Sarah Traughber and Carla Fentress

Explanation: Backward Design is looking backwards in order to develop a unit. One starts with the outcomes, develops assessment tools then plans instructional activities. This method was developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe and published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. It branches into the 6 Facets of Understanding: explain, interpret, apply, have perspective, empathize, and have self-knowledge about a given topic. It's founders suggest using the WHERE method to help in developing the lesson plan. Once you have selected the standard to which you are headed and determined the final assessment that will demonstrate student achievement, then you can utilize the "WHERE" approach. This acronym includes questions and guidelines that will lead a teacher into effective goal preparation, activities, and student evaluation. In essence, it is the meat of the lesson itself.

W stands for students knowing W here they are heading, W hy they are heading there, W hat they know, W here they might go wrong in the process, and W hat is required of them.
H stands for H ooking the students on the topic of study.
E stands for students E xploring and E xperiencing ideas and being E quipped with the necessary understanding to master the standard being taught.
R stands for providing opportunities for students to R ehearse, R evise, and R efine their work.
E stands for student E valuation.

Members of education throughout the world have adopted this strategy for the classroom environment. For example, The Siskiyou County Office of Education (SCOE) has developed a Standards Implementation Project to "increase the academic achievement of all students" through the use of standards-based curriculum design (Holmes and Murphy-Shaw, 2000). To achieve their goals, SCOE promotes the use of "backwards design" when developing lesson plans (Holmes, 2001). They believe that Wiggins and McTighe (1999) is a key source for this process.

The reason behind for embracing this methon lies within the thinking process that a teacher must utilize. It shifts teacher perspectives and forces teachers to look at the big picture with the end goals in mind. This allows for teachers to have a direct path of mind to lead students into clear understanding. By beginning with the end in mind, teachers are able to avoid the common pitfall of planning forward from activity to activity, only to find that some students are prepared for the final assessment while others are not. If teachers show the end result to the students, as the Backward Design does, the students are aware of the purpose of the lesson. Students follow the teacher's lead with much more understanding while participating in activities.


The following chart of Backward Design is a useful resource to post in the classroom as a guideline to lead students through a lesson. On the left there are three stages with correlating tasks to complete on the right side. The entire process is highly effective compared to the habit that many teachers fall into - flying by the seat of one's pants, providing a lesson for the day with short term outcomes that do not lead into any thought provoking or highly purposeful outcomes that may built onto other lessons and connect to a larger unit.

Backward Design Stages

Action Steps to refocus the conversation and revision of end result

Stage 1: Identify Desired Results
What “enduring” understandings are desired?

What should students know, understand, and be able to

What is worth understanding?

Stage 2:
Determine Acceptable

Evidence of Learning
How will we know if students have achieved the desired results and met the standards?
What will we accept as evidence of student understanding and proficiency?

Stage 3:
Design Learning Experiences

& Instruction




Set the vision. Focus on the big ideas.
Create a shared vision.
Departmental activities to focus on:
Enduring Understandings
Standards (national, state, district)
Essential Questions

Determine how students demonstrate
their knowledge.

Focus on assessment before designing
the learning activities.
Expand the assessment continuum.

Plan instructional activities.
Share best practice.
Build in collaboration.
success for all learners.

Student Impact:
In an article by Doug Buehl, a Madison East High School teacher, he states that the advantages of Backward Design are highly effective when it comes to student learning. "It is a strategy that turns most unit planning on its head, and emphasizes key ideas that affect the way students view their world." These advantages include:

  • Students are less likely to become so immersed in the factual detail of a unit that they miss the whole point for studying the topic.
  • Instruction focuses on global understandings and not on daily activities; daily lessons are constructed with a clear vision of what the overall "gain" from the unit is to be.
  • Assessment is designed before lesson planning, so that instruction drives students toward the essence of what they need to know.

Obviously, teachers and students become much more engaged during the entire process of learning, which fails to occur in the unorthodox fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants strategy.

Another author of the periodical "Teaching Exceptional Children," researchers says that through the use of the Backward Design approach, learning can become relevant and meaningful for all students, supporting their mastery of general curricular standards. When standards, assessment, and inquiry-oriented activities drive the curriculum, learning can be transformed."

In addition, some teachers have found the following rubric an essential tool to provide to the students before any lessons are presented so that students are well aware of the purpose of the unit itself:

Backwards Design Unit
external image rule.gif
Name: ___
Teacher: Axel D. Ramirez
Date: Fall 2004
Class: EDEL 4530
Description: Students will create a thematic unit plan using the backwards design model. Students will show evidence of backwards design, core content strands, essential questions, daily objectives that are measurable, unit assessments and activities that tie into the overall backwards design model, a bias free curriculum, and the tools that are needed for well integrated activities.

