Backward Design

Sign of man going backwards

Image from

Backward Design

The first time I heard about backward design was back in 2008 when I attended the ACRL Information Literacy Immersion Institute. Debra Gilchrist, Vice President for Learning and Student Success at Pierce College and an expert in assessment, gave an excellent workshop about incorporating different assessment techniques into lesson plans. Although she didn’t use the term, her approach was very similar to what I would later know as backward design.

The main idea in backward design is that when creating lesson plans, you should 1. start with learning outcomes, 2. incorporate assessment and 3. develop the teaching content. The foundation of backward design is the order in which you go through these 3 steps.

As library instructors we all have a natural tendency to rely on methods, content and activities that are comfortable and familiar to us. Backward design helps counter this tendency and ensures that we think of the students first. The main question driving instruction becomes: what do students need to learn and be able to do by the end of the session?

The Workshop

On Friday January 13 Breanna Hamm and Alexandra Stark gave an excellent Instructor College presentation about backward design in which they provided context, shared clear models and generated really interesting conversations. It renewed my enthusiasm in using this method. These are some takeaways:

The idea of backwards design was introduced in Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, first pubished in 1999. There has been continued interest in part because it really adapts well to different learning environments, including online learning. Summarizing, the three stages of backward design are:

1. Identify learning outcomes
What is worthy and requiring of understanding?

2. Determine evidence and assessment
What is evidence of understanding?

3. Design learning activities
What are learning experiences and teaching that promote understanding, interest, and excellence?

In this context, developing sound learning outcomes is crucial. Breanna and Alexandra shared this template to develop SMART learning outcomes:

As a result of participating in (instruction or experience), learners should be able to (action verb) + (defined by explicit and observable terms).


For me, one of the most useful parts of the workshop was being able to reflect on how to prioritize learning outcomes. We discussed several examples and talked about the importance of identifying outcomes as “enduring understanding”, “important to know” or “worth being familiar with”.

In conversation with the presenters, we talked about the fact that for us (librarians teaching mostly one-shots) it's harder to incorporate enduring understanding. For example, if you are teaching a technology session the immediate tasks related to learning how to use a specific tool can prevent thinking about or referring to enduring learning. In this context, how a learning outcome is framed becomes critical. You can state, at the beginning of an instruction session, that the class will cover how to find scholarly articles or you can tell students that you will discuss ways to find reliable information in a world full of fake news. Both ideas might refer to the same activity, but it’s helpful to connect ideas to broader issues and to important, valuable skill in students’ lives.


This model forces you to include assessment methods that are connected to learning outcomes. This prevents instructors from relying just on their pereception (you feel you did a great job) or on student satisfaction (students state that they liked the session) and measures, instead, if students really learned during the workshop. The presenters explained that knowledge that is "important to know" or "enduring understanding" comes across better when the assessment methods used are related more to performance tasks and projects: open-ended, complex, authentic (instead of traditional quizzes and tests).

Learning Activities

Breanna and Alexandra mentioned that it's nice to have flexibility especially in this last step. By saving this step for last the focus is on what’s important to keep (learning outcomes) and what’s more flexible (activities); and tying activities to learning outcomes prevents the pitfall of including an activity just because it's trendy or cool or because everyone is using it.


As mentioned previously, in my instruction I have a tendency  to rely on ideas and techniques that are comfortable to me. This  model has helped me discover methods and activities that are more student-centered and that I might not have considered otherwise. This workshop was thought-provoking and Breanna and Alexandra were able to generate really interesting conversations. Great work!

Here is a link to the workshop slides: