Thoughts on Backward Design

 This post will be less organized than most posts; some of these thoughts and ideas are still a little raw.

Backward design – the method by which one begins with the desired end result(s) of an educational program, determines acceptable evidence showing that the result(s) has been achieved, and then creates a plan to teach the skills and content that will lead students to provide that evidence – has been on my mind lately.  It’s one of the core concepts of a college teaching and learning course I co-teach but that’s not why I’ve been thinking about it.

For me, backward design is a “threshold concept;” it’s an idea that changed how I think about teaching and I can’t go back to how I thought prior to this change.  So although I learned and most often use and teach backward design in the context of designing or redesigning a single college course, I’ve been thinking about the role of backward design in different contexts.  For example:

  • I know that backward design has been and is used to develop curricula and not just individual courses.  Today was the first time I got to see firsthand how that plays out with a group of faculty to develop a full 4-year curriculum for this discipline.  I was most struck by how difficult it was to keep true to the backward design philosophy and not get mired down in content coverage and the limitations imposed by the current curriculum.  It was difficult even for me to remain on course as I tried to help facilitate one of the groups of faculty engaged in this process.  I underestimated the increased complexities involved in scaling up the process from a single course to an entire curriculum; it’s not a linear function.
  • There has been quite a bit of discussion lately among student affairs professionals regarding their conference presentations (e.g. this Inside Higher Ed blog post with 30 comments).  Put bluntly, many people are unsatisfied with the current state of these presentations.  Just as backward design can scale up from a class to a curriculum, it can also scale down to a single class session.  And shouldn’t a good 50 minute conference presentation resemble a good 50 minute class session?  So why not systematically apply backward design to conference presentations?  Many conferences seem to try to push presenters in that direction by requiring them to have learning outcomes for their sessions but that isn’t enough.
  • Unfortunately, pedagogy and good teaching practices are not formally taught and emphasized in most student affairs programs so I expect that most student affairs professionals have not been exposed to backward design as a formal process.  That’s a shame because it seems like such a good fit for what student affairs professionals do!  And it fits in so well with the ongoing assessment movement because it so firmly anchors design in measurable outcomes and evidence-based teaching!

Would any student affairs professionals out there want to learn more about backward design and try to apply it to some of your programs?  Please let me know because I’d love to help!  I’m positive this would work out well and I’d love to test these ideas!




7 responses to “Thoughts on Backward Design”

  1. Laura Pasquini Avatar

    With a background in K-12 teacher education, I have always appreciated others who consider the curriculum design approach to developing lessons, programs and more. I recently attended a great workshop on teaching and learning with Pearson, and I was left with some great materials to post about the backward design process. Thanks for reminding me, Kevin. I will get on sharing those resources on my blog soon. I think that there are some valuable ideas and practices when you begin with the end in mind for projects/presentations/lessons. More to come…

  2. Oren Guidry Avatar
    Oren Guidry

    This will probably be off subject but I have used the process for years without a name, developing curriculum (single class, series of classes for a technical skill and courses with continuity from apprentice, journeyman and mastery skills. The Navy used this method (and could still be using it) since at least the early seventies (I remember curriculum dated from the sixties also). Many times curriculum would be developed for a specialized skill; basic, intermediate and advanced. I remember the method used for the intermediate electronics course where I taught a four week section. We wrote curriculum without facilitators and it was a lot more difficult. I have not seen any other documented process but I would hope that if there is any scale/theme to the curriculum, presentation or project that a facilitator is included. I am not suggesting that a solid result could not be achieved without facilitation; I just have first hand experience when using this process with and without facilitation. I think you are right when saying presentations could use the process. I especially think the corporate world could use this process developing a program plan; after all many know what the outcomes should look like… now backward design the success. Love the blog!!

  3. Kevin R. Guidry Avatar

    Not off subject at all, Dad! I’m afraid that this idea has been so influential in my thinking that it’s hard for me to think in any other way. And I’m also sure that it has been around for many, many years even if Wiggins and McTighe didn’t publish Understanding by Design until 2000.

  4. Kevin R. Guidry Avatar

    I should have known that you’d like and appreciate this approach! :) Please do share your resources!

    One strength of well-conducted backward design is that it can take on a normative aspect. In other words, it can not only tell you what to teach but also how to teach it. It’s easy to overlook that and sometimes you have to listen and look really hard to catch the “how.” But if you can catch it then it can make your job as a teacher or presenter so much easier! And it makes your course or presentation so much better!

  5. […] mind. This is the philosophy of instructional design method backward(s) design.  A few weeks back Kevin Guidry shared his thoughts on backwards design, and it got me thinking about how I approach my curriculum and lesson […]

  6. Michelle Rodems Avatar
    Michelle Rodems


    I’m so glad you are relating backwards design to programs (training, etc.). Since the conversation first began about quality of programs, I have been struggling to frame my response. All I could explain was that a 50 min session with breakout groups doesn’t HAVE to be bad – it’s all about teaching (or training…or presenting) well – using strategies that are based in evidence doesn’t negate innovation, either. I think one of the biggest challenges in the classroom can be seen in most conference sessions – the teacher/facilitator/presenter tried to cover too much content. I think backwards design is so helpful at helping those leading the session in setting realistic expectations about what can be learned in a period of time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Kevin R. Guidry Avatar

    Yes! The most common outcome of many of my experiences working with graduate instructors and faculty is that they reduce the amount of material in their course. They do this because in trying to do too much they are actually do very little. It’s really hard for many of them because they truly want to teach students lots of content, techniques, etc. but if they just fly through all of that then students aren’t getting any of it anyway because they’re simply not getting adequate practice and feedback. I imagine that programs are very similar in that many of them would be much better if they were more focused and instead of trying to cram everything into the program it focused on the essential ideas or skills so participants can practice the, get feedback, and improve multiple times.

    I think this is all correct but right now I’m really stuck trying to figure out we can really do these things in conference presentations. Maybe information sharing is the best we can do in many cases. But even if that’s the case then I’m not entirely sure why we have to spend so much time and money just to listen to people talk about things when they could just as easily share their information in much more cost-efficient and long-lasting ways. Maybe we should add a question for conference program evaluators asking “Is a conference presentation really the best way to share this information or teach this skill?” and if the answer is “no” then we (graciously) turn down the proposed presentation. Just like some of us believe that class time is too precious to waste doing things that can easily be done outside of class (e.g. introducing new ideas via reading, “flipping the classroom”) maybe we should view our time together at conferences in the same light.

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