Let’s say 3 new movies came out over the weekend and you’re trying to figure out which one to see. One of the best ways to figure out which movie to see is by thinking about what kind of emotions you want to feel during the movie- adrenaline, joy, or warmth.

Knowing the kind of experience you want helps you choose the right movie. This is how backward design in education works.

With backward design, you start by thinking about what you want students to learn, then use the information to plan the activities and assessments that will help them achieve those learning outcomes.

Let’s explore backward design in education, and how you can leverage it to make your teaching more effective.

Understanding Backward Design

Understanding Backward Design

Backward design is an educational approach that starts with learning outcomes and objectives. As an educator, you plan lessons and units by first thinking about what you want students to know and do by the end of the learning experience.

Unlike traditional teaching methods, which usually start with the content and build activities and assessments around it, backward design starts with the end goal in mind and then creates a learning experience that helps students reach it.

It’s a great way to make sure students are getting the most out of their lessons and to avoid overloading them with irrelevant material. As a result, it is a widely used approach in curriculum development and instructional planning.

The Three Stages of Backward Design

The Three Stages of Backward Design

The purpose of the backward design is to ensure that students are learning the most important material. This ensures that all of the activities and assessments are aligned with the desired learning outcomes.

Before we dive into creating a backward design, here’s a breakdown of the three main steps to creating an effective backward design:

  • Identifying learning outcomes: The first step is to identify what students should know and be able to do by the end of the lesson or course. The learning outcomes should be clear, specific, and measurable.
  • Determining assessment strategies: Once you’ve identified the lessons’ outcomes, you’ll need to figure out how to measure students’ achievement. This could mean creating traditional assessments like tests and quizzes or more authentic assessments like projects and presentations.
  • Planning learning activities: The last thing you need to do is come up with learning pathways that will help students reach their learning goals. These plans should be engaging and relevant to the learning outcomes and objectives.

Stage 1 – Identifying Learning Outcomes

One of the first things you will need to do when starting your journey to using backward design for your course or lessons is to define your learning objectives. Learning objectives are statements that define what students will accomplish at the end of a course, unit, or lesson.

Here’s why you need clear and specific learning objectives:

  • They help you focus lessons and instructions on the most important outcomes.
  • Provides students with clear details of what they need to know at the end of the course or lesson
  • Allows you to develop effective assessments
  • Help you to monitor student performance and guide you in making necessary adjustments.

How to Create SMART Learning Outcomes

Clearly stating your learning objectives is great, but if they are not SMART, the chances of achieving them are almost non-existent. Smart objectives are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Here’s how to make your lesson objectives SMART:

  • Specific: Don’t just state, specify exactly what students will be able to do by the end of the lesson, unit, or course. For example, instead of saying “Students will learn about climate change,” you could say “Students will be able to explain how greenhouse gases cause global warming.”
  • Measurable: SMART learning goals should be quantifiable so that you can measure student performance. For instance, you could measure how well students understand climate change by having them ask questions about ways to prevent global warming.
  • Achievable: You also need to ensure the objectives are too difficult. Setting very difficult objectives may frustrate students instead of motivating them, defeating the entire purpose of the backward design.
  • Relevant: SMART learning objectives should be relevant to the student’s needs and interests. Students are more likely to be motivated to learn if they see the value in the material.
  • Time-bound: SMART learning objectives should have a specific deadline. This will help students to stay focused and on track.

Examples of Well-Crafted Learning Objectives

Here are some examples of well-crafted learning objectives:

  • At the end of this 4-week course, students will know how to develop effective marketing campaigns using multiple email marketing tools.
  • By the end of this course, students will be able to solve quadratic equations using three different methods.
  • After the three weeks of training in arts and crafts, students will be able to make ceramic cookware.

Stage 2 – Determining Assessment Strategies

Once you’ve identified and defined your goals, the next step is to decide how you’re going to measure students’ understanding of what you’ve taught them. Here’s a breakdown of how to develop effective assessment strategies:

Align the Assessment With the Learning Objectives

Aligning assessment to the learning objective ensures that you are assessing what students have learned.

Choose an Assessment Method

Depending on the type of progress and performance you want to measure, you need to figure out what kind of assessment you want to use. There are two major categories of assessments- formative and summative assessment.

Formative assessments such as quizzes, homework, and assignments check student understanding throughout the learning process. This feedback guides you in adjusting instructions and ensures that all students are learning.

Summative assessments such as exams, projects, or presentations on the other hand assess student learning at the end of a lesson, unit, or course. The goal of summative assessments is to have an overall understanding of students’ performance in the course.

Types of Assessments in Backward Designs

Here’s a list of the most popular types of assessments and when to use them:

  • Quizzes: Quizzes are short assessments that allow you to check students’ understanding of specific concepts. They’re usually good for seeing if your students have made any progress over time and if they’ve been paying attention.
  • Projects: Projects are a great way for students to show off their knowledge. It’s great for vocational and complex courses, as it allows students to show off the skills they acquired during the lessons and express their creativity.
  • Presentations: Presentations allow students to share their learning with their classmates and teachers. This helps students share their knowledge with other students, get feedback in real-time, and build their confidence.
  • Exams: Exams are longer assessments that assess student understanding of a broader range of material. This is your go-to option to evaluate everything the student has learned over a long period.

Stage 3 – Planning Learning Activities

The final stage of the backward learning design is to plan the learning activities. This is a roadmap that will achieve your learning objectives.

