can I help students learn to recognize the difference between poor, adequate, and excellent work?
  • How can I help students learn to judge their own performance, identify areas for personal growth, or choose good study strategies?

Your Course Plan: Consider the variety of teaching strategies and learning activities that will help students practice and prepare for your assignments and assessments, and when those activities should occur during the semester. Add them to Column 5 of your Course Plan. ​​Once you complete your plan, check through all columns to ensure the components of your course remain aligned to your learning outcomes and goals. Make adjustments and revisions, as needed.

UX Tip

Choosing technology tools

Most elements of backward design will involve some sort of technology, whether it's a platform in which students are completing or submitting assignments, an ebook or piece of digital media that delivers course content, or a tool that helps students practice applying knowledge and skills during class activities. Be thoughtful about selecting tools that will best support students in meeting your learning goals and outcomes.

Read more in Understanding Learning Technologies at Ohio State and Integrating Technology into Your Course. For a deep dive into choosing and using technology for your course, register for the Technology-Enhanced Teaching course.  

Considerations for Designing Online Courses

Man seated at a desk, looking at a laptop with a pen in his hand.

Backward designing an online course leads you to be more intentional about your use of the online space, helping to mitigate the challenges of online learning while maximizing its affordances. You will follow the same step-by-step process above, but there are a few additional elements to consider during Steps 3-5.

  • Assessment of student learning: Designing assignments for an online course does not vary widely from designing assignments for an in-person course—the key being to keep them aligned to your learning outcomes. However, the types of assignments you choose for the online environment may call for different technology tools, and the work students produce may take a variety of digital formats. There are special considerations for promoting academic integrity on online assessments as well. Learn more in Creating and Adapting Assignments for Online Courses.  
  • Course content: In an online course, you may make heavier use of lecture videos or text- and video-based content to preface and frame course materials. You might house more of your course content within your CarmenCanvas modules than you do for an in-person course, and this will take some extra planning and work when initially building your course. Learn more in Carmen Common Sense: Best Practices and Best Practices for Recording Lecture Videos.
  • Teaching strategies: Your engagement with and feedback to students throughout the course will also look different in the online environment. You might opt for automated feedback on quizzes, incorporate knowledge checks or other interactive features into lecture videos, or use more "after-the-fact" instead of "in-the-moment" feedback. Learn more about Online Instructor Presence.
  • Learning activities: Your learning activities will look different online. They may have points attached to them and may not occur during instruction (in other words, not "in class"). However, they should be similar to in-person learning activities in that they allow your students to practice skills, apply knowledge, and prepare for their larger assignments. Examples of online learning activities include knowledge-check quizzes, discussion posts, and pre-writes or mind maps before an assignment. Some of your online learning activities should also promote peer interaction, just as an in-person course would. Learn more about Student Interaction Online and how to Foster Effective Online Discussions.
  • Technology tools: Choosing tools thoughtfully is particularly important for an online course, as almost every element of your course design will involve technology in some way. As you proceed through the steps of backward design, and as you build your course into Carmen, keep in mind the technologies that will be best-suited to helping students succeed on assignments, understand course concepts, and engage in learning activities. Learn more in Integrating Technology into Your Course. 

Find Course Design Support

If you're an Ohio State educator looking for more support with course design, there are a number of resources at your disposal. In addition to browsing our growing repository of teaching topics, we encourage you to explore the following professional development activities.

Seek a teaching consultation.

The Michael V. Drake Institute for Teaching and Learning offers teaching consultations for individual instructors who have questions or concerns about any aspects of teaching, including the course design or backward design process: Request a consultation with the Drake Institute. If your course design questions are specific to an online context, you may wish to request a consultation with OAA Digital Learning instead.

Browse all teaching support forms.

Participate in a professional learning program.

No matter your teaching modality, Ohio State has a professional learning program designed to support you with course design. Successful completion of each option below also earns you a teaching endorsement for Course Design in Higher Education.

  • Course Design Institute. The Drake Institute offers this five- to six-week workshop to walk instructors through each step of the backward design process. The Course Design Institute (CDI) is offered both in-person and online, and enables you to get the feedback and support of fellow instructors as you design or redesign your course.
  • Designing Your Online Course. During this five-week asynchronous course, you will work with expert facilitators and engaged peers as you backward design your online course. You'll incorporate evidence-based practice and Universal Design principles to plan an effective, inclusive course that meets Ohio State's expectations for quality online learning. 

Browse additional learning opportunities offered across campus.

Apply for Instructional Redesign. 

This Drake Institute program offers guidance and compensation to full-time (.75 FTE) faculty at Ohio State for time spent researching evidence-based teaching practices and redesigning their courses around those teaching practices. Learn more about Instructional Redesign.


While there are many approaches to planning a course, backward design is a useful framework that puts at the forefront what matters most—student learning. Unlike content-oriented approaches, the backward design process begins by determining learning goals and outcomes for students. You then develop assignments that will help students practice and meet those outcomes. Decisions about course content and teaching strategies appear last, guided by reflection on what students will need to demonstrate their learning.

This process may seem counterintuitive and challenging at first—it can feel uncomfortable to wait to think about your course content until you have written course goals, learning outcomes, and assignments. But the benefits are worth the challenge.

With backward design, you are better positioned to: 

  • Focus on results.
  • Prioritize student understanding over content coverage.
  • Identify and impart big ideas, key concepts, and crucial skills.
  • Make assessment of student learning targeted and intentional.
  • Help students see the purpose of their learning.
  • Make your course adaptable to change.
  • Enhance your self-awareness and development as an instructor.
  • Support students to succeed in your course.

Use the following step-by-step approach to backward design your next course.

  • Step 1: Formulate course learning goals.
  • Step 2: Articulate learning outcomes to align with the learning goals.
  • Step 3: Design assessments of student learning that align with the learning outcomes.
  • Step 4: Choose the course content students need to be successful on those assessments.
  • Step 5: Plan teaching strategies and learning activities that help students practice and prepare.

The key to successful backward design is maintaining alignment to your learning goals and outcomes as you plan all the components of your course. It's an iterative process, so you may need to go back and revisit certain steps or make adjustments as you progress. Remember that backward design is a flexible tool you can adapt to planning the individual lessons, lectures, units, and learning experiences in your course as well. Happy course planning!


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