Using Backward Course Design to Create Successful Online Courses

I have personally experienced many different approaches and methods for designing online courses. These typically break down into three different categories, or orientations to design:

  • Content focused
  • Experience focused
  • Outcomes focused

Each of these methods has their strengths and downfalls.

With content focused design, you start with the topics you want to teach and then you develop materials or activities based on those topics.

Experience focused design starts with thinking about what the learner should experience or feel through the learning experienced. An example of this might be an internship or practicum course. Often the learning goal is to experience what it is like to be a professional in that field.

The third orientation, which I will focus on here, is the outcomes focused mindset. This orientation begins with the end in mind by clearly stating what the learner should be able to do at the end of the course.

In this article, I concentrate on this outcomes focused perspective by highlighting applications for backward design for online courses. I will discuss why this approach matters to educators, present a brief background to the approach, and demonstrate a simple example to help you adapt this method in your own teaching.


A Brief Background on Backward Design

Backward design is a term used in course design circles to describe the approach of starting the design process by defining what the learner should be able to do at the end of a course or training program. You can think of backward course design as beginning with the end in mind.

Backward course design was introduced by Wiggins and McTighe (2005) as a method for supporting the process of designing courses so the instruction supports specific, pre-defined goals and outcomes.

Backward design begins with identifying the course goals, developing assessments, identifying specific learning objectives, and then supporting those objectives with instruction and materials. There is an alignment between these factors as visualized by the article titled Backward Course Design published by Indiana University Bloomington.


Why Backward Course Design Matters to Educators

Given the diversity of approaches and preferences for designing online courses, why should educators care about using backward course design to create online courses? There are two main reasons:

  1. Saves time
  2. Improves student learning outcomes

Backward course design saves time because it provides focus and clarity in the course design experience. You only need to create the materials and activities that directly support the stated learning goals. This helps to focus time and energy where it is going to matter most.

Backward course design improves student learning outcomes in online courses because there is a direct and clear alignment between the learning experience and the goals of the instruction. This provides clear direction and guidance for the learner while ensuring they have what they need to be successful.


Applying Backward Course Design Using Learning Environment ModelingScreenshot of the Learning Environment Modeling software

In the following video, I demonstrate how to design a course using backward design methods using Learning Environment Modeling. This approach provides a visual way of seeing how a course is designed. Select the video to learn more.



This article outlined the basic principles of backward course design, why this approach provides usefulness and value for educators and students, and demonstrated a simple model for applying this method in your own teaching and design.



Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


Additional Backward Design Resources


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