When you’re creating your learning activities, make sure they’re engaging and effective to help students learn and remember. If they’re boring, students might get bored, and if they’re not effective, you may not cover all the material you should.

Examples of Instructional Strategies

Here are some examples of instructional strategies to help you create engaging and effective learning experiences:

  • Group discussions: Group discussions allow students to learn from each other and share their ideas.
  • Hands-on activities: Hands-on activities allow students to learn by doing.
  • Problem-solving tasks: Problem-solving tasks allow students to apply their knowledge to solve real-world problems.

How to Incorporate Technology and Other Resources in Lesson Planning

You can also use technology and other tools to improve your lesson plans and make teaching more interesting for students. For example, you can create online quizzes, video lessons, and online group discussions to make the lessons more interactive.

You can also leverage technology to assess students’ understanding such as online quizzes, tests, exams, presentations, and project submissions.

Benefits of Backward Design

Types of Assessments in Backward Designs

There are so many advantages to using the backward learning design, here are the most notable ones:

  • Enhanced clarity: Backward design helps educators clarify their learning goals and objectives. This leads to more focused and effective instruction.
  • Alignment: Backward design ensures that all aspects of instruction are aligned with the desired results. This includes assessments and learning activities.
  • Learner-centeredness: Backward design puts the learner at the center of instruction. Educators focus on what students need to know and be able to do to be successful.

How Backward Design Improves the Overall Quality of Teaching and Learning

Here are the ways backward design helps improve both teaching and learning quality:

  • Design more effective instruction: By starting with the desired results in mind, backward design enables you to design instruction that is more likely to help students achieve those results.
  • Improve student engagement: When students know what they are expected to learn and how they will be assessed, they are more likely to be engaged in their learning.
  • Increase student achievement: backward design ensures students are engaged, which leads to them performing better because they know they are been taught.

Examples of Successful Educational Programs That Employ Backward Design

  • Understanding by DesignUnderstanding by Design is a curriculum development framework that is based on backward design. It is widely adopted by schools globally to improve student learning.
  • Project-Based LearningProject-based learning focuses on having students learn by doing. It is often implemented using a backward design framework.
  • Common Core State Standards: The Common Core State Standards are a set of academic standards based on the backward design adopted by most states in the United States. They are designed to ensure that all students are prepared for college and careers.

Challenges In Implementing Backward Design

Challenges In Implementing Backward Design

Potential challenges educators may face when implementing backward design:

  • Time-consuming: You need ample time to clarify their learning goals and objectives, develop aligned assessments, and design effective learning activities.
  • Resistance to Change: It might be challenging to transition to backward design if you are used to teaching based on content. It takes a change of mindset and teaching methods.
  • Assessment Alignment: Assessments must measure what students are expected to learn. Achieving this consistency can be challenging, especially if you are unfamiliar with assessment design.
  • Student Variances: Students in the same class often have varying abilities and backgrounds. Designing a curriculum that meets the needs of all students while still achieving the desired outcomes can be a challenge, as it may require differentiation or individualization.
  • Integration into Existing Curriculum: Integrating backward design into an existing curriculum can be tricky. You have to reconcile the new approach with existing course structures, textbooks, and assessments, which is a complex process.

Strategies for Overcoming Backward Learning Design Challenges

  • Start small– Don’t try to implement a backward design for all of your courses at once. Start with one or two courses and then gradually expand your use of backward design over time.
  • Have a mentor or colleague who can help you to learn more about backward design. There are also many resources available online and in professional development workshops.
  • Use existing resources– There are several resources available to help you implement backward design. These resources include books, articles, websites, and professional development workshops.
  • Adjust the backward design to fit your needs– There is no one-size-fits-all approach to backward design. The most important thing is to use an approach that works for you and your students.

Resources to Help You Improve Your Backward Design Skills

There are several professional development opportunities to enhance your backward design skills. Here are the most popular:

  • Professional development workshops: These workshops provide you with the knowledge and skills you need to implement backward design effectively.
  • Online courses: There are several online courses available on backward design. These courses can be a convenient and affordable way for educators to learn about backward design.
  • Books and articles: Reading books and articles like this provides you with in-depth information about backward design and how to implement it effectively.

Backward Design Resources:

Here’s a list of resources to help you understand and seamlessly adopt backward design:


Backward design is a systematic and intentional way to ensure that students are learning relevant topics. It focuses on equipping students with the information and skills they need not what needs to be covered.

We hope this guide helps you to plan engaging and effective learning experiences for your students.

  • Moradeke Owa
  • on 10 min read


You may also like:

9 Types of Educational Assessment

Throughout the learning process, the teacher needs to track how well students understand the different subject matters being

12 min read
What is the Spacing Effect? What Educators Need To Know

Introduction Like the popular quote by Alexander Pope, “A little learning is a dangerous thing, drink deep or taste, not the Pierian...

16 min read
What is Andragogy: Definition, Principles & Application

Introduction Andragogy, or adult learning theory, is a field of study that focuses on how adults learn. It is an interdisciplinary field...

7 min read
Mass Shootings: How to Prepare for The Next Gun Violence Attack

In the wake of recent mass shootings and various violent firearm attacks, the debate on gun violence and gun control has once again come...

8 min read

Formplus - For Seamless Data Collection

Collect data the right way with a versatile data collection tool. Try Formplus and transform your work productivity today.
Try Formplus For Free