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Wiggins and McTighe, define backward course design best in their book Understanding by Design:

Backward design may be thought of as purposeful task analysis: Given a task to be accomplished, how do we get there? Or one might call it planned coaching: What kinds of lessons and practices are needed to master key performance? The approach to the curricular design we advocate is logically forward and commonsensical but backward in terms of conventional habits, whereby teachers typically think in terms of a series of activities (as in the apples unit is presented in the introduction) or how best to cover a topic (as in the world history vignette).

The backward design approach also departs from another common practice: thinking about assessment as something we do at the end, once teaching is complete. Rather than creating assessments near the conclusion of a unit of study (or relying on the tests provided by textbook publishers, which may not completely or appropriately assess our standards), backward design calls for us to operationalize our goals or standards in terms of assessment evidence as we begin to plan a unit or course. Backward design reminds us to begin with the question, What would we accept as evidence that students have attained the desired understandings and proficiencies – before proceeding to plan teaching and learning experiences?

Many teachers who have adopted this design approach report that the process of “thinking as an assessor” about evidence of learning helps them to clarify their goals which results in a more sharply defined teaching and learning target, greater coherence among desired results, key performances, and teaching and learning experiences results in better student performance – the purpose of design.

Wiggins, G., McTighe, J. “What is Backward Design?,” in Understanding by Design. 1st edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall, 2001, pp. 8.

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