Key Terms: Backward Design

Think of it as pedagogy’s way of rephrasing Lenin’s maxim, “The end determines the means.” With much more positive results.

Rather than start with the means – lectures, textbooks, exams, and the rest – Backward Design begins at the end. What should students learn? What should they know or be able to do? These questions require us to formulate an objective, one that might go something like, “Students should be able to compare the causes of the Civil War in terms of their relative importance.” Within the framework of Backward Design, the student’s assimilation of content (often an end in itself) – becomes a means to something that requires higher order thinking: applying content in the practice and performance of transferable skills.

With a skills-based objective in mind, backward design prompts more questions: How will students demonstrate their learning? How will we know that they know? This is where assessment design becomes important. In order for students to demonstrate whether they’ve accomplished the objective we set, the paper they write or the exam they take has to evaluate that objective specifically. Both the form and content of the assessment can facilitate (or hinder) that evaluation. Asking students to provide dates of battles, names of generals, and pre-war compromises assesses recall of facts, but not analysis or argumentation. Similarly, a multiple choice format that asks students to pick the most important cause of the war out of a set of four fails to provide the opportunity for in-depth comparison.  Our sample objective is probably best assessed through an essay format, one that asks students to compare more and less important causes of the Civil War.

Once we’ve designed an assessment, our final task – which brings us to the “front” of Backward Design – is to plan our teaching, which should enable students to complete the assessment successfully, thereby demonstrating their learning. Lecturing, primary and secondary readings, student presentations and debates are all possible ways of structuring student learning towards the eventual assessment. Because we’ve designed our assessment based on a worthwhile objective, it becomes appropriate to “teach to the test.” After all, we want students to meet (or exceed) the challenge we set for them, especially when their accomplishment is proof that they learned exactly what we intended them to learn from the very beginning. And there’s nothing “backward” about that.

Further Reading: Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.

Related Topics: Designing Objectives (see also: Bloom’s Taxonomy), Assessment, Lesson Planning

2 thoughts on “Key Terms: Backward Design

  1. This is a really helpful summary of a powerful technique! Backward Design has been a great help to me in my own section planning– I find that if I am clear with myself about what the punchline is, even if the discussion gets a little off track or the activities don’t go exactly as planned, it’s easy to bring it back around at the end. The students seem to really appreciate the focus, too.

    It’s a great example of a pedagogical technique that gets taught to K-12 educators, but can also work for those of us teaching in higher ed. I’ll definitely pass this on to our Teaching Practicum students!

  2. Pingback: Understanding By Design « the Bok Blog

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