Backward Design

Backward Design Model

Backward Design, developed by educators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, is a strategic framework for designing educational curricula, courses, and assessments. Unlike traditional instructional design approaches that start with content planning, Backward Design begins with the end in mind. It emphasizes identifying desired learning outcomes first and then working backward to develop the instructional methods and materials that will achieve those outcomes. This approach ensures that all aspects of instruction are aligned with the ultimate educational goals.

This results-driven method helps in constructing learning experiences that are more intentional and effective, facilitating not just the acquisition of information, but the ability to apply and transfer knowledge in meaningful ways.

Origins and Evolution

Backward Design was introduced in the late 1990s by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe through their book “Understanding by Design.” The framework was a response to the observed inefficiencies in traditional teaching methods, where educators often focused more on delivering content rather than ensuring students achieved specific learning outcomes. Over the years, Backward Design has evolved, integrating insights from cognitive psychology and educational research to refine its processes and applications.

Related models and influences

Understanding by Design (UbD) (1998)
UbD is the foundational text by Wiggins and McTighe that outlines the principles and practices of Backward Design. It emphasizes the importance of understanding and transfer of learning, encouraging educators to design curricula that foster deep understanding and the ability to apply knowledge in varied contexts.

Constructivist Learning Theory
Constructivist theories, which suggest that learners build knowledge through experiences and reflections, heavily influence Backward Design. This alignment ensures that the framework not only focuses on what learners know but also on how they construct and apply that knowledge.

Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956, Revised 2001)
While Bloom’s Taxonomy categorizes cognitive skills, Backward Design uses these categories to define clear learning objectives. By integrating Bloom’s hierarchical structure, Backward Design helps educators set progressive goals that build towards higher-order thinking skills.

Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation (1959)
Kirkpatrick’s model includes four levels: Reaction, Learning, Behavior, and Results. This evaluation framework ensures that training programs are effective by assessing learners’ reactions, the knowledge and skills gained, the application of learning, and the overall impact on organizational goals. This aligns with Backward Design’s focus on starting with the end goals and working backward to ensure all aspects of instruction contribute to achieving these outcomes.


The Backward Design Process

Backward Design is structured around three key stages that guide educators in developing effective learning experiences, particularly in Learning Experience Design (LXD).

Stage One: Identify Desired Results

The first step in Backward Design is to define clear and measurable learning objectives, which serve as the foundation for the entire instructional plan. This stage is crucial because it sets the direction and purpose for the learning experience, ensuring that every element of the course aligns with the desired outcomes.

  • These objectives are the foundation upon which the entire instructional plan is built. In this stage, learning professionals consider:
    • Core content and concepts: Identify the fundamental ideas and concepts that learners need to understand. This includes essential knowledge and introductory materials that form the basis of the subject matter.
    • Skills and competencies: Determine the critical skills and abilities that learners should develop. This encompasses practical skills, problem-solving abilities, and methods essential for proficiency in the subject area.
    • Enduring understandings: Focus on the overarching principles and ideas that have long-term value beyond the classroom. These are the core understandings that learners should retain and be able to apply in various contexts.


Stage Two: Determine acceptable evidence

With the learning objectives clearly defined, the next crucial step is to design assessments that effectively measure student learning and proficiency. This stage ensures that educators can verify whether the learning goals are being met and that students are developing the intended knowledge and skills. Thoughtfully designed assessments not only provide valuable feedback on learner progress but also guide instructional decisions and improvements.

  • This stage involves considering:
    • Alignment with learning Goals: Ensure that assessments directly measure the learning objectives identified in the first stage. This alignment guarantees that the evaluations are meaningful and relevant.
    • Variety of Assessment Methods: Utilize diverse assessment techniques to capture different aspects of learning. Utilize diverse assessment techniques such as performance tasks (real-world applications), formative assessments (quizzes, reflections), summative assessments (final exams, projects), portfolios (showcasing progress), and peer assessments (collaborative feedback).


Stage Three: Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction

The final stage involves designing instructional strategies and learning activities that align with the learning goals and assessments established in the previous stages. This phase is crucial as it translates the defined objectives and assessment plans into actionable teaching methods and learner engagements. The focus here is on creating a dynamic and supportive learning environment that fosters deep understanding and skill development.

