Loyola University Chicago

Faculty Center for Ignatian Pedagogy

Course Mapping: Backward Design

What is a backward design?

As experts in our subject, sometimes we forget that our students may come to class not knowing anything about the subject matter or its importance. As instructors, then, it helps to stop and think about how to ignite students’ interest in our subject. How do we engage students in the course and show them what they are learning? How do we use humor, current events or professional stories to pique students’ interest in the subject? How do we present content in a way that students new to the topics will understand it? 

Creating a course map, or detailed plan that outlines the course expectations, goals, assignments, and activities, helps students and instructors understand how to navigate the course and what to expect while in the course.  A course map, like a road map, is often most useful when there is an end goal in mind: what is the destination? Backward course design, a well-known course design framework, can be used to create a course map and help us structure the course and think about what students will learn in a systematic way. The figure illustrates three stages of backward design:

 Three Stages of Backward Design; Image retrieved from Center for Education Innovation

 Image retrieved from Center for Education Innovation

1.     Identify desired results of learning: Establish learning outcomes

In this first stage, we ask ourselves what students should know and be able to do at the end of the course. What attitudes, skills and behaviors should students develop during the course? By beginning with the end goals in mind, we focus on what we want students to learn (as opposed to what content we want to teach); this focus puts student learning, not content transmission, at the center of our design process. For examples of how to write learning outcomes, see the “Establishing Learning Outcomes” of this guide.

2.     Determine acceptable evidence that results were achieved: Select assessment strategies

Next, we ask ourselves how students and instructors should determine how they know they are learning. What constitutes evidence of learning during the course? How will students know if they are meeting the learning outcomes?  When we begin with the end goals in mind, we can use them as a reference point for determining the type of evidence to gather about student learning. For more information about assessment strategies, see the “Determining Acceptable Evidence” section of this guide.

3.     Plan learning and instruction: Select activities and resources

Finally, we ask ourselves what teaching strategies and activities will prepare students to achieve the learning outcomes. What kinds of activities will students do to help them meet the learning outcomes? What kinds of readings, videos, podcasts, etc. will students use to complete the assessments? By beginning with the end goals in mind, we can use them as a reference point for selecting activities and resources.  For more information about activities and resources, see the “Selecting and Designing Activities” section of this guide.

Once we have some answers to these questions, we can start to create the course map itself and continue through the backward design process.


  • McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2012). Understanding by design framework. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


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