Online Course-in-a-Box

Table of Contents 
Big Picture Planning
Designing with the End in Mind

Backward Design is a curriculum-planning framework that focuses on teaching for understanding. In Understanding by Design,1 Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe advocate for an approach to curricular design that deviates from conventional teaching habits, like trying to cover as much content as possible and assessing students when the teaching ends. Instead, Wiggins and McTighe argue that teachers should first identify what they want students to learn and then decide on the best means to assess that understanding.

This “backward” approach to curricular design is not new, nor is it “backward,” since it follows a logical, common sense framework for creating meaningful learning experiences. Rather, the “backward” concept denotes an approach to teaching that refocuses efforts on creating an enduring understanding. Put another way, it’s not only important for teachers to cover content, but to ask what’s worth knowing? There is so much content that could be taught, but what’s really worth understanding and what implications can this understanding have for students?

The components of a Backward Design framework include:

  1. Identifying Desired Results: What should your students know, understand, and be able to do once they complete the course? This knowledge is what you use to build your course-level objectives. See the section on Defining the Goal with help in crafting your objectives (both course-level and module-level).

  2. Determining Acceptable Evidence: How do you know if the desired learning has been achieved? What evidence (assignments, assessments, etc.) helps students demonstrate their learning and measure progress? In this step, also begin thinking through how you will scaffold your assignments and assessments so that students can achieve your course-level objectives.

  3. Planning the Learning Experience and Instruction: With clearly defined objectives and means to assess learning, you now begin designing your course, filling in the details starting with the end of the course and working toward the beginning. See the sections on Outlining Your Course and Assessing Your Students for helpful tips and planning guides.

Before your begin planning and designing your course, check out our blog post on 10 Common Misconceptions about Online Courses



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