Center for Learning and Teaching

Backwards Design

What is Backwards Design?

Backward design, also called backward planning or backward mapping, is a process that educators use to design learning experiences and instructional techniques to achieve specific learning goals. Backward design begins with the objectives of a unit or course—what students are expected to learn and be able to do—and then proceeds "backward" to create lessons that achieve those desired goals.

The basic rationale motivating backward design is that starting with the end goal, rather than a starting with the first lesson chronologically delivered during a unit or course, helps teachers design a sequence of lessons, problems, projects, presentations, assignments, and assessments that result in students achieving the academic goals of a course or unit—that is, actually learning what they were expected to learn.

Backward design helps instructors create courses and units that are focused on the goal (learning) rather than the process (teaching). Because "beginning with the end" is often a counterintuitive process, backward design gives educators a structure they can follow when creating a curriculum and planning their instructional process. Advocates of backward design would argue that the instructional process should serve the goals; the goals—and the results for students—should not be determined by the process.

How does it work?

While approaches may vary widely, a basic backward-design process might take the following form:

  • The instructor creates a list of the essential knowledge, skills, and concepts that students need to learn during a specific course or unit, often referred to as learning objectives, among other terms. A instructor may also need to consider general education requirements of the course, if applicable.
  • The instructor then designs assessments, such as exams, essays, or other demonstration of learning that students will complete to show that they have learned what they were expected to learn. These assessments will measure whether and to what degree students have achieved the learning objectives.
  • The instructor then creates a series of lessons, projects, and supporting instructional strategies intended to progressively move student understanding and skill acquisition closer to the desired learning objectives.
  • The instructor then determines the formative-assessment strategies that will be used to check for understanding and progress over the duration of the course (the term formative assessment refers to a wide variety of methods—from questioning techniques to quizzes—that instructors use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course, often for the purposes of modifying lessons and teaching techniques to make them more effective). Advocates typically argue that formative assessment is integral to effective backward design because teachers need to know what students are or are not learning if they are going to help them achieve the goals of a unit.
  • The instructor may then review and reflect on the prospective unit plan to determine if the design is likely to achieve the desired learning objectives. Other instructors or the CLT's instructional designers may also be asked to review the plan and provide constructive feedback that will help improve the overall design.

History of Backwards Design

While backward-design strategies have a long history in education—going back at least as far as the seminal work Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, by Ralph W. Tyler, published in 1947—the educators and authors Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe are widely considered to have popularized "backward design" for the modern era in their book Understanding by Design. Since its publication in the 1990s,Understanding by Design has evolved in series of popular books, videos, and other resources.

Articles and Additional Resources


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. It is attributed to Great Schools Partnership, and the original version can be found here.

Last Updated: 3/1/17