In the Classroom

Backward Design for Lesson Planning and Learning

In the realm of education, there exists a multitude of methods for crafting curriculum and designing courses, each with its own merits and applications. However, few approaches rival the depth and efficacy of backward design, a framework developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. This innovative methodology has revolutionized the way educators conceptualize and implement their teaching strategies, placing a profound emphasis on desired results and student learning outcomes. Let’s delve into the intricacies of backward design, exploring its stages, principles, and applications in various educational settings.

Understanding Backward Design

Understanding backward design is crucial as it empowers educators to craft purposeful learning experiences centered around clear learning objectives, leading to enhanced student engagement and more effective teaching outcomes.

At its core, backward design is a framework that emphasizes starting with the end goal in mind. Rather than beginning with content and activities, educators first identify the desired learning outcomes and then design instruction to achieve those outcomes. This approach ensures that every aspect of the curriculum is purposefully aligned with the overarching goals of the course or lesson.

In understanding the stages of backward design, it’s essential to grasp the backward design framework. At its core, backward design centers on identifying desired results, determining acceptable evidence of learning, and planning learning experiences and instruction to achieve those results. This approach to curriculum development starts with the desired learning outcomes before moving backward to plan instruction and learning activities.

The Backward Design Process

One of the key components of backward design is the emphasis on big ideas or enduring understandings. These overarching goals guide the entire instructional process, ensuring that students focus on essential concepts rather than getting lost in minutiae. By starting with these big ideas, teachers can develop learning experiences that lead to deeper understanding and mastery of important concepts.

The backward design process typically involves three stages:

  1. Identifying Desired Results: This stage involves clarifying the enduring understandings, essential questions, and specific learning goals that students should achieve by the end of the course or lesson.
  2. Determining Acceptable Evidence: Educators then consider what evidence will indicate that students have achieved the desired outcomes. This may include summative assessments, performance tasks, or other forms of demonstration of learning.
  3. Designing Learning Experiences: Finally, instructors develop the learning experiences, activities, and instructional methods that will help students attain the desired outcomes. This stage involves selecting appropriate instructional strategies, resources, and materials to support student learning.

Key Components of Backward Design

When it comes to teaching methods and lesson plans, backward design encourages educators to consider how best to engage students in the learning process. Rather than relying solely on traditional methods of design, such as direct instruction or lecture-based formats, teachers are prompted to incorporate a variety of instructional activities that cater to diverse learning styles and preferences. This might involve integrating technology, hands-on activities, group work, or other interactive approaches to keep students actively engaged in their learning journey.

  • Desired Results: These encompass the overarching goals, enduring understandings, and essential questions that guide the learning process.
  • Acceptable Evidence: This includes the assessments and performance tasks used to gauge student learning and mastery.
  • Learning Experience: The activities, instructional methods, and resources employed to facilitate student learning and attainment of desired outcomes.

Integrating Backward Design into Curriculum Development

Backward design offers a much more intentional approach to curriculum development compared to traditional methods. By starting with the end goal in mind, educators can ensure that every component of the curriculum is aligned with desired learning outcomes. This integrated approach fosters coherence and relevance in the learning experience, ultimately leading to improved student success.

With backward design, educators have a better idea of the desired learning outcomes and can begin selecting appropriate course materials and designing instructional activities. This is where Bloom’s Taxonomy comes into play, providing a framework for categorizing learning objectives based on cognitive complexity. By aligning instructional activities with specific learning goals of the course, educators can ensure that students make meaningful progress and demonstrate their understanding through formative assessments and peer review.

Forward design, on the other hand, typically starts with planning the curriculum and course content without careful consideration of assessment or learning goals. This traditional design approach often results in a disconnected learning experience for students, where the focus is on covering content rather than promoting deep understanding and skill acquisition. In contrast, backward design allows instructors to take a more intentional and effective way of approaching course design by prioritizing the desired learning outcomes and considering students’ progress throughout the entire course.

At the end of the process, assessments provide valuable insights into students’ progress and help instructors determine the effectiveness of their instructional methods. By incorporating backward design principles into their curriculum planning, educators can create more engaging and effective learning experiences that prioritize student success and foster a deeper understanding of key concepts.

