The “Backward Design” Process

Erica Halverson's picture

This is from a presentation at the 2005 Teaching Academy Summer Institute by Mitchell Nathan & Erica Halverson

Adapted from Understanding by design and Understanding by design: Professional development workbook (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, 2004).

We chose this framework for presenting course redesign because it embodies the principles of what we know about how people learn.

Why is this called “backward design”? As novice designers, our instinct is often to start with a great learning activity that we know that really highlights a specific topic or skill. However, without a set of overarching learning goals and assessment strategies that help us understand whether or not students have reached these learning goals, and without a clear understanding of the knowledge students have coming prior to instruction, the activities themselves will likely be disconnected to each other and to learners’ prior knowledge, and therefore not likely to lead to robust learning for students.

Below is a summary of the three steps in the backward design process, along with key questions to guide your thinking through these steps.

Identify learning goals
•    What do you want students to know?
•    What do you want students to be able to do?
•    Why is this difficult for them to know/do on their own?

Determine acceptable evidence
•    How will you know that they got it?
•    How will you assess that they got it?
•    What counts as understanding in your class? What about in your domain?

Plan learning activities and instruction
•    What activities will you use to make sure that they got there?
•    How are these activities connected to students’ understanding?


The acronym WHERE can be used as a way to help you plan your specific learning activities.

Where are we headed? -- What are the students’ final performance obligations?
Hook the student -- through engaging and provocative entry points such as challenges, oddities, questions & experiences.
Explore the subject and Enable/Equip the student – Support students’ exploration of big ideas and essential questions that lead them to pursue their own hunches, test ideas and try things out.
Rethink our work and ideas – Guide students in self-assessment and self-adjustment, based on feedback and experiences.
Evaluate results – Reveal what has been understood through final performances and products.

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shawl's picture

Learning Outcomes

Learning objectives are foundational to any course. As a graduate of the UW Madison School of Education, I was trained to organize courses and develop lessons through this "backward design" process, and I'm definitely an advocate! It's important to begin with course and lesson objectives, then to determine how these objectives will be assessed, and then to design the activities that will prepare students to successfully meet these objectives. After all, how can a sound assessment be created without being able to state what students should be able to do? Any how will students be able to meet objectives if these objectives are not clear -- or if the instruction they receive and activities the complete have not been designed to lead them to this end?

I don't think any course actually exists without learning objectives, but I suspect that many course's objectives go unstated. Articulating and refining course objectives is a worthwhile process for any instructor. And having access to this statement of objectives can help students guide their own learning, because it has been made clear to them what they are responsible for learning.

I was impressed to learn that Brigham Young University actually has a website which lists Expected Learning Outcomes for each of their programs ( I suspect that the tide is moving this way at UW-Madison.