Aligning Course Learning Outcomes

Three Steps To Improve Learning

What Is Backward Design?

Backward design is an approach to teaching and learning that ultimately leads to a deep understanding of the material. As the name implies, backward design is not a specific pedagogy, but a process of constructing learning experiences that can be applied to any content or discipline. The “backward” process starts with careful consideration and explicit articulation of what the results or outcomes of learning should be, before deciding how that learning should take place (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Backward design consists of a simple, but not necessarily easy, three-stage process:

  • Identifying desired results
  • Determining acceptable evidence
  • Planning learning experiences and instruction

This approach can be particularly effective in situating a course within the curricular frameworks that comprise the university curriculum because the learning outcomes become the foundation for the rest of the program. For instance, all courses within a given program (even electives) should have outcomes that support the learning outcomes for that degree. Similarly, the learning outcomes for courses that are part of the NUpath academic core for undergraduate students must align with the goals of one or more of the required attributes in addition to departmental outcomes. At the graduate and professional degree level, check with your program to identify outcomes and consider ways to further those outcomes in your course.  Once there is a clear connection between course outcomes and the larger educational framework(s) in which the course exists, the remaining steps of backward design ensure that students are making progress toward larger institutional goals.


Ensure that your course’s connection to the bigger curricular picture is intentional and transparent. How well do your course outcomes and activities align with programmatic and institutional learning goals (e.g., NUpath)?

Transparency means that it is clearly explained in the syllabus how your course fits into the larger picture of the students’ degree program or overall education. Being explicit about how your course relates to other courses and learning opportunities helps student connect their learning to past and future experiences (Cuevas, Matveev, & Miller, 2010).


Cuevas, N. M., Matveev, A. G., & Miller, K. O. (2010). Mapping general education outcomes in the major: Intentionality and transparency. Peer Review, 12(1), 10-15.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.