Backward Design: How Planning Backward Can Move Learning Forward

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There are different approaches that educators use to design learning experiences and instructional techniques to achieve learning goals.

In standard course planning  an instructor designs towards instructor centred learning goals by identifying a topic or section of content that needs to be covered in the course; planning a sequence of lessons to teach that content; and creating an assessment to measure the learning that should have taken place in those lessons.

But there’s another approach called “backward design”. Pioneered by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their 1998 book Understanding by Design, backward design is learner centred and begins with the end in mind and works backward from there. Backward design is a method of designing an educational curriculum by setting goals before choosing instructional methods and forms of assessment. These goals embody the knowledge and skills instructors want their learners to have assimilated when they complete the course.

Backward design is an effective way of providing guidance when it comes to structuring courses. Once the desired results have been identified, educators will have a much easier time developing assessments around learning outcomes. It is a process that helps make a course more intentional, purposeful, and effective – when an instructor is clear about the desired learning outcomes, assessing those outcomes and determining the class activities and related course materials needed to obtain those outcomes will be clearer as well.


Backward design is a three-step process:

STEP 1: Identify the desired results

It all begins by considering the end result of the course or unit. What are the learners expected to know or be able to do at the end of the course? Backward lesson mapping starts with plotting a specific desired outcome. Once the desired outcome is determined, the educator should make a list of all the foundational knowledge needed to reach that goal. Wiggins and McTighe provide a useful process for establishing curricular priorities – they suggest the instructor ask the following questions as they focus in on the most valuable content:

What should participants hear, read, view, explore or otherwise encounter? This knowledge is considered knowledge worth being familiar with. Information that fits within this question is the lowest priority content information that will be mentioned in the lesson, unit, or course.”

What knowledge and skills should participants master?The knowledge and skills at this substage are considered important to know and do. The information that fits within this question could be the facts, concepts, principles, processes, strategies, and methods students should know when they leave the course.”

What are big ideas and important understandings participants should retain?The big ideas and important understandings are referred to as enduring understandings because these are the ideas that instructors want students to remember sometime after they’ve completed the course.”

Additionally, follow these practices when beginning to design a backward lesson plan:

  • Know exactly what the applicable standards require learners to know.
  • Set clear, achievable, and measurable learning goals and communicate them to learners.
  • Determine how each individual planned lesson, activity or learning engagement contributes to learners’ success.

STEP 2: Gather evidence of learning

The second stage of backward design has instructors consider the assessments and performance tasks learners will complete to demonstrate evidence of understanding. To measure effectiveness and find evidence of learning, regular mini assessments throughout a unit or lesson will be needed. Having determined the learning goals of the course, there is a clear vision of what evidence learners can provide to show they have achieved the goals of the course.

Consider the following two questions at this stage:

1. How will I know if learners have achieved the desired results?

2. What will I accept as evidence of learner understanding and proficiency?

The backward design model begins with creating the goals of the final assessment, but the actual lesson plans should include regular formative assessments such as short quizzes, peer evaluations, and student self-reflections. As learners are still in the middle of the course and therefore have not yet fully assimilated the content, these mini assessments are helpful in measuring understanding of the foundational knowledge. Courses should be built around different types of assessments to gather evidence of learning: the final assessment at the end of the course; “diagnostic” assessments at the beginning of a course to gauge learners’ existing knowledge of the subject; and progress assessments such as quizzes to determine learners’ understanding along the way.

STEP 3: Plan learning experiences and instruction

The last stage of backward lesson design is determining how learners will be taught. It is at this stage that instructional activities and instructional strategies should be considered. Instructional activities are the ways in which learners interact with course content such as through creating presentations, completing group projects or playing educational games, while instructional strategies are the teaching methods by which new information is presented to learners, such as lectures or demonstrations.

With the learning goals and assessment methods firmly established, the instructor will have a vision of which strategies will work best to provide learners with the information necessary to attain the goals of the course.

Consider the following questions:

1. What enabling knowledge and skills will learners need to perform effectively and achieve desired results?

2. What activities will equip learners with the needed knowledge and skills?

3. What will need to be taught and coached, and how should it best be taught?

4. What materials and resources are best suited to accomplish these goals?

Backward lesson design encourages educators to be more intentional about lesson plans and ensures they make the best use of learning time. Backward design planning is a different approach for many and will challenge how courses are traditionally designed and built by starting with the end goal in mind.


Written by Rob Ewart


3 Basic Steps of Backward Design Lesson Plans [+FAQs]

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