Backward Design

If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you choose the best path?

To implement this appropriately named approach, designers start from the eventual goals and map out the material leading up to them. This means analyzing the desired endpoints, creating opportunities to demonstrate proficiency in them through significant projects or assessments, and working backward from there to finish out the complete design:

[T]he backward design approach has instructors consider the learning goals of the course first…. the second stage involves consideration of assessment. The backward design framework suggests that instructors should consider these overarching learning goals and how students will be assessed prior to consideration of how to teach the content.*

Tracing back from the endpoints ensures that students are given the material, activities, and practice they need to prepare for meeting those ultimate goals—and that they can successfully demonstrate doing so.

*Ryan S. Bowen, “Understanding by Design,” Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, last modified 2017,

Goals, Objectives, and Outcomes

Goals and competencies often refer to the higher-level institutional requirements for what an accredited course must cover. They may be set by various entities, including a committee of instructors, a department, a program, an institution itself, or an outside accrediting body.

Objectives and outcomes often refer to specific proficiency in material at the chapter level. While these targets may be identified by the same groups that determine larger benchmarks, they may also be set by authors or instructors. Of course, we expect authors to write original versions for inclusion in our products.

However, objectives and outcomes may sometimes be used in the higher-level context (as program objectives, course outcomes, etc.), while goals and competencies may be used to indicate more detailed knowledge or skills (e.g., unit goals, chapter competencies).

While we defer to authors’ preferences, we use the following definitions as defaults:

  • Goal: A general, overarching area of knowledge students master over time
  • Objective: A specific, clearly defined content area or skill students learn through a specific lesson, unit, or chapter
  • Outcome: A specific, clearly defined thing students will be able to do once they successfully reach their objective.*

Ultimately, whichever terminology authors or adopters use to articulate these specific standards, such benchmarks are vital because they clarify exactly what material a text or class will present and what students should gain from it.

*Susana Christie, “Editor’s Toolkit: Using Goals, Learning Objectives, and Learning Outcomes,” (San Diego, CA: Cognella, 2019).