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Backward Design

Using backward design to assist teachers in creating effective service learning curriculum

By March 30, 2020April 14th, 2020No Comments

Backward Design, which is also known as Understanding by Design (UbD), is a planning framework that has gained popularity over the past 20 years within the field of education. Developed by Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins. The most evident feature of this framework is the focus on looking at teaching and learning outcomes first and designing coursework around these. By using this framework, the aim is to create proactive students who are able to think critically and understand what they are learning, why they are learning it, and are able to apply what they are learning into real-world situations.

What is Backward Design?

Backward Design is a process or model for designing instructional materials where the instructor or instructional designer focuses on the desired end results (i.e., the learning outcome) of a unit of instruction. Rather than beginning the planning process with a focus on supporting exercises, resources or long-used textbooks, the designer focuses on the learning and begins the design process by asking what learners should be able to understand and do after the provided instruction. The designer then identifies what types of evidence are sufficient proof of the desired end result. The designer works “backwards” from that end goal and intentionally plans and develops supporting instruction and learning experiences around the desired outcomes and evidence[1]. It is a way for all educators to be able to design and collaborate to create effective teaching and learning units.

Backward Design can be summarized in a three-stage process[2]:

  1. Identify Desired Outcomes: Articulate what learners should know, understand, and be able to do after provided instruction.
  2. Identify Acceptable Evidence: Determine what types of assessments and measures would clarify (or serve as evidence of) when and whether students can perform the desired outcome.
  3. Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction: Develop learning exercises, materials and instruction around the desired outcomes and evidence.

Backward Design and Teaching

Backward Design is focused on improving student understanding but emphasizes the critical role that teachers play in how they design for student learning. This framework work helps teachers clarify learning goals/targets, devise revealing assessments of student understanding and craft effective and engaging learning activities[3].

The first stage of the framework requires teachers to identify desired outcomes or learning goals for the coursework. In their outline of the Backwards Design Framework, Wiggins & McTighe mention four key educational goals to consider, these include[4]:

  • Knowledge Goals – specify what students should know—factual information (state capitals, multiplication tables), vocabulary terms, and basic concepts (climate, balance).
  • Basic Skills Goals– state what students should be able to do. Every subject area contains basic skills (addition, handwriting, drawing, dribbling a basketball) that are essential to building competency and mastery.
  • Understanding Goals – refer to students’ grasp of conceptual “big ideas.” Such ideas are inherently abstract. They may be in the form of concepts (patriotism), principles (F=ma), themes (friendship), issues (government regulations), or processes (problem solving).
  • Long-Term Transfer Goals – refer to students’ capacity to apply what they’ve learned to a new situation or different context. Transfer goals are process oriented; they specify what we want students to be able to do with their learning in the long run when confronted by new opportunities and challenges. They tend to be reflected in the anchor standards or framework practices in official academic standards, but they are often transdisciplinary in nature (encompassing complex skills like critical thinking and collaboration, or developmental Habits of Mind such as persistence and self-regulation).
backward design

The second stage of the Backward Design process will see teachers consider the Evidence of Learning in various types of Assessment; both Formative and Summative.  Providing options for Performance Tasks students will complete, in order to demonstrate evidence of understanding, learning and transfer. Some of the ways in which this can be done include[5]:

  • Portfolios – collections of student work overtime
  • Reflective journals or learning logs
  • Peer reviews and peer response groups
  • Long-term ‘authentic’ projects, for example a senior exhibition
  • Student self-assessments
  • Informal, on-going observations of students
  • Written/ oral responses to academic prompts, for example short-answer format
  • Performance assessment tasks, for example extended written products (essays, lab reports), visual products (PowerPoint, mural), oral performances (oral report, foreign language dialogues) and demonstrations (skill performance in physical education)
  • Selected-response format, for example multiple-choice and true-false quizzes and tests
  • Formal observations of students using observable indicators or criterion list

Once the goals for the unit, and assessment measures have been decided on, teachers can begin Stage 3 of the Backwards Design framework and plan their Learning Experiences and instruction. All instructional materials and activities should be designed with the learning goals and assessment in mind. The six facets of understanding should be utilized in the unit design as they are important for students to be able to demonstrate how they understand;

  1. Explanation– Why is it so?
  2. Interpretation- Why does it matter?
  3. Application- How, Where, and Why apply knowledge and skills?
  4. Perspective- What is another way to look at this?
  5. Empathy– What do they feel, see, know that I don’t?
  6. Self Knowledge– What are my blind spots,  prejudice, bias?

There are many learning methods that could be incorporated into lesson planning, these include:

  • Experiential learning activities
  • Group discussions
  • Role play
  • Hands-on Inquiry
  • Project-based learning

Backward Design as the basis for service-learning unit integration

The Backward Design framework is an effective tool that can be used to create service-learning units of conceptual Inquiry. The framework is designed to create units  that enable; critical thinking, problem-solving and student engagement. An essential aspect of creating a service-learning unit integration is to foster student understanding around what they are learning, how they are learning and why they are learning it.

Using this framework to create service-learning units ensures that students understand the bigger picture, that what they learn in the classroom is connected to their experiences outside of the classroom. This way of learning equips students with the tools needed to function in society and overcome any challenges they may experience through their studies and in life in general. To be able to apply their learning in meaningful ways with the community. 


Download a free Backward Design template here 

[1] Bowen, Ryan S. (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved on September 7, 2017 from

[2] JenS246, “Backward Design,” in Learning Theories, September 16, 2017,

[3] Hawker Brownlow Education (2013) What is Understanding by Design? Author Jay McTighe explains. [Online video]. Available at: [Accessed:19/02/2020]

[4] McTighe, J. (2018). Three Key Questions on Measuring Learning. Measuring What Matters, February 2018 ,Volume 75,Number 5. Available at: (Accessed:19/02/2020)

[5] Bowen, Ryan S., (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [todaysdate] from

Tara Barton

Tara brings passion and a deep understanding of service learning, rooted in years of experience, to her training. Her training builds bridges from theory to implementation while generously sharing her resources and knowledge to ensure our success. Tara works with the whole school (administration, teachers, students, and SL leaders) to build a sustainable program that is embedded in the curriculum and tied to the mission. She energized a faculty on a Friday afternoon, no easy feat, leaving them with a desire to learn more about SL and to become more involved. I cannot recommend Tara highly enough.

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