Backward Design

Backward design, also referred to as understanding by design, is a method of designing educational instruction by setting goals before choosing instructional methods and assessments. It’s called backward because it starts with the end (i.e. objectives) in mind and works backward from there. This may sound obvious, but it is not typically the way most people design instruction. In other words, most people start with the instructional materials and content, then plan learning activities, then assessments, and maybe define objectives. This common approach is not very efficient or fair to students because it does not always aim in any particular direction and students may end up doing “busy work.”
In contrast to this, the backward design process occurs in three phases:

  1. Identify the desired results/objectives.
  2. Determine which assessments will allow students to properly demonstrate that they can meet those objectives.
  3. Design activities that will help students successfully complete the assessments and thus meet the learning objectives of the course.


When the backward design model is followed as part of the course design process, you will be able to have a course that is aligned. By alignment, we mean that the activities, content, and assessments will help students meet the learning objectives. For example, a speech class that has the learning objective to “Write a persuasive essay,” but simply has a multiple-choice test for the assessment is not in alignment. The purpose of backward design is to help create a course with measurable learning objectives, assessments that accurately reflect those objectives, and content and learning activities to help students successfully complete the assessments and thus meet the learning objectives.


Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins are credited as the founders of the backward design framework. Below are two videos by each of them as they explain certain principles related to backward design.

In the first video, What is Understanding by Design?, Jay McTighe explains the concepts of understanding by design. As you watch this video, think about what it is you want your students to understand and demonstrate and how you might begin to implement the backward design process.

In this next video, Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins explains to a group of teachers the importance of transfer in course design. As you watch this video, think about how you can not only design activities and assessments that help students meet the learning objectives, but to also transfer that knowledge to areas outside the classroom.

Additional Reading

If you would like some additional reading on backward design and understanding by design, then check out the links below:
  • Backward Design: This Wikipedia article gives a general overview of the process and principles.
  • Understanding by Design Framework: In this short white paper, Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins discuss the stages of backward design in further detail and provide some examples.

eLearning Consultation 

If you would like help implementing the backward design process in your course or even to a particular unit or assignment, feel free to contact eLearning (x5125 option 3) to set up a consultation with an instructional designer.