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Teaching Using Canvas: Concepts in Backwards Design

Concepts in Backwards Design

What is Backward Design?

This approach to course design is used to achieve effective instruction and starts by identifying learning outcomes and assessment methods. Backwards design is a great instructional design model for developing or revising courses to improve quality, dependability, and clarity especially with online instruction components. Frequently cited yet today as a model for the foundations to backwards design, Wiggens and McTighe (2005) describe the steps of Backward Design as:

  1. Identify desired results. What should students know and be able to do at the end of the course? These are your learning outcomes.
  2. Determine acceptable evidence that students have achieved these learning outcomes. These are your formative and summative assessments.
  3. Plan learning experiences, instruction, and resources that will help students be able to provide evidence that they have met the learning outcomes.

Dee Fink (2013) describes the steps of backward design as making three key sets of decisions:

  1. What do you want the students to learn?
  2. How will students (and the teacher) know if they are learning?
  3. What will the teacher and students need to do for students to learn?


It's about beginning with the end in mind. Starting with desired learning outcomes, clearly stated in measurable terms, and working backwards (through assessment activities, teaching and learning activities, and content delivery) helps create a successful structure.


Prioritizing and Organizing

Once you have a list of desired learning outcomes for your students, you may see that you have more than is practical in a single class. This is quite common for outcomes related to content coverage.  Fink (2013) identifies the heart of the issue as developing a "content-centered" course versus a "learning-centered" course.

A content-centered course is what everyone is used to. You likely took them as students and possibly teach them as well. They start with a list of topics (not uncommonly based on textbook chapters) and work through them over the semester and focus on coverage. Alternatively, a learning-centered course begins with the answer to the question "What can and should students learn about this subject in this specific course?" and then moves forward to organize activities, assessments, and content presentation in a way that supports that learning.  

By starting from a learning-centered approach, it is easier to prioritize these content-oriented learning outcomes into three groups: the critical, the important-but-not-critical, and the nice-to-know. As you prioritize, you might see a structure emerging that may not be in the same order or have the same emphases as you've taught before. You will also likely see that there is not enough time to include all of the learning outcomes you have identified. Asking yourself questions such as the following can help you sort and prioritize your course goals:

  • What am I including so that students have the prerequisite knowledge and skills to continue in the discipline?
  • What am I including only because it's in the textbook?
  • What am I including in my course because it's central to the discipline, included on a licensure exam, or because I would be personally embarrassed if a student left this course not knowing these things?
  • What am I including because the person who taught this course before included it? 
  • What am I including because it's something I'm really passionate about?

Once you have grouped and prioritized your outcomes, you'll need to think about how to order them in the course. This is also a very good time to explicitly identify how the different concepts link together. These are the first steps to creating a course map. 

If you would like to see your course map graphically, Popplet and Lucid Chart provide free concept/mind-mapping tools. Below is an example using Lucid Chart to create a course map of the content for this course. A full map would also include the actual activities and assessments in context.


Fink, D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass: 

Wiggens, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design, (2nd ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

Understanding Course Objectives and Outcomes

Outcomes and Learning Objectives

While this seems like a simple thing, sometimes it can be confusing. In instructional design course Goals, Objectives, and Learning Objectives seem to be equal or similar in meaning. However, each of the three are distinct from each other, yet when written they should be student centered.

  • Goals – should long-term and reflect what your want your learners know and understand 
  • Outcomes – are specific to the goals and stem from what the learner would need achieve to complete the course. 
  • Learning objectives – are the tasks that need to be completed to meet the outcomes.
For example: Academic Area (Visual Arts/Design)

Goal: To introduce learners to concepts in visual design including; line, shape, composition, spatial manipulation, pattern, contrast, use of color, positive/negative space, font use in design for visual communication. 

Course Outcome: Students will develop the ability to make informed, critical and value judgments regarding the structure and development of graphic design compositions.

Learning Objective: Demonstrate the ability to apply basic design and layout skills, including grid structure, across a variety of formats and platforms from electronic to print following graphic design fundamentals. 

University of Wisconsin Superior Student Learning Goals and Outcomes


Students will understand and be understood by others to share meaning through diverse modes including listening, reading, visualizing, speaking, performing/presenting, creating, and writing.

  1. Students will apply modes, styles, and conventions of communication appropriate to the students’ work and their audience
  2. Students will identify the essential components of a work/presentation and describe their relationship to each other and to the broader context
  3. Students will clearly express themselves to achieve a purpose
  4. Students will civilly engage in an exchange of ideas integrating diverse perspectives

Individual and Social Responsibility

Students will engage in personal development, interpersonal competence, and social responsibility through active learning.

  1. Students will engage in thoughtful analysis that fosters well-being and holistic self-development
  2. Students will articulate their roles and responsibilities in a global community
  3. Students will practice healthy interdependence and mutual respect for others through teamwork
  4. Students will demonstrate informed civic engagement, including intercultural competence as a dimension of the experience

Students will apply ethical reasoning in their academic and community learning experiences

Creative and Critical Thinking

Students will engage in creative and critical thinking and practice based on multiple forms of evidence, processes, and diverse perspectives.

  1. Students will articulate important questions, theories, and creative processes
  2. Students will analyze information to answer specific questions
  3. Students will evaluate assumptions and biases associated with a project, practice, or process
  4. Students will consider multiple, diverse, and global perspectives to answer important questions or produce original work
  5. Students will use evidence to reach and present innovative conclusions or produce original work