Backwards Course Planning

Design your course starting with the end in mind to ensure you have alignment throughout your outcomes, assessments and content.
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Backwards Course Planning

What is Backwards Course Planning?

Backwards course planning is a recommended-practice teaching strategy that you can use when planning your course outcomes, assessments, content and weekly delivery.

While planning your course, rather than focusing on the content you want to deliver first, backwards planning begins with the end in mind. This means focusing on your course outcomes as the first item in your planning methodology, then using those outcomes to plan your assessments, and lastly, your content.

Think about this as it applies to travelling. Often when people travel, they first choose their destination, and then they think about what they would like to do at that destination. They then plan their activities based on what they would like to do, and then plan their time around those activities. The same thing happens in backwards planning where your destination is the outcomes from your course and your activities is the content organized into weekly topics/lessons. This makes for a more effectively planned vacation (and course!)

Ease of Use:


Set Up Time:

30 mins

Best Used For:

Course Planning and Development

Why Use Backwards Course Planning?

Backwards planning allows you to better align your course material with your assessments and outcomes. With traditional course planning (content-first focus / teaching a textbook chapter by chapter), it can be more difficult and effortful to make connections and fit content to the course outcomes. Backwards planning allows you to be results-focused, rather than content-focused.

Starting from your course outcomes, you can think more strategically about how to design your course. Ultimately, you start with knowing what students should learn and what they should be able to demonstrate by the time they have completed the course. Once you know what the outcomes are, you can effectively design your assessments to measure against those outcomes. It also allows you to think more critically and reflectively about your own planning and delivery in order to more clearly see gaps in your content and assessments.

For example, if a course outcome in an electrical course is for students to demonstrate how to properly assemble a basic circuit, you can better design your assessment to meet that outcome. It becomes easier to think about how you will have your students demonstrate that skill, such as giving them a lab where they have a box of materials and must use these materials to successfully assemble a working circuit.

Backwards planning also helps students because, as the teacher, your focus is on course outcomes. Therefore, your students will better be able to make the connection between the lesson material, activities and assessments in order to help them achieve new learning and skills. Many times, students also perform better in the course because they are more prepared for assessments and are better able to make connections in their learning.

How to Use Backwards Course Planning

Getting Started

Use this worksheet to help plan your course using the principles of backwards course planning.

Backwards Planning Graphic

Step 1: Start with Outcomes

Begin by identifying or creating the outcomes for your course. Think about these outcomes at the course level but refer to the higher program-level and vocational outcomes as well when designing your course.

  • Your course outcomes may already exist in your DCO and syllabus, or you may be able to create them yourself.
  • Look at the program’s vocational outcomes or curriculum map.
  • For vocational outcomes, visit the Academic Toolbox on MyCambrian. Click on the course and explore the Master Syllabus and DCO.
  • For College Program Standards, you can find vocational learning outcomes, essential employability skills and general education requirements on the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities website. Find your program/course of study in the list at the bottom of the page.
  • Curriculum maps can be obtained from your program coordinator.
  • The vocational outcomes identified in the curriculum map for your program should be what you are aligning your course outcomes to.

Step 2: Assess Students Against the Outcomes

Now that you’ve identified what your outcomes are, you can think about how students will demonstrate the skills and learning required to achieve those outcomes. This is done through the final exam, quizzes, assignments and activities. Ideally, you should include a mix of both formative assessments and summative assessments. Identify assessments that accurately measure student performance to the same level of learning that you’ve indicated in the course learning outcome. For example, if the course outcome is “students will be able to insert a catheter”, the assessment should not be a multiple-choice quiz. The student should be doing the activity, such as in a lab setting perhaps with simulation mannequins, in order to effectively demonstrate that skill. Refer to the above video in “Getting Started” to learn how to align your assessments to the outcomes.

Step 3: Determine Learning Activities to Achieve the Outcomes

A very important part of this step is to think about how your content builds knowledge and skills for your students. Think about how your introductory activities lead to more intermediate and advanced skill- and knowledge-building. By moving students progressively from introductory instruction toward more self-directed activities, you can effectively bring them closer to independence in their learning; this is known as scaffolding. Therefore, how does week one lead into week two, and so forth, until students have been given enough time, practice, application and summarization activities to give them the best chance of success in demonstrating the learning outcomes.

Additional Resources:

Want to learn more? Check out these great resources on Backwards Course Design:

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