Summary: Backward Design is a model for designing instructional materials where the instructor or designer begins the design process with a focus on the desired results (i.e., the outcome) of instruction.
Originator / Contributors: Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe
Keywords: Outcomes, Evidence, Experiences, Instruction, Backward Design, Wiggins, McTighe
Backward Design can be summarized as a process or model for designing instructional materials where the instructor or instructional designer focuses on the desired end results (i.e., the outcome) of a class or course instruction. Rather than beginning the planning process with a focus on supporting exercises, resources or long-used textbooks, the designer focuses on the learners and begins the design process by asking what learners should be able to understand and do after the provided instruction. The designer then identifies what types of evidence are sufficient proof of the desired end result. The designer works “backwards" from that end goal and intentionally plans and develops supporting instruction and learning experiences around the desired outcomes and evidence.
Backward Design can be summarized in a three-step process:
1: Identify Desired Outcomes: Articulate what learners should be able to understand and do after provided instruction.
2: Identify Acceptable Evidence: Determine what types of assessments and measures would clarify (or serve as evidence of) when and whether students can perform the desired outcome.
3: Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction: Develop exercises, materials and instruction around the desired outcomes and evidence.
By way of example, consider a paralegal instructor who wants students, as a result of her instruction, to be able to prepare case briefs. She could begin a class by sharing a summary of cases she finds fascinating and then spend time discussing the cases with students. However, this might not be the preferred use of instructional time when the goal is helping students understand how to produce a case brief and why being able to do so matters.
With Backward Design’s focus on the desired result (for example, preparing a clear, well-written case brief), instruction can be tailored to support this desired product. Backward Design focuses on essential questions (for example, the value of case briefs, how to read and understand a legal opinion, application of case briefing in professional contexts) such that students develop a deeper appreciation for the practical relevance of their work.
Following the Backward Design three-step process:
1: Desired Outcomes: Students should be able to prepare a written case brief after reading a judicial opinion.
2: Acceptable Evidence: A marked up judicial opinion and a supporting written case brief that follows a standard, professional format.
3: Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction: The instructor might model note-taking when reading a judicial opinion, provide a template for a case brief, and then illustrate case briefing in a step-by-step manner. Students might prepare case briefs in a step-by-step fashion that follows the instructor’s modeling and template.
Backward Design focuses on what students need to know, understand and be able to do as a result of provided instruction. The desired result is the catalyst for all related instructional and assessment planning. Emphasis is placed on essential questions and what is most important for students to understand and know (student learning), rather than on materials, topics and content an instructor might be most comfortable with (student teaching). Student understanding is a central focus of the backward design methodology.
Pursuant to the Backward Design model, desired results of instruction might be based upon national, state and local standards. Results might be tied to professional goals and workplace needs, as well. This model prioritizes knowledge and focuses on what is most important for students to understand and achieve. Arguably, if design begins with the end in mind, instruction is more likely to clearly focus on the identified desired results.
Some argue that this model places too heavy a focus on the result (or test) at the expense of the learning journey or experience. Others caution that there are risks of incorrectly identifying which knowledge is essential for students to understand. There are concerns for too narrow a focus on results, where a design does not address all elements of a lesson or workplace needs and results in little flexibility to incorporate alternate paths to achieve a final goal. Finally, the Backward Design process can be time consuming (to learn and in practice).
For links to Backward Design templates and additional resources, see: Jay McTighe Design Tools, Templates and Resources
For videos of Grant Wiggins explaining Understanding by Design, see:
“Grant Wiggins – Understanding by Design (1 of 2)" at Grant Wiggins – Understanding by Design (1 of 2)
“Grant Wiggins – Understanding by Design (2 of 2)" at Grant Wiggins – Understanding by Design (2 of 2)
For a video of Jay McTighe explaining Understanding by Design, see:
“What is Understanding by Design? Author Jay McTighe Explains" at “What is Understanding by Design?”
- Bowen, Ryan S. (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved on September 7, 2017 from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/understanding-by-design/
- Meier, E.B. (n.d.). Understanding by Design Wiggins & McTighe. [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://edtech4schools.pbworks.com/f/Understanding%20by%20Design%20Teaching%20Ellen%20Meier%20CTSC.pdf
- Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (1998) Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Author Credit: J. Schneider