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Backwards Design/Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design is a fantastic book written by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe that explains the Backwards Design framework for designing courses and content. I highly recommend this book to fellow instructional designers and professors. As I attended many faculty development sessions at the University of Florida, I learned how the Backwards Design course design process is extremely beneficial and easily applicable to curriculum and course creation. Below I will share what I have learned and how to apply the concepts in this book as you design your own courses.

Typically instructors will approach designing a course by identifying and creating the learning activities, developing the course assessments around their learning activities, and then subsequently try to somehow create connections to the learning goals of the course. However, the Backwards Design approach takes a different angle by considering the learning goals of the course first. By identifying the learning goals first, as opposed to last, it creates direction for proper assessment and learning activities. So the first stage of the Backwards Design process is to establish our students' learning goals. Once this has been created, the second stage is to create an assessment. According to Backwards Design, instructors should consider how students will be assessed before we consider how we will teach the content. This is why backward design is referred to as a much more intentional approach to course design than the traditional approaches.

Why Should We Use the Backward Design Approach?

So why does this make sense? Why not create a course the traditional way? Well, in the Backwards Design book, Wiggins and McTighe state that “Our lessons, units, and courses should be logically inferred from the results sought, not derived from the methods, books, and activities with which we are most comfortable. Curriculum should lay out the most effective ways of achieving specific results… in short, the best designs derive backward from the learnings sought.” They describe the process of designing a course as something that should completely focus on student learning and understanding. They helped me to understand that as teachers we need to see beyond just teaching and begin to see if learning is actually occurring. I know this may sound crazy but it is very much true! Teachers typically think about their actions as teachers but not on the analysis of effective learning.

The Three Stages of Backward Design

This book describes how teachers designing their lessons yet often focus on the activities and instruction rather than the actual results of their instruction. Just because you are teaching doesn't mean people are actually learning! Learning is a result of a carefully planned and intentional activity aligned to learning goals. This is what makes the design process so much fun. The intentionality of creating the course's learning goals, assessment and then learning experiences creates purpose in choosing to approach a course in a certain manner before I implement it into my curriculum. Backward design is an effective way of planning instruction and designing lessons. by identifying desired results, developing assessments and designing instruction around learning outcomes.

Phase 1– Identifying Your Desired Course Results

In the first phase of Backwards Design, we should create the learning goals of the lesson or course. How do you do this? One way is to ask yourself certain questions to identify the most vital information to incorporate into your learning goals.

Worth Being Familiar With

When planning the learning goals, it is important to identify what you want your students to be familiar with as a result of the learning process. This may be considered a lower priority knowledge acquisition in the course.

Important to Know and Do

As you identify your desired course results, you must identify the knowledge and skills that are considered important for your students to know and do. This can be the main concepts and principles students should know when they have completed the course.

Enduring Understanding

These are more so the larger ideas you would like for your students to retain. The vital understandings are referred to as enduring understandings because these are the larger concepts that instructors want students to remember even after they have completed the course.

Phase 2– Create Your Assessment For Attendees Learning Goals

I remember when I created the curriculum for the Career Accelerator Program at Global UCF, a professional development program for international students, I conducted a needs analysis for ESL learners attending university in the U.S. from various countries. I knew I wanted my career development learning goals to be aligned with the needs on English language learners and I wanted to utilize cross-cultural learning goals to take their cultural differences into consideration as I planned my courses. This is where assessment comes in. I can plan amazing content and deliver a fantastic course. But how will I know if the students have effectively learned the content I am teaching? What evidence do I need to know I accomplished my goal as an instructor? The second stage of Backward Design process is all about the assessments and performance tasks students will complete in order to demonstrate their acquired learning. In this stage students will show you the actual evidence of this acquisition of knowledge that we identified as the learning goals. In this phase, I asked myself:

  1. How will I know if my students have achieved the career and professional development learning outcomes and desired results?

  2. What will I accept as evidence of student proficiency as it pertains to their professional development?

These assessment methods can be so many things: term papers, short-answer quizzes, free-response questions, homework assignments, case study or practice problems, and even group projects.

Phase 3– Plan The Learning Experiences and Instruction

The first month of my role at Global UCF was completely focused on the curriculum design and program design. In my final stage of designing the curriculum, I began to create my instructional strategies and learning activities. Since I had the learning goals and assessment methods established, I had a better focus of what strategy would be the best to attain my goals. I outlined what type of knowledge and skills will students need in order to perform effectively in this program. I decided on the activities that will equip students with the necessary knowledge they needed. I decided on how to create my workshops and the content and what materials I needed to effectively plan their learning. My workshops were designed to incorporate many learning experiences such as large group discussions, interactive lecturing and think-pair-shares, flipped classroom, and cooperative learning.

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