  • This stage focuses on creating engaging and effective learning experiences that support the desired outcomes.
    • Enabling Knowledge and Skills: Identify the specific facts, concepts, principles, and skills that students need to learn to achieve the desired outcomes. This includes foundational knowledge as well as higher-order thinking skills.
    • Engaging Learning Activities: Plan a variety of instructional activities that actively involve learners and facilitate deep understanding. Examples include:
      • Interactive Lectures: Presentations that incorporate opportunities for student interaction and engagement.
      • Collaborative Projects: Group work that promotes teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills.
      • Case Studies: Analysis of real-world scenarios that require students to apply their knowledge and skills.
      • Simulations and Role-Playing: Practical exercises that provide hands-on learning experiences and mimic real-life situations.
      • Workshops and Practice Sessions: Focused activities that help students develop specific skills through guided practice and feedback.
      • E-Learning Modules: Online content that offers flexible, self-paced learning opportunities, incorporating multimedia resources and interactive elements.
      • Flipped Classrooms: Instructional approach where students engage with content at home through videos or readings and participate in interactive, collaborative activities in class.
    • Instructional Resources: Select materials and resources that best support the learning goals and instructional strategies. This includes textbooks, online resources, multimedia tools, and other instructional aids that enhance the learning experience.


Backward design examples in learning experience design

Creating learning pathways

Creating learning pathways with Backward Design involves planning a sequence of professional development modules with a clear end goal. By defining the ultimate learning outcomes first, educators can design a series of interconnected learning experiences that progressively build the necessary knowledge and skills. This ensures that each module aligns with the overall objectives and that learners build on their understanding step-by-step.

  • Key components include:
    • Clearly defined end goals for the entire pathway.
    • Specific, measurable outcomes for each module.
    • Assessments aligned with desired outcomes.
    • Instructional activities and resources that support assessments and build towards overall goals.


Competency-based programs

Backward Design is particularly effective for developing competency-based programs where learners advance based on their ability to demonstrate mastery of specific skills. Starting with the competencies learners need to demonstrate, educators can design targeted learning experiences and assessments to ensure these competencies are met. This method ties all instructional activities directly to the skills learners need to develop.

  • Essential elements include:
    • Defined competencies that learners must demonstrate.
    • Specific skills and knowledge areas comprising each competency.
    • Performance-based assessments for demonstrating competencies.
    • Learning activities and resources that facilitate skill development and practice.


Professional workshops

When designing professional workshops, Backward Design involves identifying the desired skills or knowledge areas for participants to develop and working backward to create the workshop activities and assessments. This ensures that every element of the workshop is aligned with the desired outcomes and supports participant development effectively.

  • Critical components include:
    • Identification of key skills or knowledge areas to develop.
    • Defined desired outcomes for the workshop.
    • Interactive assessments for participants to demonstrate their understanding and application of skills.
    • Engaging activities and resources that support learning outcomes and skill development.


Online learning modules

Backward Design is highly effective for creating online learning modules because it begins with defining what learners need to know and be able to do by the end of the module. By working backward from these outcomes, educators can create engaging and interactive online content that ensures learners meet these goals.

  • Key elements include:
    • Defined learning outcomes for the module.
    • Identification of key concepts and skills learners need to master.
    • Assessments providing evidence of learners’ understanding and proficiency.
    • Multimedia resources, interactive activities, and assignments supporting learning outcomes and engaging learners.


Collaborative projects

Creating collaborative projects with Backward Design involves defining the desired team-based outcomes and then designing activities and assessments that promote teamwork and critical thinking skills. This approach ensures that each team member understands their role and how their contributions align with the overall project goals.

  • Essential components include:
    • Clearly defined learning outcomes for the project.
    • Roles and responsibilities for each team member.
    • Assessments evaluating both individual and group contributions.
    • Collaborative activities and resources promoting teamwork and supporting learning outcomes.

These applications of Backward Design ensure that learning experiences are purposefully crafted to meet defined objectives, providing structured and effective educational pathways for adult learners in professional settings.


Backward Design for Learning Experience Design

Backward Design remains a vital framework for learning experience design. By understanding and applying the principles of Backward Design—identifying desired results, determining acceptable evidence, and planning learning experiences—learning professionals can create more effective and engaging learning experiences. This approach not only supports the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills but also encourages creativity and innovation in the learning process.

By optimizing for Backward Design, educators can enhance their teaching strategies, better align learning objectives, and ultimately improve student outcomes. This comprehensive framework ensures that educational goals are met, fostering deeper learning and higher-order thinking skills.

Tags: Instructional Design, Learning Design Toolkit, Learning evaluation, Learning Experience Design, Learning Experience Design History, Learning objectives, Learning Outcomes, Learning theory, LXD Frameworks
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