Backward Design

Table of Contents 


The idea of Backward Design (BD) comes from McTighe & Wiggins’ (2005) Understanding by Design. The authors suggest that educators should plan learning experiences with the final assessment in mind. In this model, you start with the end - the desired results, goals, or standards - and then grow your curriculum from student learning called for by your assessments and the teaching needed to equip students to perform. 


The Model

backward design

Stage 1: Identify Desired Results: Identify the desired outcomes for your course. In other words, identify the knowledge and skills that students must achieve by the end of the course. Use Bloom's Taxonomy to help you construct learning objectives. 

Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence of Learning: Determine how you will evaluate students' performance and the criteria on which students will be evaluated based off the desired results. 

Stage 3: Design Learning Experiences & Instruction: Design and develop learning materials and activities that help students to achieve stated learning objectives. 

Brief Description

Many instructors begin designing their courses thinking of which materials or favorite activities to use, but that leads to thinking about the teaching first. The goal of BD is to help instructors think about learning outcomes first. Wiggins & McTighe (2005) offer the following example: 

"The teacher might base a lesson on a particular topic (e.g., racial prejudice), select a resource (e.g., To Kill a Mocking-bird), choose specific instructional methods based on the resource and topic (e.g., Socratic seminar to discuss the book and cooperative groups to analyze stereotypical images in films and on television), and hope thereby to cause learning (and meet a few English/language arts standards). Finally, the teacher might think up a few essay questions and quizzes for assessing student understanding of the book."

It’s a traditional approach, but does it lead to critical thinking/learning? In contrast, the backward design approach has instructors consider the learning goals of the course first. These learning goals embody the knowledge and skills instructors want their students to have learned when they leave the course. Once the learning goals have been established, 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.

For example, if you wanted to adapt the topic of racial prejudice to a backward design framework, you would first decide what you wanted the students to learn about racial prejudice. Then, you would formulate an essential question to guide the assessments, such as, “What is the relationship between morality, behavior, and justice?”

In Stage 2, you would create the assessment based on how a student could show that they have learned the relationship between morality, behavior, and justice and are able to answer the essential question. Using To Kill a Mockingbird, you could have the students write an essay to show comprehension of the concepts within the resource or have them conduct their own mock trial with a similar court case.

In Stage 3, you would finally design and develop materials and activities that help the students achieve the mastery of the essential question so they can participate effectively in the final assessment (either an essay or mock trial for this example).

For this reason, backward design is considered a much more intentional approach to course design than traditional methods of design.

Building a Course Using Backward Design

As noted previously, there are three stages to BD. The stages are not prescriptive and do not have to be followed in exact order, but being thorough in completing the template will help you organize your design. 

Stage 1 – Identify Desired Results 
In Stage 1, consider goals and content standards for your area. Make deliberate choices about what will be necessary for students to learn in your course. You will not be able to address everything, so what stands out? Ask yourself the following questions to help you organize your thoughts: 

What essential questions will be considered?  
An example could be that you are teaching a course on nutrition: What is healthful eating? Are you a healthful eater? How would you know? How could a healthy diet for one person be unhealthy for another? Why are there so many health problems in the US caused by poor nutrition despite all the available information? 

What understandings are desired? 
To extend the nutrition example, you may want students to understand a balanced diet contributes to physical and mental health. The USDA food pyramid presents relative guidelines for nutrition. Dietary requirements vary by individual based on age, activity, weight, and overall health, etc. 

What knowledge and skills will students acquire as a result of this course? 
Students will know key terms (protein, fat, calorie), types of foods in each food group and their nutritional value, the USDA food pyramid guidelines, variables influencing nutritional needs, and general health problems caused by poor nutrition. 

Students will be able to read and interpret nutrition information on food labels, analyze diets for nutritional value, plan balanced diets for themselves and others. 

Generally, these identified priorities contribute to your learning outcomes.  

Stage 2 – Determine Acceptable Evidence 
Stage 2 is about refining assessments. Ask yourself the following questions to help you organize your thoughts: 

What authentic tasks will students perform to demonstrate the desired understandings? What criteria will I use to judge those performances? 
With the nutrition example, students could be asked to create an illustrated menu that features the key elements of a balanced diet. 

What other evidence will demonstrate students' understanding?  
What quizzes, tests, homework, journals, etc. will work in context of this module/unit. 

Stage 3 – Plan Learning Experiences 
In this stage, consider the activities and strategies you will use to conduct the course. Bowen (2017) suggests using the following questions to organize your thoughts: 

  • What activities will equip students with the needed knowledge and skills? 
  • What will need to be taught and coached, and how should it best be taught, in light of performance goals? 
  • What materials and resources are best suited to accomplish these goals? 

Backward Design Template
More templates and resources are available at Jay McTighe’s website.