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Backward design: How can meaningful assessment empower students?

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell






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Backward design, according to the Glossary of Education Reform, is “a process that educators use to design learning experiences and instructional techniques to achieve specific learning goals.” Coined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, this approach is also called Understanding by Design (UbD). This approach to curricular planning emphasizes outcomes and assessment as foundational to content and instruction planning.

As educators, we strive to create meaningful learning experiences for all types of learners that lead to deep understanding and mastery for our students. One approach that can greatly enhance curriculum planning and instructional design is by using the backward design framework. In this blog, we will explore what backward design entails, provide an example to illustrate its implementation, and outline the steps involved in this powerful approach.

What is backward design?

Traditionally, educators often design the curriculum with a focus on the content and instructional strategies first. They may know the learning goals they want to achieve, but they begin with things like important scholars in the field or seminal concepts and how they want to present that information to their students via their teaching. This process has sometimes been called a forward design process.

In a backward design or backwards mapping model, educators start their curricular planning process by first identifying the intended learning objectives of a unit or course. In a “backward” manner, the learning objectives then inform and determine assessment, and then educators decide content (such as scholarship and concepts) and instruction. As Danielle Leboff puts it: “With this clear target in place, educators are better equipped to teach. In turn, students have a clearer understanding of expectations. Backward design provides a relevant context for students as they engage in learning activities. It enables students to envision a focused pathway to success.”

The goal of backward design, then, is to ensure what is taught and how it is taught is directly tied to the assessments and together, they help students learn what they are expected to learn.

What is the backward design approach?

As mentioned above, backward design is an instructional design framework that starts with the end goal in mind. This approach ensures that every component of the curriculum is purposefully designed to facilitate student achievement of the desired learning objectives.

When Wiggins and McTighe developed Understanding by Design in 1998, they looked at backward design and detailed their UbD approach on seven key tenets:

  • Learning is enhanced when teachers think purposefully about curricular planning. The UbD framework helps this process without offering a rigid process or prescriptive recipe.
  • The UbD framework helps focus curriculum and teaching on the development and deepening of student understanding and transfer of learning (i.e., the ability to effectively use content knowledge and skill).
  • Understanding is revealed when students autonomously make sense of and transfer their learning through authentic performance. Six facets of understanding—the capacity to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess—can serve as indicators of understanding.
  • Effective curriculum is planned backward from long-term, desired results through a three-stage design process (Desired Results, Evidence, and Learning Plan). This process helps avoid the common problems of treating the textbook as the curriculum rather than a resource, and activity-oriented teaching in which no clear priorities and purposes are apparent.
  • Teachers are coaches of understanding, not mere purveyors of content knowledge, skill, or activity. They focus on ensuring that learning happens, not just teaching (and assuming that what was taught was learned); they always aim and check for successful meaning making and transfer by the learner.
  • Regularly reviewing units and curriculum against design standards enhances curricular quality and effectiveness, and provides engaging and professional discussions.
  • The UbD framework reflects a continual improvement approach to student achievement and teacher craft. The results of our designs— student performance—inform needed adjustments in curriculum as well as instruction so that student learning is maximized.

Educators may choose to offer many formative assessment opportunities along the way, in order to check for understanding. A backward design template may be helpful for educators as they begin planning a unit with a UbD framework.

What are the stages of backward design?

According to the Wiggins and McTighe model, the backward design model establishes course curriculum through three stages.

Stage 1: Identify the desired results

Start by clearly defining the learning outcomes or objectives that you want your students to achieve. These should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).

Stage 2: Determine acceptable evidence of learning

Decide on the assessment methods that will provide evidence of student learning. This can include tests, projects, presentations, or portfolios. Align the assessments with the desired results to ensure they accurately measure student mastery of the identified objectives.

Stage 3: Plan the learning experiences and instruction

Once the desired results and assessments are established, focus on designing the learning experiences that will help students achieve the desired outcomes. Select instructional strategies, resources, and activities that align with the objectives and engage students in meaningful learning.

Often teachers will follow up these three stages with notes on “Supporting skills and knowledge” and “Assessment and reflection” to wholly round out the lesson plan. But either way, it’s clear to see that by starting with the end in mind, educators can ensure that every aspect of their instruction supports the desired learning outcomes. Embracing backward design empowers teachers to facilitate deep understanding and meaningful learning experiences for their students, ultimately leading to improved educational outcomes.

