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Weekly Tip: Backward Design: A Planning Framework

Though its focus is to facilitate effective instruction, backward design is “not a philosophy of teaching, it is not an approach to teaching, it is a planning framework. You are trying to make it more likely by design that when you teach you are more goal focused, more effective. It is being so prepared about where you wanted to end up.” 

—Grant Wiggins

Faculty make such a great impact on how well students engage, learn and achieve in a course. That process is, however, an intentional one that often involves some effective planning. The art of optimizing your students’ learning experience, helping them to learn, acquire desired knowledge, and demonstrate expected learning outcomes are achievable milestones with the help of a course planning framework called backward design.

Starting From the Future

Backward design starts with the end in view, helping you clarify what your course is all about and what students will learn and be able to do. It is a process that helps make your course much more intentional, purposeful, and effective. The goal is to help you deliver a learning experience that empowers your students and moves them closer to their own life mission and goals. It is based on the belief that good teaching requires effective planning.

The three-step process

Backward design is primarily a three-step process: it requires you to identify your desired results, determine your acceptable evidence of attained results, and plan out the learning experiences, instruction and resources, intended to help your students attain the set learning outcomes. Let’s break it down:

Infographic: Three Step Process. Identify desired results, knowledge, skills, behavioral changes. Determine acceptable evidence, assessment, portfolio. Plan learning experiences, instruction, resources.

1. Identify Desired Results

This is your opportunity to clarify what makes your course worth students’ time and effort. To do this, consider questions that help clarify your thoughts, plans, and end results; here are some examples:

At Course Level:

  • What do you want students to learn and benefit by taking your course?
  • What should your students know and be able to do before taking your course in order to maximize the benefits of your course?
  • What skills are students going to develop from your course?
  • What new knowledge are they going to learn?
  • What behavioral change do you hope to help them make/attain?
  • What tools are they going to learn and be able to use?
  • How will they be able to apply or use the knowledge or skills in different contexts?
  • Who are your potential students?
  • What are their goals and expectations and how will your course help move them closer towards their own life mission and goals?
  • What will students know, (be able to) do and become?
  • What portfolio of work will students produce?

At Lesson Level:

  • What will your student be learning today (after a particular lesson)?
  • What are they taking home with them?
  • What will they be able to do after the lesson?
  • What conceptual or mental shift and behavioral change are you hoping to help them make/attain?

For a more comprehensive guide on how to write effective learning outcomes, visit Authentic Learning Objectives.

2. Determine Acceptable Evidence

At this point, you want to spell out your strategy for measuring whether or not students are learning, what they know, can do, and have become.

  • First, you need to find out what students know before taking your course. This can be an activity intended to collect information on the first day of class.
  • What knowledge, conception or misconceptions do they have?
  • What can they do and who are they now?

It is impossible to make claims about how your course added value to your students without first finding out what they knew, could do or who they were before your class.

  • What will you accept as evidence of mastery?
  • How will you tell that students have actually learned?
  • How will you determine that students can do what you expect them to be able to do (what they can do)?
  • How will you measure overt behavioral changes that your course want to help them make?

3. Plan Learning Experiences, Instruction, and Resources

Think of this as your means to the end you have in mind for your students. These are your choices of learning materials and activities that students are going to interact with—the content, assignments, in-class activities, group activities, independent projects, problems to solve, case studies, simulations to manipulate, and related field experience. You want to align each of these learning activities to your clearly stated goals and specify how each of the activities will help students attain specific learning outcomes.

Very important questions to ask at this stage are:

  • What learning resources are out there that can help you achieve your stated goals?
  • What materials best address the learning outcomes you have designed for your course?
  • How best can you present the materials for the goals you intend to achieve?
  • Will students work independently or collaboratively? When will it be best for them to work independently or collaboratively?
  • How will working either independently or collaboratively help them attain the expected learning outcomes?
  • What engagement mode is appropriate for each of the learning activities – passive, active, constructive or interactive? (Students are passive when you give a lecture and they only listen, they are active when they have to make motoric contributions in class, such as using clickers; they are constructive when you ask them to take notes in their own words, generate inferences from a learning material, or explain a material to themselves in their own words; and they are interactive when they work in a group to co-create new knowledge).
  • How will you present your content to stimulate students’ learning of the learning materials, understanding of concepts, facilitate immediate and future recall, retention and/or transfer of acquired knowledge across similar and varying contexts?

As you walk through the 3-step process of backward design, the big pictures begin to emerge. The different components of your course and lessons—your goals, activities, and assessments—become better aligned, and your classroom instruction becomes more proactive, purposeful, and successful. Students benefit too as they become more engaged in the learning process, and derive more satisfaction from your course.

For More Helpful Resources

This series of videos and teaching tips is presented by Academic Outreach and Innovation (AOI). We invite you to join the conversation. Share your tips and ask questions through this blog. If you would like these posts to be sent directly to your email each week, subscribe to the listserv by emailing aoi.li@wsu.edu.

For more information or to schedule time with an instructional designer or emerging technologist, contact aoi.li@wsu.edu or request training on demand. You can also visit the Spark Faculty Innovation Studio in room 102 any time from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Thursday, during the academic year.