Backward Design

This week we were to find an article that discussed an instructional design model that was unfamiliar to us. I decided to choose the Backward Design model. This model centers around achieving results-focused student-centered learning. The steps as stated by Wiggins & McTighe (n.d, para. 11-13) are to “identify desired results . . . determine acceptable evidence . . .  [and] plan learning experiences and instruction.” Reynolds and Kearns (2016) rephrase them by stating that instructors and instructional designers should begin by creating the learning outcomes, then transition to choosing the most appropriate assessments, and finish by developing the learning activities.

Some critics of this model have said that it is essentially teaching to the test (Culetta, 2013) but I propose that all standardized educational efforts are ultimately teaching to the test, and using Backward Design actually increases instructional design responsibility and accountability by clearly linking the elements of course design to the learning expectations (aka the test). We have standardized testing in elementary and secondary schools, entrance exams for higher education, and certification exams for professional and technical jobs. This model simply asks instructors and instructional designers to think about what they expect students to learn and why as well as design the instruction to meet those expectations.

The instructional design model that I am most familiar with is ADDIE. With ADDIE, you start by determining the needs of the client, move to designing and developing the product, transition to the implementation stage to receive feedback, and then based on the feedback, evaluate the design. With Backward Design, you literally start the design process in reverse. You begin with what you want your learners to accomplish and why. The instructional design is built with the end results in mind, the learning outcomes. The assessments and learning activities align with the learning outcomes because they are developed later and designed around them (Reynolds & Kearns, 2016; Wiggins & McTighe, n.d.). Backward design is similar to ADDIE in that it still requires the instructional designer to use the ADDIE stages. It’s just how you go about that process that’s changed.

I could see myself using the Backward Design method in the future. Pausing to think about what do I really expect students to learn from my instruction and why is useful. Doing so, could save me design time in the long run. By starting my design with solid learning outcomes and developing assessments and activities that fulfill those outcomes, the process should be easier than trying to reverse-fit the outcomes with already planned activities. Those pre-planned activities may or may not result in students learning what I really want them to.

Theories and models are different. A theory is based on principles or ideas (Merriam-Webster, n.d.) and is intangible. A model gives you an example or a pattern to follow and tends to be concrete. In addition, models incorporate or use theories as their foundation. Think of policy and procedure. A policy (theory) gives you the rules, and possibly even the assumptions and reasoning for establishing the rules. A procedure (model) gives you the steps to take action and create something. It’s the same with instructional design. Our models are built around the different learning theories. I believe that the differences between a theory and a model should matter to clients. When the instructional designer can show the client that the design or model for the end product is built using a sound learning theory, it should add weight and validity to the design. As instructional designers, we want our clients to have confidence in our work.


Culetta, R. (2013). Backward Design. Instructional Design. Retrieved from

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Theory. Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary. Retrieved from

Reynolds, H. L., & Kearns, K. D. (2016). A planning tool for incorporating backward design, active learning, and authentic assessment in the college classroom. College Teaching, 1-11. doi:10.1080/87567555.2016.1222575

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (n.d). Understanding by design. Edutopia. Retrieved from

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