What is Backward Design? (Bunnell review of Wiggins and McTighe)

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2001). What is Backward Design? In G. Wiggins & J. McTighe’s Understanding by Design (p. 7 – 19).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Reviewed by Sarah Bunnell, Department of Psychology, Ohio Wesleyan University slbunnel@owu.edu

Often, when faculty design their courses, they begin the process with the selection of readings and lessons, only later considering how student learning will be assessed and demonstrated. In the first chapter of their book Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe suggest an alternative approach to course design, called backward design, which encourages faculty to use the desired student learning results as the beginning point for course design. Employing a backward design approach, therefore, requires the up-front and explicit statement of the types of skills and understandings we expect students to attain by the end of the course. In the setting of goals for understanding, we must identify and prioritize the core concepts (ideas, processes, skills) that we most value or want our students to take away from our classes. Wiggins and McTighe suggest that when identifying key concepts as goals for student learning, several considerations may inform this selection, such as whether the material is an “enduring concept” that generalizes from the class to larger ideas or principles, whether the material is challenging for students to understand and therefore requires instructor support and clarification, and whether the material is likely to actively engage students in the learning process.

Following the backward design model, once the ultimate goals for student understanding have been identified, the next step in the process is deciding what evidence would meaningfully inform the assessment of how well these goals have been met. A rich understanding of student learning typically requires the collection of a variety of evidence types (e.g., informal quizzes, traditional exams, class performances or projects) collected across the semester. Finally, after goals have been set and evidence identified, only then should learning experiences and activities be designed, and these activities should be structured in such a way as to support students in their attainment of the course learning objectives. In this final phase of backward design, it is helpful to consider the background knowledge and skills that students will need to develop across the semester, on the way toward the development of more advanced, enduring understandings. In this way, teaching becomes a means to an end, and through the use of a backward design model, faculty may be more able to accurately evaluate how well their goals for student understanding have been met.