Use backward design to reflect on and document the quality of course design

September 26, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

Use backward design to reflect on and document the quality of course deign

Backward design (Barr & Tagg, 1995; Fink, 2003) helps instructors design courses in which learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and assessment strategies align. That is, all aspects of the course (assignments, class activities, assessments) focus on intended learning outcomes. Most discussions of backward design focus on how instructors can use backward design when they set out to develop a new class. However, instructors can also use backward design to document the quality of an existing class by showing how all aspects of the course serve to promote key learning goals.

Backward design as a course design tool

The backward design process begins with the instructor identifying course goals (usually as student learning outcomes). The second step identifies the type of evidence that would indicate students have achieved these outcomes. Usually, this step describes how the instructor will assess student learning. The final step (often the first step in traditional approaches to course design) is to determine how students will achieve the learning outcomes. What materials will we ask students to read? How will we use class time to help students make sense of the readings and practice skills? Will students complete homework assignments to practice skills and get formative feedback? Will students complete other assignments as stepping stones to the final assignment, when we plan to evaluate mastery of the learning outcomes?

When instructors use backward design to develop a course, they create a coherent course in which assigned readings, in-class activities, required assignments, and formal assessments all focus on the course learning outcomes. 

Backward design as a strategy to document course quality

One characteristic of expert teaching is that the instructor can organize and structure a course to promote student learning. A coherent course structures learning activities to support student learning for course goals. Backward design helps instructors translate “course coherence” into tangible evidence based on syllabus content, course assignments, and assessments. In a coherent course, the instructor can identify when and how students develop the skills identified in the course learning outcomes. Instructors can identify specific assessments associated with each learning outcome.

Create a backward design course matrix to document course coherence

Faculty can document the quality of their teaching showing the coherence of their course design in a matrix that describes the relation between course SLOs, assigned readings, required assignments (homework, milestone assignments, student projects, etc.), and formal assessments of student learning.

Create a four-column table with columns labelled as Course SLOs, Readings, Assignments, and Assessments. For each course SLO, describe the readings, class activities (lecture, discussion, group work), and course assessments that support (align with) that SLO.

Learning activities and assessments might include low-stakes assignments that give students practice and provide formative feedback as students develop and perfect a complex skill, such as writing professional prose, solving complex problems, or developing team skills.

The table below describes examples of readings, learning activities, and assessments that align with three specific course SLOs and produce a coherent course design.

Course Student Learning Outcomes


Learning Activities


Recognize and identify disciplinary content

Text book

Supplemental articles


Class discussion

Exam Questions:

Fact-based questions

Analyze and apply disciplinary content to real-world problems

Text book


Pair-share activities in class

Minute papers

Exam Questions: Analysis questions

Application questions  

Short essays

Produce written work that adheres to appropriate disciplinary writing conventions

Disciplinary Writing Style Guide (Handout)

LibGuide (document on library website)

In-class writing

Peer review of writing

Short papers

Literature review paper

Laboratory report


Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning—A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change: The magazine of higher learning, 27(6), 12-25.

Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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