What is an example of backwards design?

Effective curriculum planning is crucial for all subject areas and instructors. It can be challenging, however, to pivot a curriculum planning session if a faculty or learning team has not utilized backward design before. Time and budget constraints often prevent a program from trying new frameworks such as this, so we asked ChatGPT to create a backward design lesson for us. In our query, we requested a backward design specifically tailored to an English composition class, highlighting meaningful learning experiences to foster students' writing proficiency. Below is the outcome (with some human input and editing, of course):

Stage 1: Identify the desired learning outcome

  • Instructors should clearly define the learning objective: "Students will be able to construct a well-organized argumentative essay with effective use of evidence and persuasive techniques."
  • It is also meaningful to explain the practical significance of this skill in various academic disciplines and real-life contexts, such as a lawyer preparing a defense in court or a politician presenting a new idea to their constituents.

Stage 2: Determine acceptable assessments and evidence of learning

  • Educators need to describe the assessment method: "Students will submit an argumentative essay on a given topic, demonstrating their ability to present a clear thesis, support it with evidence, and employ persuasive techniques." With the help of rubrics, instructors should discuss the criteria for successful completion, including logical structure, coherence, evidence integration, and persuasive strategies.

Stage 3: Plan the instructional strategies and learning activities

  • Instructors can introduce the elements of argumentative writing, such as thesis statements, supporting evidence, counter arguments, and persuasive techniques. It’s beneficial to provide interactive examples and model essays to illustrate effective argumentation and use of evidence. Draft Coach is an excellent tool to use at this stage, as it offers students real-time writing feedback on grammar, punctuation, and citation.
  • From there, facilitated class discussions and small-group activities will allow students to analyze and evaluate argumentative texts and share their perspectives. Students can engage in writing exercises and peer feedback sessions to refine their own arguments and writing skills. PeerMark™ is a great way to structure peer review sessions, with the option to choose whether the submissions are anonymous or attributed.

Supporting skills and knowledge

  • It can be helpful to identify prerequisite skills and knowledge required for successful argumentative writing, so some instructors may choose to review foundational concepts, including critical thinking, logical reasoning, research skills, and effective use of sources.
  • The Source Credibility Pack, developed by our Turnitin team of veteran educators, offers resources that support students’ ability to critically analyze components of a source in order to determine whether it is a valid, trustworthy, and reliable source of information for the intended purpose. Instructors can use this pack to guide students through the process of locating and incorporating credible sources into their writing.

Closure and Application

  • Instructors can summarize the key elements of constructing an argumentative essay with effective use of evidence and persuasive techniques and again, connect the lesson to authentic, real-world applications, emphasizing the relevance of persuasive writing in various fields and contexts.
  • Authentic learning and authentic assessment both enhance student acquisition of new skills and knowledge because the learning connects directly to situations in real life. Educators can assign an independent writing assignment, allowing students to apply their newly acquired skills and demonstrate their understanding.

Assessment and reflection

  • Instructors can collect and assess students' argumentative essays to evaluate their understanding and progress toward the learning objective. It’s imperative to provide constructive feedback, highlighting areas of strength and areas for improvement in their arguments, evidence use, and persuasive techniques.
  • Using QuickMarks and Voice Comments in Turnitin Feedback Studio allows educators to easily and effectively provide personalized feedback on every paper. Within the feedback, it’s helpful to encourage students to reflect on their writing process, identifying successful strategies and areas where they faced challenges, perhaps even employing “Where to Next?” pointers.

Starting with the desired learning outcome and designing assessments and instructional strategies to support that objective, instructors empower students to construct well-organized, persuasive essays. Through interactive activities, peer collaboration, and real-world connections, it’s clear that this approach equips students with the essential skills to communicate effectively and make their voices heard.

And beyond the humanities, backward design can be applied to a variety of subjects, including STEM courses; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers several examples from MIT subjects. Additionally, Sarah Kesty offers four ways students can use backward planning in their own lives, boosting their execution function skills and applying this concept to their academic and personal growth.

What does it mean to operationalize learning?

