Skip to content
ascd logo

September 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 1

The Fundamentals of Backward Planning

author avatar
premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Instructional Strategies
Given the multitude of daily challenges they face, it's easy for new teachers to fall into poor unit- or lesson-planning habits. These often include racing for maximum textbook coverage, setting up a series of haphazard activities, focusing on multiple-choice "test prep," or failing to help students apply or contextualize their learning. One prominent method to help educators avoid these traps is "backward design"—essentially curriculum planning that begins with establishing clear learning goals (with a focus on in-depth understanding) and then works backward to determine how to get students there. As outlined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in the education classic Understanding by Design (ASCD, 2005), backward design—also known as "backward planning"—is made up of a three-stage planning sequence:

1. Identify Desired Learning Results

Establish learning goals for the unit, drawing from content standards and curriculum expectations. To prioritize the learning you'll want to cover (or target), consider:


Guiding Concept: A unit should be framed around "enduring understandings" and related essential questions.

2. Determine Acceptable Evidence

Prior to designing lessons and instruction, determine how you'll know if students have achieved your desired learning results. Consider a range of assessment approaches to document learning, including:
  • Basic assessments (quizzes, tests, and skill checks) to measure factual knowledge and discrete skills.
  • Open-ended academic prompts requiring critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis.
  • Performance tasks and projects designed to demonstrate understanding and application of knowledge/skills in authentic contexts.
Guiding Concept: While a unit should be anchored by a performance task or project, assessment evidence should be gathered over time rather than viewed as a one-time, culminating event.

3. Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction

Based on the desired learning results and evidence of learning you've identified, plan instructional activities and teaching strategies. In planning instruction, consider:
  • What instruction and learning activities (e.g., direct instruction, guided practice, discussion, cooperative learning) will help students acquire targeted knowledge and skills, make meaning of "big ideas," and be able to transfer their learning?
  • How will you use assessments to provide ongoing feedback to students?
  • What materials and resources (beyond the textbook) might best support the learning goals?
Guiding Concept: Ensure that the overall instructional design for the unit is coherent and oriented around the "enduring understandings" and transfer. As you plan, always keep the end in mind!
For more information, see Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design, expanded 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Jay McTighe contributed updated material, based on more recent writings, to this piece.

Jay McTighe has a varied career in education. He served as director of the Maryland Assessment Consortium, a collaboration of school districts working to develop and share formative performance assessments and helped lead standards-based reforms at the Maryland State Department of Education. Prior to that, he helped lead Maryland’s standards-based reforms, including the development of performance-based statewide assessments.

Well known for his work with thinking skills, McTighe has coordinated statewide efforts to develop instructional strategies, curriculum models, and assessment procedures for improving the quality of student thinking. He has extensive experience as a classroom teacher, resource specialist, program coordinator, and in professional development, as a regular speaker at national, state, and district conferences and workshops.

McTighe is an accomplished author, having coauthored more than a dozen books, including the award-winning and best-selling Understanding by Design® series with Grant Wiggins. He has written more than 50 articles and book chapters and has been published in leading journals, including Educational Leadership (ASCD) and Education Week.

UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN® and UbD® are registered trademarks of Backward Design, LLC used under license.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
Instructional Strategies
Performance Tasks or Projects? Complementary Approaches for Student Engagement
Jay McTighe
3 weeks ago

Related Articles

From our issue
Product cover image 120036b.jpg
What New Teachers Need
Go To Publication