What is Backward Design?

Backward design is a scientific and creative process that encourages people to focus on more than the intended outcomes. This process can help achieve deep and enduring understanding that can be transferred across contexts. (1-4) Knowing the ultimate goal and considering various needs allows people to create action plans with the end goals in mind. (1-4) Backward design can be used in a variety of settings to enhance experiences and outcomes.

Planning for Academics and Fitness

Backward design for academic lessons and outcome-based designs for fitness programs have similarities and differences. Both designs consider primary outcomes and individual needs, but outcome-based designs may have a more forward-thinking approach without fully considering how to get from the initial assessment to the final goals. (2)

Backward Designed Programs

Backward design encourages people to plan and design active or experiential learning experiences and instruction to get the desired results. These rich learning experiences encourage learners to connect the content to other contexts as they develop deeper understanding and appreciation for the content. (2) Throughout the process, facilitators can refer back to the purpose and goals for enduring understanding, and then assess the learning and progress throughout. (3,4)

Outcome-based Programs

Outcome-based programs may focus on the specific outcome and not the ability to transfer the deeper related understanding to other contexts. For example, an outcome-based fitness program may be designed to get clients from their current body weight to a lower body weight, with little client education or understanding of how the result was achieved. The clients may not be able to follow this program on their own, or they may not be able to explain the information with others.

Elementary Teaching Example

Available resources outline the key steps of backward design,(1-4) but it is important to remember that backward design is a scientific and creative process. By the end of the year, my kindergarten students were required to formulate and write one complete sentence without dictation. It was important to know what knowledge each student had at the beginning and then realize the additional concepts that must be learned to accomplish the learning goal. Active learning experiences could be planned with this information in mind.

Our mid-year assessments for each student identified their knowledge of letter identification and letter sounds, understanding of the concept of a word, and recognition of sight words. Working backward from the end goal, experiences were designed to help students learn to write dictated sentences with proper formation- this was accomplished through our journal writing. Their writing included a sentence frame using sight words and a picture they drew. Students had opportunities to engage in mental imagery to help them form their own ideas in their heads. Their ideas translated into the formation of a non-dictated sentence later in the year. On-going student engagement through read aloud stories and conversations of why reading and writing is important helped build a bridge that carried our students from letter identification to sentence writing. If we helped them connect a greater meaning for the skills being taught, we could keep their focus and interest for a longer time.

Using backward design in this context helps me as the educator bring more meaning to the daily lessons. It also helps reduce some of the overwhelming feelings that arise when I see where my students are now and where they are expected to be by the end of the academic year. Backward design gives meaning and purpose to our activities in a way that reduces the burden of helping my students develop from their current knowledge to the essential end-of-year understanding and application of more advanced concepts.

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College Teaching Example

Another great example of backward design in an academic context is in college level sport psychology classes. Guiding the students through the goal-setting process allowed me the opportunity to use and teach backward design. Students developed their 3-month SMART fitness goals and then we used the ladder approach to develop short term goals to get us from the end goals to their current positions. After seeing their intermediate steps on the ladders, they worked in small groups to brainstorm meaningful activities to help them climb their goal ladders over the course of three months. Each rung on the ladder provided an opportunity for assessment and to track progress toward the students’ end goals. Through the activities and conversations, students were able to carry the knowledge from their context to someone else’s for deeper understanding of the backward design process.

So What?

Backward design allows for creativity and deep understanding. Facilitators and learners have more opportunities to develop meaning and form connections among a variety of concepts and contexts. Perception can change and individuals can evolve as they engage in meaningful activities and develop deeper understanding through their educational processes.

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  1. Martin M. Begin with end in mind [screencast]. 2018.
  2. Gardner S. Teaching for understanding [screencast]. 2011.
  3. Nilson LB. Teaching at its best: Research based resource for college instructors. (4th ed). 2016. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Wiggins GP, McTighe J. Understanding by design. 2005. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.