In a backward design model, educators focus on operationalizing learning goals, objectives, and outcomes. Operationalizing learning outcomes means figuring out how an outcome statement or expectation plays out in the real world. For example, what does having strong communication skills look like in a professional setting? Operationalizing learning goals and objectives helps the educators realize and articulate what students really must be able to do or demonstrate in applicable contexts. It means laying out the steps and expectations involved and demystifying expectations. The outcomes don’t remain an abstract concept differently interpreted by each educator. The operationalizing of the outcomes helps educators identify clear and relevant skills, knowledge, attitudes, habits, and/or behavior that they want to see in their students.

Operationalizing the outcomes also helps build consensus among educators regarding what is important for students to learn and what is ancillary. It helps them align their own differing expectations. They must now collectively agree on what a student should learn and be able to demonstrate. Thus, backward design helps educators better plan their teaching so that it is effective and also helps them better scaffold the curriculum in their program or course for greater student learning and success.

Once the operationalizing of outcomes is done, the next step is to determine how to assess the outcomes. This focus on assessment is step two of the backward design/UbD process. Backward design prompts authentic assessments—i.e., assessments that reflect real world scenarios and situations. These authentic assessments capture student grasp of the operationalized outcomes and objectives. Knowing how they are going to evaluate their students helps educators recognize what their students need to be taught to perform well on those assessments. It reduces implicit biases in assessment design.

The third and final step in backward design is deciding the content and instruction. The content should now focus on what students should know and be able to do and how to help them learn it because the assessment is now a known and well-designed entity. The outcomes and assessments dictate content and instruction rather than the other way around. The content and instruction become more specific, tailored, and relevant for students to achieve the intended outcomes.

What is the role of assessment in backward design?

In all curriculum designing, assessment plays an important role. However, in backward design, there are some important assessment design expectations that should be kept in mind. First, summative assessments must be strongly aligned with the operationalized outcomes and should be able to capture them adequately. Next, they should be authentic and relevant to real-world contexts. Finally, they must play a central role in informing teaching strategies and content covered so that students are well prepared and can be successful in demonstrating their learning via the summative assessments.

Additionally, in backward design, formative assessment plays a very important role in the instruction and scaffolding of content. Formative assessments help instructors and students monitor and address student learning outcomes in an ongoing manner so that student learning needs can be gleaned, and gaps can be closed. Integral to backward design, these formative assessments give educators insight into how well their teaching methods are helping students achieve learning goals.

Educators can use this feedback to iterate, adapt, and pivot teaching practices to better serve students’ needs and support their achievement of learning outcomes. Formative assessments can take many forms but basically give students and educators actionable feedback. Ongoing assessments and feedback can help students understand their own achievement, strengths, performance, and challenge areas so that they achieve proficiency across the desired learning goals and objectives.

What are the benefits of backward design?

With backward design, teaching methods, content, and assessments are inherently aligned with learning objectives and standards. This creates coherent, consistent learning experiences for students. From the start, educators make sure students know what they are expected to learn and how they are expected to demonstrate it. Every activity supports learning outcome achievement.

Because backward design bases teaching practices on helping students achieve intended learning outcomes, the expectations become very explicit and aligned, and as a result, students’ grasp of concepts and ideas can improve. The relevance and applicability of what they are learning increases exponentially. A cohesive, backward-designed curriculum can amplify students’ learning of the content against the desired outcomes. It catalyzes their success because they practice skills to demonstrate their learning in their assessments. Learning becomes transparent and because it is aligned, this curricular design process makes learning and performance easier and more intuitive for the student.

In sum: Backward design and meaningful assessment

Overall, the backward design model is meant to work as a curricular planning process that begins from the ends educators want to achieve—i.e., the goals, outcomes, and objectives they want to see our students gain. It requires educators to come together and collaborate to build a program curriculum as they get on the same page during the backward design process and level-set expectations. Designing real-world, authentic assessments helps truly capture whether students have gained the intended learning. These assessments help ensure that the instruction and content is cohesive and precise for students.

Remember, backward design is not a linear process but rather an iterative one. Regular reflection, assessment, and adjustment are key to its successful implementation. By embracing this approach, teachers can make a significant impact on student learning and create a classroom environment that fosters growth, curiosity, and success.

As Jennifer Gonzalez puts it: “Using a process like backward design helps us get better at making these decisions. By making this approach part of our regular practice, we’ll be able to look back on a day, a week, or a year of teaching and say with a lot more certainty that when they were under our care, our students learned.”