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Backward Design

Educators often design courses based on a traditional, or standard, approach that involves identifying and creating course content, determining how the content is to be delivered, and assessing student understanding of the content. 

Why can a traditional approach be problematic?  

The traditional model is referred to as an instructor centered approach. This method tends to prioritize the learning activities and instruction over the attainment of the learning outcomes. This is problematic because it can result in student assessments being out of alignment with the intended learning goals of the course. In many cases, instructors will attempt to cover as much material as possible in a given text, which seems like a sound strategy on the surface, but it can result in students knowing what is going to be taught without knowing why learning it matters. 

What is backward design? 

As an alternative to traditional design, the backward framework was first introduced in Understanding by Design, a book written by educators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTinghe in 1998. As discussed by Wiggins in this embedded video, the methodology, unlike traditional design, is student rather than instructor centered because determining student learning outcomes takes precedence over the materials and teaching methods being used. By focusing on desired results first, planning assessments and learning activities aligning with those results becomes more of an intentional process.  

What steps are involved in designing a course using backward design? 

There are three stages in the process: identifying desired results, determining acceptable evidence, and planning learning experiences and instruction.

Stage 1 – Identifying Desired Results 

Wiggins and McTighe suggest that instructors ask themselves three questions: 

  1. What should participants hear, read, view, explore or otherwise encounter? 
  2. What knowledge and skills should participants master? 
  3. What are the big ideas and important understandings participants should retain? 

The “big ideas” referenced in question three should be the foundation for writing the student goals for the course or lesson. 

Stage 2 – Determining Acceptable Evidence 

This stage focuses on student assessments and faculty should begin by asking two primary questions: 

  1. How will I know if members of the class achieved the desired results? 
  2. What will I accept as evidence of student understanding and proficiency? 

Evidence can come in many forms, such as term papers, quizzes, exams and projects. Regardless of the assessment types that are chosen, it is critical that assignments directly relate to the desired student learning outcomes of the unit or course. Otherwise, the assessments will not contribute to the achievement of the desired results determined in stage 1. 

Stage 3 – Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction 

This culminating stage is when instructors make decisions about their instructional strategies and learning activities. By completing this process intentionally with the desired results and evidence in mind, the faculty member has an opportunity to create significant learning experiences for their students. Examples of commonly used instructional strategies are group discussions, flipped classrooms, and project-based learning.