Backward design is a powerful learning design model that can support strong student outcomes, increase equity, and connect learners to the value of their education. While many learning designers are embracing and advancing backward design across their institutions, the habits of traditional, forward, curricular design can be difficult to break. Understanding the key differences and advantages of backward design can help accelerate the adoption of this approach.
Forward Design: A Design for Teaching
For centuries, there was one approach to curriculum design. Forward design starts with identifying topics to cover. Academics then plan lessons, activities, and assignments around those topics. Assessments, the third step, are built based on what the learning activities included. As a result, teachers are left to draw connections to the learning goals of the course after the entire curriculum is already planned.
Backward Design: A Design for Learning
In contrast, backward design starts with the end in mind, as its name suggests. Curriculum designers first identify student learning outcomes that align with industry and academic standards. Next, they create assessments or determine what a rigorous, acceptable measure of comprehension is. It isn’t until the goals and evaluation methods are determined that designers begin planning learning experiences and instruction aligned to assessments. This learner-centered process creates stronger connections between overarching goals and detailed learning activities.
Comparing the Models
Backward design begins with identifying student learning outcomes (SLOs) — the skills and
competencies defined by academia and industry — rather than generalized topics. This approach helps students understand the relevance of what they're being taught and why. By operationalizing learning goals, backward design experts can examine how an outcome translates into life beyond college.
Another big difference is the shift in assessment strategy. By defining assessments before planning learning activities, backward design prompts authentic evaluation that reflects real-world scenarios and situations. These authentic assessments capture students’ grasp of the operationalized outcomes and objectives. Knowing how they are going to evaluate their students helps educators recognize what to teach so their students perform well.
The Benefits of Backward Design
Boosts Student Success
While there are many benefits to backward design, the most important is improved student success. A cohesive, backward-designed curriculum amplifies students’ learning of the content against the desired outcomes. It catalyzes student success by imparting the skills needed to demonstrate their learning in their assessments. In turn, learning becomes transparent, easier, and more intuitive for the student.
Connects Students to the Value of Education
Students are increasingly questioning the value of education, particularly degree paths at traditional higher education institutions. The alignment between learning and goals in backward design connects learners more strongly to the value education offers. Learners can more clearly see the throughline between what they are learning and how that will translate to their professional goals.
One reason so many higher education stakeholders are proponents of backward design is because of its impact on improving equity.
In backward design, outcomes and assessments dictate content and instruction rather than the other way around. By aligning authentic assessments with learning experiences, curriculum designers can reduce implicit biases. When designers work backward, they can recognize where approaches put students at different starting places — and when they might need additional support, technology, or resources to accomplish a particular goal.
Backward design also opens the door to co-design with learners. It provides designers an opportunity to not only intentionally think through the end goal but also how every learner — not just the majority — will reach that goal. The approach creates a new level of consistent experiences that brings all students closer to opportunity.
Putting backward design into practice requires a mind shift across the educational institution. But doing so yields student-centered experiences that are rich, and authentic, and support stronger outcomes.