Backward Design


Backward Design is an instructional course design model that structures learning around assessments that are developed to demonstrate that learners have met specific learning objectives. The backward design process has three major components, starting with the instructor 1) determining the learning objectives, 2) planning assessments as evidence that the stated learning objectives were met, and 3) developing learning activities and course materials. Unlike old models of course design, where the selection of a preferred textbook or learning activity was at the center of course planning, in Backward Design, these are considered valuable resources only when they align with steps 1 and 2 of the process.


Muhlenberg College

Additional questions to consider in each step of the Backward Design process include:

Step 1:

Learning transfer: How can you create opportunities for learners to practice transfering knowledge gained in the lesson/unit/course to new contexts outside of the classroom?

Meaning making: What big ideas or specific understandings will learners have when they complete a lesson/unit/course?

Essential questions: What essential questions will learners explore?

Acquisition: What knowledge and skill should learners acquire?

Competencies and learning objectives: What established CEPH and/or concentration competencies and learning objectives does the lesson/unit/course need to address?


Step 2:

What performances and products will reveal evidence of meaning-making and learning transfer?

By what criteria will performance be assessed, in light of Stage 1 desired results?

What additional evidence will be collected for all Stage 1 desired results?

Are the assessments aligned to all Stage 1 desired elements? 

How will I evaluate student performance in fair and consistent ways?


Step 3:

What learning activities and course content will lead to achievement of the desired results and success at the assessments?

How will the learning plan help learners with knowledge and skill acquisition, meaning making, and learning transfer?

How will the course content be sequenced and differentiated to optimize achievement for all learners?

How will progress be monitored?

Are learning activities and course content in Stage 3 aligned with Stage 1 goals and Stage 2 assessments?



Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2011). Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). 

Understanding by Design Wiggins & McTighe: A brief Introduction by Dr. Ellen Meier, Teachers College, Columbia University

Wiggins & McTighe, 2005 Ch. 1 What is Backwards Design?

Video: Grant Wiggins - Understanding by Design Part 1