Backward Design in Action

Let’s consider an example of how backward design can be applied in a public school setting, specifically in designing a unit on environmental conservation:

  1. Identifying Desired Results:
    • Enduring Understanding: Students will understand the impact of human activities on the environment.
    • Essential Question: What role do individuals play in preserving the environment?
    • Specific Learning Goals:
      • Identify key environmental issues.
      • Evaluate the effectiveness of conservation strategies.
  2. Determining Acceptable Evidence:
    • Summative Assessment: Research project on a local environmental issue.
    • Performance Task: Design and implement a conservation plan for the school or community.
  3. Designing Learning Experiences:
    • Field trips to local parks or conservation centers.
    • Guest speakers from environmental organizations.
    • Project-based learning activities focused on environmental advocacy.
students and teachers studying in the outdoors like the above example describes

Utilizing backward design in designing a unit on environmental conservation allows educators to prioritize key learning objectives, such as understanding the impact of human activities on the environment and evaluating conservation strategies, ensuring that students gain a deep understanding of the subject matter. By aligning learning experiences, such as field trips and guest speakers, with these objectives and culminating in performance tasks like designing conservation plans, students engage in meaningful activities that foster critical thinking and real-world application of knowledge.

Advantages of Backward Design

Using backward design offers several advantages in curriculum planning and instructional design, such as: 

  • Focus on Student Learning: By prioritizing desired outcomes, educators can tailor instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners.
  • Integration of Assessment: Consideration of assessment throughout the planning process enables educators to design meaningful and authentic evaluation methods.
  • Engagement and Relevance: Learning experiences are designed to be engaging, relevant, and applicable to real-world contexts, enhancing student motivation and retention.
  • Alignment with Educational Goals: Backward design ensures that course objectives align with broader educational goals and standards.

It ensures alignment between learning goals, assessments, and instructional activities, leading to a more coherent and purposeful learning experience for students. Backward design emphasizes the importance of focusing on essential concepts and enduring understandings, helping students develop deep understanding rather than superficial knowledge. Additionally, by starting with the end goal in mind, educators can tailor their teaching methods and learning experiences to meet the diverse needs of their students effectively, promoting student engagement, meaningful learning, and successful mastery of key concepts and skills.


In summary, backward design offers a comprehensive and intentional approach to curriculum planning and instructional design. This framework emphasizes starting with the end goal in mind—the desired learning outcomes—before planning instructional activities and learning experiences. By focusing on big ideas and enduring understandings, educators can ensure that students engage with essential concepts and develop deep understanding.

Backward design encourages educators to move away from traditional methods of design, such as direct instruction or lecture-based formats, and instead embrace a more integrated approach. By prioritizing the desired learning outcomes and considering students’ progress throughout the entire course, instructors can create a more cohesive and effective learning experience.

Infographic summarizing backward design article

At the final step of backward design, educators develop summative assessments to evaluate students’ mastery of the intended learning outcomes. These assessments provide valuable feedback on students’ progress and help instructors refine their instructional methods for future courses. By incorporating backward design principles into their curriculum planning, educators can create engaging and effective learning experiences that prioritize student success.

Overall, backward design offers a structured and systematic approach to curriculum development that promotes student-centered learning and a deeper understanding of key concepts. By starting with the end goal in mind and carefully considering the learning needs of their students, educators can create more meaningful and impactful learning experiences. With its emphasis on big ideas, student engagement, and assessment alignment, backward design provides a framework for educational excellence in both traditional and online learning environments.

Incorporating backward design into instructional practices allows educators to be more intentional and purposeful in their approach to teaching and learning. By prioritizing desired learning outcomes and engaging students in meaningful learning experiences, educators can help students achieve success and develop the skills they need to thrive in an ever-changing world.


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After moving from a teacher-dominated classroom to a truly student-centered one, Jenn found herself helping colleagues who wanted to follow her lead.  In 2018 she decided to expand outside of her school walls and help those out there who were also trying to figure out this fantastic method of instruction to ignite intrinsic motivation in their students.  Read more about her journey with Student-Centered World at

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