Evidence of Backwards Design
There is substantial evidence of backwards design including enduring understanding and essential questions. The backwards design model is evident in ALL the activities that are used.
There is some evidence of backwards design. Essential questions are written though not cohesive and/or well written. AND/OR it is unclear that all the activities are directly connected to the backwards design model.
Essential questions and/or enduring understandings are not evident or are not well thought out. AND/OR most of the backwards design model is not followed throughout the entire unit.
Core Content
The unit has direct explicit connections to appropriate grade level and to the Core Curriculum.
It is unclear whether the lesson is grade appropriate and/or explicitly connected to the Core.
It is clear that the lesson is not age appropriate and/or tied to the Core Curriculum of the state of Utah.
Daily Objectives
The daily objectives are clear and measurable. It is very clear that each daily objective is tied in to the backwards design model.
Daily objectives are evident but not completely clear or measurable. AND/OR it is unclear that the daily objectives are tied into the backwards design model.
A poor understanding of daily measurable objectives is shown by the student. AND/OR some or all of the daily objectives are not tied into the backwards design model.
Daily Activities
There are a variety of learning activities throughout the unit.
Most of the activities are varied but too much emphasis is put on one type of delivery or assessment system.
There is little variety in the unit.
Integration of language arts
There is strong evidence of integration of language arts throughout the unit. Integration is explicitly stated.
There is some evidence of integration of the language arts. It is not explicitly stated.
There is poor or no evidence of integration of the language arts.
The assessment(s) tie in to the enduring understanding and essential questions. Each daily objective is clearly formally/or informally measured.
The assessment is mostly tied to the enduring understanding, and essential questions. AND/OR it is unclear that each daily objective is formally or informally assessed.
There is little evidence that the assessment is directly tied to the enduring understanding, and essential questions. AND/OR Most daily objectives were or could not be assessed.
Mulitculturalism-Issues of Conscience
It is clear that the curriculum presented is bias-free and follows the 3Rs framework.
It is unclear whether one section of the unit is bias-free and/or follows the 3Rs framework.
There are sections in the unit that are not bias-free and/or do not follow the 3Rs framework.
Integration of technology
There is strong evidence of integration of technology throughout the unit. Integration is explicitly stated.
There is some evidence of integration of technology It is not explicitly stated.
There is poor or no evidence of integration of technology.
Multidisciplinary Social Studies
It is clear that students need to use more than one social studies discipline within the unit.
There is some evidence that students use more than one social studies discipline within the unit.
There is no evidence that students use more than one discipline of the social studies.
A comprehensive list of tools and materials is easy to locate and is comprehensive.
The tools and materials mentioned are not comprehensive for the unit.
Too little of the necessary tools and materials are mentioned.


Some teachers feel that it is too cumbersome or useless to develop an assessment before teaching. A blog entry from b from username "Emmet" writes:
"So-- not sure how it works with boyfriends or budgets, but with kids, while BD seems to make sense in terms of covering objectives, are there times when it's okay to not know exactly what our students will learn? In some cases, are we not limiting them to the results we can imagine instead of allowing them to construct and own their knowledge?"

It seems the user above is implying that the need for a sudden change in the lesson is needed from time to time and that the chances for creativity that students may present during the lesson are limited. However, one can prevent the suppression of creativity by providing opportunities for reflection and extentions of the lesson by way of such activities as exit slips and essential questions. Students will be asked to write and verbally review the essential questions of the day, to which they will provide their through provoking answers. This will allow for implementing additional criteria (not to be confused with replacing the already valuable big ideas of the unit) that will enhance the unit as a whole. Thus, the entire classroom benefits.

Likes and Self Knowledge: Positive Voices From Other Teachers:

"From Backward Design 101"
“I always know where I’m going as I teach, because I’ve already been there in my planning process.”
----Stacy Irvin, Highland Middle math teacher

Many teachers think the Backward Design is quite promising. In the article "Backward Design for Forward Action," Jay McTighe suggests that students will benefit most if teachers avoid planning activities before identifying specific results. If one places their focus on the goals and outcomes, the activities conducted during the unit are much more focused. If one begins to gear off focus, one must only look at the "Big Ideas" in order to guide one back into the correct path. The Backward Design has had a history before it was actually given the name. In the early practices of this method, Jay McTighe found that teachers began to form curriculum maps in order to show a visual to the students of the learning journey they would take. Overall, after developing a curriculum map, teachers have found the method quite promising.

In an article entitled: "Reflecting on Backward Design" a teacher states: "My 9th grade students in particular really seemed to connect to this type of learning; furthermore, unless I’m a horrible judge, they have seemed more engaged than I can remember any other class being."

Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, writes, "To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination." Backward design encourages you to set educational objectives, and only then to plan instructional activities, and methods to assess that the desired learning has taken place.

Helpful links for activity ideas: :