Backward design is the process to design a lesson, unit, or course by first determining what the final outcomes are and then planning assessment strategies and finally determining methods of instruction and assignments. It allows instructors to plan lessons and courses with a focus on student learning.

International students’ specific circumstances require that instructors consider certain strategies to support learning. Some of these circumstances include English being their second language, unfamiliarity with the U.S. academic system, diverse learning styles, and diverse cultural backgrounds. By adopting backward design, instructors are afforded the opportunity to incorporate the specific learning needs of their students in their planning process.

The concept of backward design is not new; however, Wiggins and McTighe (2005) developed a well-structured and detailed approach to using it in designing lessons, units, and courses. Wiggins and McTighe (2005, p. 18) structured backward design in three sequential stages: (1) Identify desired results, (2) determine acceptable evidence, and (3) plan learning experiences and instruction.

Stage 1 – Identify the desired resultsBackward Design Pyramid

What do you expect students to know or be able to do at the end of the class, unit, or course?

The first stage of backward design is to write learning outcomes. Bloom’s (revised) Taxonomy (Anderson, Krathwohl, and Bloom, 2001) is very helpful in writing learning outcomes.

Stage 2 – Determining acceptable evidence

How will the students demonstrate they met the learning outcome?

Before thinking about the lessons and instruction, Wiggins and McTighe (2005) encourage instructors to determine how they will assess student learning. Assessing a multicultural group of students require attention to the specific characteristics of the diverse students. Some topics to consider are:

  • providing clear assessment instructions
  • providing examples of successful works
  • determining if writing skills are part of the outcome being assessed
  • being aware of cultural bias

See Assessing International Student Learning for more information.

Stage 3 – Plan learning experiences and instruction

How will students gain the knowledge and develop the skills necessary to meet the learning outcome?

Now it is time to plan the lessons, determine reading assignments, method of instruction, and other classroom activities to support student learning. With students’ needs in mind, instructors can choose the most appropriate methods to help their classes meet the learning outcomes.

For more information or to request a workshop on Backward Design, email


Anderson, L., Krathwohl, D., & Bloom, B. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing : a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives (Complete ed.). New York: Longman.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.