3 Basic Steps of Backward Design Lesson Plans [+FAQs]

Woman writing on sticky notes creating a lesson plan

Backwards lesson planning might sound like a New Age approach to teaching, but it’s actually a proven method for increasing learning retention and student success. The concept was popularized by educators and authors Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their 1998 book Understanding by Design, which provides a framework for planning lessons by starting at the end and working — well, backwards!

In backward design, educators start by identifying or creating a final assessment, then building their lessons toward that specific end. Traditionally, educators identify course content they need to cover, design their lessons accordingly, then create the final assessment. While the traditional approach may work in some cases, there are some significant flaws and challenges. The backward design model seeks to avoid those challenges by encouraging teachers to be much more intentional in their curriculum development and make the most out of class time. 

Backward design helps educators focus on their students’ process of learning, rather than on their own teaching. This student-centered approach consists of three primary steps: identifying the desired results, gathering evidence of learning and then designing the content.

Step 1: Identify the Desired Results
Step 2: Gather Evidence of Learning
Step 3: Design Content for Instruction
Traditional Design vs. Backward Design
3 Examples of Backward Design
FAQs About Backwards Lesson Planning
Helpful Resource Links

Step 1: Identify the Desired Results

First, consider the goals of the course, unit or lesson. What do you want students to know or be able to do at the end — explain how cells work? Demonstrate long division? Read an entire book without help? Backward lesson design begins with identifying a specific desired outcome. 

Academic standards usually provide the best direction for educational goals. For example, according to the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, students should be able to understand the concept of ratios by the end of sixth grade. Their proficiency is typically measured through standardized testing. It is the teacher’s job to determine, via backward lesson design, how their students will reach the necessary level of proficiency.

Once you know the standards your students are expected to meet by a certain grade level, make a list of all the foundational knowledge they need to reach that goal. Using the ratio example, the teacher would need to ensure their students have a solid understanding of multi-digit multiplication, division, factors and multiples. If students enter sixth grade without competent skills in these areas, the teacher will need to build appropriate units into their lesson plans to achieve the year-end goal of understanding ratios. 

Follow these practices when designing your backward lesson plans: 

  • Know exactly what the applicable standards require students to know. 
  • Set clear, achievable and measurable learning goals and communicate them to your students (if appropriate).
  • Design your lessons with the applicable standards/standardized assessments in mind and adjust accordingly if needed. 
  • Prioritize collaborative, student-centered learning over more traditional, teacher-centered learning; students can tell when lessons seem mechanical. 
  • Determine how each individual planned lesson, activity or learning engagement contributes to students’ success.  
  • For non-standardized assessments, determine how students’ test performance will affect their final grade. 

Above all, approach your lesson planning not by asking “What do I need to teach?” but rather, “What do my students need to learn or be able to do?” and “How well do they need to perform to demonstrate their understanding?”

Step 2: Gather Evidence of Learning

All the lesson planning in the world won’t necessarily guarantee that students will retain and master new concepts. To gauge effectiveness and find evidence of learning, you’ll need to plan regular mini-assessments throughout the course of a unit or lesson. 

The backward design model begins with creating or identifying the goals of final assessment, but the actual lesson plans should include regular formative assessments like short quizzes, peer evaluations, discussions, one-on-one student-teacher interviews and student self-reflections. Since students will be only part of the way through the unit, and therefore may not yet have mastered the content, the goal of these mini-assessment will be to gauge abilities like critical thinking, inquiry, problem-solving and foundational knowledge. 

You can (and should) build your lessons around two or three types of assessments to gather evidence of learning:

  1. The final assessment at the end of the course or unit.
  2. Preliminary “diagnostic” assessments to check students’ existing knowledge at the start of the course or unit.
  3. Progress assessments to gauge students’ understanding along the way, such as pop quizzes, individual reflections or homework assignments.

Step 3: Design Content for Instruction

Now it’s time to actually create your lesson plans! Your backwards lesson planning should incorporate both instructional strategies and instructional activities. 

Instructional strategies are the teaching methods by which you present new information to your students. Methods can include teacher-centered approaches like demonstrations or lectures, or student-centered approaches like peer discussion and inquiry-based learning.  

Instructional activities are the specific ways in which students interact with the course content. These activities run the gamut from watching educational videos, creating posters or presentations, completing a group project or playing learning-based games. 
Successful lesson plans often contain a mix of instructional strategies and activities, since asking students to adapt to different modes of learning is an effective way to keep them engaged.

Traditional Design vs. Backward Design

There are merits to both traditional lesson planning and backward lesson design, but key differences can create challenges for some teachers and students. 

An educator who follows traditional lesson design will typically take these steps: 

  1. Identify a topic or piece of content that needs to be covered in class based on academic standards. 
  2. Create a sequence of lessons that teach that topic. 
  3. Develop an assessment to measure student’s learning during the lesson phase. 

Unlike in backward lesson design, the assessment here is created after the lessons. Therefore, a teacher could risk omitting certain facets of the lessons from the final assessment, only acknowledging in hindsight that they probably could have saved valuable class time by skipping certain units or activities. When an assessment is created after the lessons have taken place, a teacher risks covering course content that does not add value to the overall lesson or factor into the final assessment. 

