How to Use Backward Design to Create Lesson Plans: 3-Step Process

I was first introduced to backward design through my career in educational publishing, but didn’t really understand the implications of it until I began developing lessons to teach during my practicum. It’s easy to plan lessons based on activities you want students to do, but this can result in losing focus on what concepts students are ultimately expected to understand.

The main idea of backward design is to plan lessons with a final goal and assessment in mind. Rather than deciding how you want to teach, you begin by deciding what you want students to know. With this in mind, you can better plan your lessons and units to help students achieve a deeper understanding of important concepts and ideas.

With a focus on learning standards and high-stakes testing, most states are already employing a backward design learning model. However, it’s important for teachers to understand how to use the model for planning in their own classrooms on a smaller scale, particularly if they are teaching without a curriculum.

1. Identify the desired results

The first step in backward design is identifying what students should know or be able to do as a result of a lesson. For most teachers, this simply means identifying the standard—or standards—that a lesson will be focused on. Whether your state had adopted the Common Core or an independent set of standards, it’s very likely that your district has already identified what students at each grade level are expected to know.

I know many teachers who plan out their weeks and months based loosely around certain standards to ensure they’re covering everything they need to throughout the school year. As a student teacher, I’ve been designing lessons around standards my mentor teacher has asked me to cover.

For example, when it came to teaching reading and writing, my mentor teacher asked me to focus on standards related to informational texts instead of literature. I decided to focus on standards related to an author’s opinion and supporting evidence in a text, and used them as the basis of my lesson and unit plans.

2. Determine evidence of learning

Once you’ve determined the goal of your lesson, you need to decide what evidence will show that students are mastering that goal. What task(s) will they perform to demonstrate their understanding of a concept?

Assessments can be summative, such as a text or final writing assignment, or formative, such as active participatoin in a class discussion. The important thing is that students are given multiple opportunities to show their learning and that assessments match the learning goals decided upon at the beginning of the design process.

3. Design appropriate instruction

Now that you’ve decided what students will learn and what tasks they will perform to provide evidence of their learning, you can plan instruction. During this final stage, you decide what knowledge and skills students will need to achieve their learning goals, and plan how students will gain that knowledge and those skills.

  • What activities will students do?
  • What resources and materials will they use?
  • What instructional strategies will you employ?

Because you’ve already decided on an ultimate learning goal, it should be easier to develop and implement your lesson’s activities. Backward design helps educators focus their planning to ensure that learning experiences are meaningful and connected in a way that helps students develop a richer understanding and achieve the desired results.

Lisandra I. Flynn spent 2012 to 2014 working toward a master’s degree in elementary education while working full time as an editor. After seven years in publishing, she recently transitioned from corporate life to student teach fifth grade in an elementary school. Flynn shares her journey from the office to the classroom and offers insight and advice to those seeking their own career change.