How to Design a Unit Plan Using Backward Design

If an elementary or secondary teacher is not asked to submit daily lesson plans, he or she is asked for unit plans instead. Unit plans allow you to take a broader look at what you would like to accomplish for part of the school year. One of the most meaningful ways to construct a unit plan is by using backward design.


Backward design gained in popularity when Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue published the method in 1998. But, in 1949, Ralph Tyler explained the usefulness of backward design. Backward design allows an educator to look at curriculum based on what the outcomes should be before planning specific activities. This way, teachers and instructors only include related learning activities and not a string of unconnected learning experiences. Backward design has three stages: 1) identifying desired results, 2) determining what can show evidence of learning, and 3) designing learning experiences and instruction. Let’s take a closer look at each stage.

Stage One

     Stage one of backward design—identifying desired results—asks you to think about what is most important. Ask yourself the following: “What is most essential for students to understand?”, “What should students know and be able to do?”, and “What are the enduring understandings (big ideas)?” Answering these questions may seem daunting at first; everything is important. But you must learn to separate out the truly important from what would be nice to know. The best way to do this is to ask, “Will students remember this years from now?” Reviewing your state’s and school’s content standards is a good place to begin to frame your essential questions for what you want your students to know and understand.

Stage Two

     Stage two—determining acceptable evidence—helps prove that students are meeting the planned standards and outcomes. Think of this stage as choosing what would go in someone’s portfolio to show his or her expertise. Checks for understanding can be formal or informal, simple or complex, and/or traditional or nontraditional. Some suggestions include: quizzes, tests, projects, essays, and demonstrations. Complex, open-ended, authentic assessments are preferred.

Stage Three

Stage three—planning learning experiences and instruction—is when activities are decided. This is the stage where most teachers will feel at home. But remember, every activity must link to the essential questions and goals established. So, there are still questions that need to be answered before determining activities, like: “What activities will provide students with the desired knowledge and skills?”, “What materials and resources will work best to meet the goals?’, and “Does the overall sequence of activities make sense?” You may need to eliminate some of the engaging activities you developed or incorporated in years past. While these activities may be engaging, fun, and even informative, it may no longer serve a purpose in your unit plan.

In Sum

     Instead of planning day-by-day or simply choosing a lot of fun activities, try designing a unit based on backward design. Do not leave assessment for the end of a unit. Instead, check on understanding throughout the unit. Think about what you want students to understand the most and then structure the unit around those big ideas.

Stephanie Bradberry Crosby
Stephanie Bradberry Crosby | Source

About the Author

Stephanie Bradberry Crosby is first and foremost an educator and life-long learner. Her present work is as an herbalist, naturopath, and Reiki Master. She spent over a decade as a professor of English, Literature, and Education and high school English teacher. She is a doctoral candidate in Education: Curriculum and Teaching. She runs her own home-based business, Naturally Fit & Well, LLC, which includes her all-natural, handmade, and customizable product line, Natural Herbal Blends. Stephanie loves being a freelance writer and editor on the side.

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AphroditeisAlone 5 years ago

This couldn't be more relevant to me than it is today. I have to complete an (imaginary) unit plan for my Education Class by tomorrow, and this is exactly the kind of thing I need to hear. It's very overwhelming when you think of planning way ahead of time as to what will be done on a day to day basis.

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StephanieBCrosby 5 years ago from New Jersey Author

Aphrodite, I am glad this information is useful to you. Sometimes I preferred doing unit plans instead of daily plans since, as you know, something happens everyday to change your plans. Thinking from end goals and working backwards is very useful. But sometimes thinking on the fly is the essence of what we do too. If you ever need to bounce ideas off of someone, I am here. Just send me an e-mail. The current doctoral course I'm taking has an end project of doing a unit plan based on multiple intelligences.

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AphroditeisAlone 5 years ago

Thank you Stephanie, I appreciate it!

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StephanieBCrosby 5 years ago from New Jersey Author

No problem at all.

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diamond1mo 4 years ago from Arizona

Excellent! I spent an entire graduate course based on McTigue's & Wiggins' textbook.

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StephanieBCrosby 4 years ago from New Jersey Author

Hi diamond1mo. That is so cool that you had a whole course based on their text. I only came across their work in learning about backward design from professional development and the like.

Jon T 4 years ago

I appreciate your posting this. I just started teaching this past fall, and even though I've heard of backwards unit design, no one had ever explained it to me in school. My colleagues all do it so I really want to get the hang of it. I imagine it's preferable to the "seat of my pants" method that my CT showed me during student teaching. ;-)

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StephanieBCrosby 4 years ago from New Jersey Author

Hi Jon T. I know exactly how you feel. I think educators, especially those that are more in a position of presenting ideas to their peers forget some of the basics along the way: actually show someone how to do it, or at least explain it thoroughly. I was "lucky" enough to work at a school where a new administrator's sole mission in life was to push the idea of backwards design practically in place of everything else. The method does make perfect sense, but almost every one of our inservices was geared towards backward design.

I am glad my hub helped you. But now I guess I should provide an example of a backward design lesson plan or unit.

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