Backward Design for Syllabus Development

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters.


1) You have been asked to teach a new course and you don’t know where to begin. What books or articles should you use? What should the midterm and final be like?

2) You have taught a course for one or more years and you feel that students aren’t learning the skills and content you want them to achieve by the end of the semester.

3) You created a syllabus by simply selecting your favorite books, articles, activities, and assessments.


You need to set realistic and meaningful objectives and design curriculum that helps students achieve those objectives. “Design” is a key word here. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (1998) developed a conceptual framework and process to help educators design curriculum that helps students achieve key “understandings” in a course. It is called “Backward Design”. This process will help you identify key understandings and then work backward to develop assessments, select reading materials, and create meaningful in class discussions. (Thus, you should not put a syllabus together with just your favorite books, articles, activities, and assessments).

Stages in the Backward Design Process

1) Identify Desired Results

First, you need to determine your goals or objectives for the course. What should students understand and know about the subject at hand? What should they be able to do? How should they think?

In setting out objectives, you need to be cognizant of other expectations. What does the head of your department want you to achieve? What other courses will students be taking in the department and thus what do they need to understand, know, or do in preparation for those courses? What are the expectations of your students – why are they taking the course?

Categorize Objectives and Make Choices: More than likely you will come up with more objectives than are feasible and/or you may come up with objectives that conflict. You need to prioritize and make choices. To do so, think about classifying your objectives as:

A) Worth being familiar with: For example, in an Introductory Anthropology course, students should be familiar with the history of the discipline.

B) Important to know and do: For example, in an Introductory Anthropology course, students should be able to explain the hallmark methodology of the discipline and be able to conduct participant observation.

C)“Enduring” understanding: For example, in an Introductory Anthropology course, students should understand the concept of cultural relativism. OR Students should understand how to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange (i.e. They should be aware of their own cultural worldview and understand/communicate effectively with other people across cultures).

D) How to select “Enduring” Understandings:

  • Is it a “big idea” that has value or can be applied beyond the course?
  • Does it emerge from the core of the discipline?
  • Does it reveal and challenge prior misconceptions?
  • Is it interesting and engaging for students?

Note 1: “Enduring” understandings can be constructed for an entire course and/or for individual units of a course.

Note 2: Understanding can be defined as the ability to:

  • Explain
  • Interpret
  • Apply
  • Perceive (other points of view or see the big picture)
  • Empathize
  • Be self-aware

Note 3: Consider “Bloom’s Taxonomy” (described in another Fieldsights post) when constructing enduring understandings and your syllabus.

2) Determine Acceptable Evidence

After determining the “enduring” understandings (i.e. setting your objectives), you need to figure out the evidence that demonstrates students have met your objectives. This is to ensure that your course doesn’t just “cover” the important material. Thus, it is important to determine which assessments you will employ to collect the evidence of learning before you create your lesson plans and select readings.

Think about the range of assessments – They vary in scope (simple – complex), time frame (short – long term), setting (decontextualized – authentic contexts), and structure (determined – open-ended). Examples include:

  • Informal checks for understanding (e.g. oral questions)
  • Observation and Dialogue
  • Quiz or Test
  • Academic Prompt (e.g. open-ended question/topic for an essay)
  • Performance Task or Project

Select assessments that match the different kinds of objectives you set out. For example, a quiz or test might be better suited for those objectives “worth being familiar with” or “important to know”, whereas performance tasks and projects are better suited for what is “important to do” and “enduring understandings”.

Other criteria to consider: Are the assessments you designed: valid, reliable, sufficient, authentic, feasible, and student friendly?

Note: Evidence is best thought of as accumulated over the course of a semester, as opposed to an event. Thus, think about including a variety of informal and formal methods throughout the course.

3) Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction

Now that you have determined the “enduring” understandings (i.e. results or objectives) and the corresponding evidence (i.e. series of assessments), you are ready to determine the content and sequence for your course.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What is it that students need to know (i.e. knowledge) and do (i.e. skills) to meet your objectives?
  • What activities will help students attain the desired knowledge and skills?
  • How should material and activities be taught to reach the objectives?
  • Which kinds of materials (e.g. books, articles, or media) are best suited to achieve your objectives?
  • Is the syllabus you have designed clear, consistent, integrated, and effective?

How to sequence your overall syllabus and individual units:

Use the acronym “WHERE”

  • W – Where is it going?
  • H – Hook the students
  • E – Explore and equip
  • R – Rethink and revise
  • E – Exhibit and evaluate


*This guide was developed and adapted in following the principles and specific frameworks from

Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.