Furthermore, when a teacher designs a lesson without a plan for the final assessment, they may be tempted to add activities or units to the lesson just for the sake of filling class time. Students of all ages know when they are asked to do something pointless in class; they can spot “busy work” from a mile away, and will disengage as they see fit

As we’ve discussed, backward lesson design takes the opposite approach. In this case, the teacher will: 

  1. Determine what students should know by the end of a particular lesson or unit.
  2. Create the assessment that will measure students’ learning. 
  3. Build a lesson or course that will prepare students for maximum success on that assessment.  

Some teachers may fear that backward design emphasizes “teaching to the test,” which puts unfair pressure on students to learn for the sake of the final assessment. However, it is up to the skilled teacher to emphasize the process of gaining new knowledge, as opposed to acing the final test. While it can be difficult to grasp at first, backward design encourages educators to be intentional with their lesson planning, since it imbues the class time with a specific purpose. 

It helps to communicate the purpose to students as well. Knowing what the end goal is will encourage them to take ownership of their learning and lend meaning to their class participation. 

3 Examples of Backward Design

The following examples are simply suggestions for what creating backward design lesson plans might look like. When creating your own lesson plans, please refer to your state’s or school’s specific academic standards. 

The Boston Tea Party

According to the History–Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools, students should be able to explain the causes of the American Revolution by grade 5. Within this standard, students should understand the political, religious and economic causes as well as the significance of the Continental Congresses, the

Declaration of Independence and notable figures like King George III, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

  1. Assessment: By the end of a unit on the economic tensions between Great Britain and the American colonies, students will write a letter from the point of view of a colonist either defending or criticizing the Boston Tea Party protest.
  2. Learning: Through direct instruction, in-class readings, group discussions and/or educational videos, students will become familiar with the origin of the tax on British tea imports, how it affected everyday life in the colonies, who the Sons of Liberty were and the series of events that occurred in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. 
  3. Progress: Students should be able to demonstrate their growing understanding of the who, what, when, where and why of the event through short quizzes, take-home assignments and in-class activities. 
  4. Outcome: For their final assessment, students will read their letters aloud to the class. If time allows, responses and respectful debates are encouraged. 

The Lunar Cycle

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) state that, by grades 6–8, students should be able to “develop and use a model of the Earth-sun-moon system to describe the cyclic patterns of lunar phases, eclipses of the sun and moon, and seasons.” To achieve this, a unit on moon cycles might be designed to look like this: 

  1. Assessment: For their final assessment, students will design, construct and present a working model of the sun, moon and Earth. The model can be two- or three-dimensional, but must contain moving parts. Students must be able to demonstrate and interpret their model to the rest of the class. 
  2. Learning: Initial lesson content may feature videos, direct instruction from the teacher, flash cards and/or the opportunity to interact with an existing version of the final assessment (a working model of the orbiting bodies). 
  3. Progress: Progress assessments can take the form of matching quizzes (“match the moon phase to the correct image!”), worksheets or teacher-led question-and-answer sessions.
  4. Outcome: By the time students are ready to begin developing their own model, each should be able to explain the lunar cycle in their own words. This will also serve as preparation for their final presentation.  

Literary Metaphor

By grades 11–12, students in California public schools should be able to “use precise language, domain-specific vocabulary, and techniques such as metaphor, simile, and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic,” in works of literature.

  1. Assessment: For their final assessment in a unit on poetry, students will write an original poem built around a metaphor for their own lives. 
  2. Learning: First, students will read Billy Collins’ poem “Cliché,” which describes the poet’s life as a book. Students will identify all instances of metaphor, simile and personification. Next, they’ll brainstorm metaphors and similes for their own lives. Students may engage in open discussions with others or the teacher in order to further develop their ideas.  
  3. Progress: Before they write their final poem, students should be able to define and give examples of figurative language via quizzes, worksheets and other in-class assessments. 
  4. Outcome: Students will be able to effectively use figurative language as it relates to their own experiences in a way that others can understand. 

FAQs About Backwards Lesson Planning

What is backward design?

Backward design in education is a lesson planning strategy that starts with the final assessment, then asks teachers to build their lessons toward that goal. This differs from transitional lesson design, in which teachers identify content they need to cover, build relevant lessons, then create the final assessment. Backward lesson design encourages teachers to be more intentional about their lesson plans and ensures that they make the best use of class time.

How can I measure evidence of student learning?

Besides the final assessment, teachers can gather evidence of student learning by building regular formative assessments into their lessons or units. Formative assessments can include short quizzes, peer evaluations, discussions, one-on-one student-teacher interviews and student self-reflections. The intention of these progress assessments should be to gauge abilities like critical thinking, inquiry, problem-solving and foundational knowledge as it pertains to the course content.

Interested in more professional development opportunities for teachers? Explore education courses and certificates at the University of San Diego’s Division of Professional and Continuing Education.

Helpful Resource Links

Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe

Exploring the philosophy, process and benefits of backward lesson design. 

5 Reasons Why Continuing Education Matters for Educators

A downloadable guide for teaching professionals from the University of San Diego.

Increase Student Engagement with Well-Crafted Curriculum

A 6-unit, online, self-paced course for K–12 educators seeking to engage students while adhering to standards. 

Designing Impactful Curriculum For Effective Teaching

A 3-unit, online, self-paced course for K–12 educators interested in planning customized curriculum and/or lesson plans.


Download eBook: 5 Reasons Why Continuing Education Matters for Educators