T he Light Dawned: Backward Design
Dayle Upham

Dayle Upham
Exceptional Education

A UWSP teaching excellence award winner, Dayle uses backward design principles to redesign several courses and develop new ones. She is so taken with the concept she teaches her students how to use it to develop their curricula also. Taking these ideas even further, she offers more advanced students opportunities for acceleration through individual contract proposals, and devises related rubrics to help judge their efforts.

During my ten years teaching in higher education, I have thought of myself as an excellent teacher because while I had the general outline of the curriculum in my head, I was flexible enough to go with the flow of the students. I gave my students choices about topics, I provided alternatives to the syllabus, I encouraged students to present their work in their own way, and I provided opportunities for students to own and map the course as much as possible. While being a constructivist and a facilitator takes thought and energy, I feel it is necessary. Constructivism means learners construct knowledge for themselves and each individual constructs meaning as she/he learns. And yet, when I had the opportunity to delve into a new way of looking at teaching and learning by participating in the Faculty Alliance for Creating and Enhancing Teaching Strategies (FACETS) project, I jumped at it. Well, honestly, I was dragged by a colleague. While I knew the concepts in the first two sessions well, the session on “backward design” gave me a whole new way to examine my teaching process.

Backward Design—A Very Sensible Concept

The whole topic of “backward design” fit very nicely into my philosophy, and I wondered why I had never thought of doing something so sensible.

The whole topic of “backward design” fit very nicely into my philosophy, and I wondered why I had never thought of doing something so sensible. The whole concept has changed the way I view my courses and, in the process I have become even more flexible than I had been before. I had usually had the students rent a “required” text because I thought it legitimized the course, but I did not depend on textbooks drive my classes. Textbooks, while helpful as references, can cause more problems than we often realize. Daniels and Zemelman (2004) list seven negative factors related to using textbooks. They suggest texts are often hard to read, badly designed, authoritarian, often inaccurate, and not written for students. They add that teachers don’t teach students how to use them, and they cost too much. I have decided to eliminate the required text rental this next semester. I plan to ask students, as a class, to collect relevant materials to use as reference materials or to support their beliefs. Students are seldom asked to reflect on their own values, beliefs, and make connections with the material being presented in the classroom. Without life experiences the only way for students to become aware of how they can make connections to what they know and what they are learning is to ask themselves questions, such as how does this concept fit into my schema and my experiences, or is this something I will feel comfortable using in the future as a teacher.

Why Have We Not Heard of This Concept Before?—The Students Speak

Their comments have ranged from, “why have we not heard of this concept before?” to “thanks so much for introducing us to ‘backward design’, because it makes it so much easier to conceptualize lesson plans and integrated units using this method.”

I decided that by using backward design, students would have the opportunity to approach their projects, papers, and course work differently. I adapted materials from Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe (1998, p. 99, 102) to distribute to my students. I designed a Design Matrix, Chart 1, and Process Questions, Chart 2, for students. I am using backward design as a theoretical framework in two of my courses. One course, Career, Vocational and Community Education for Youth with Exceptional Needs, is taken by future special education majors and elementary education majors with exceptional education minors. A second course, Curriculum and Methods II for Teaching Students with Exceptional Needs, is also taken by future special education majors and elementary education majors with exceptional education minors. Each course is attended by 25-35 students every semester. Their comments have ranged from, “why have we not heard of this concept before?” to “thanks so much for introducing us to ‘backward design’, because it makes it so much easier to conceptualize lesson plans and integrated units using this method.”

The following are descriptions from my students after using backward design:

We believe that it is more important to create lessons based on the outcomes, and make those lessons relevant to students, as apposed to creating lessons based on standards. (Dani, Traci, Kendra and Jessica)

My hope is that students will be able to use these charts and concepts I have created to create and make their work unique. Students like the charts for two reasons. First, they have a starting point and the questions guide them in their process of creating, and secondly, the chart provides flexibility in outlining their goals. Most successful teachers use everything available to them. Because the students I teach are education majors, the backward design approach has provided them an opportunity to see a new idea modeled, and hopefully, they will adapt it for their students when they become teachers.

The Opportunity to Learn Rather Than Just Get a Grade

Initially, when my colleague suggested I attend the FACETS sessions all I could think of was, “Oh, no! Not another boring talking head to listen to,” and I will admit a few sessions were not challenging for me, but for the most part I found the meetings very enjoyable and informative. I enjoyed getting to know people in other departments and how they think about assessments and students in diverse ways. We had wonderful discussions in our diverse groups. In addition, we had a number of students in our groups who added a different dimension to the discussions. I was the only education faculty in our group. This was the first time I realize how much differently we in the education department think about education, students, and ownership of learning. When discussing student evaluation of most of the members of my group suggested the best ways to assess learning were tests, namely Opscan form tests, multiple choice test and a few suggested essays, but said that these were problematic as they required so much reading time. I suggested alternative evaluation techniques. I offered that teachers might ask students to create projects, presentations, and other products of evidence of learning. Further, I proposed that evaluations might include peer response and evaluation, self-evaluation, and instruments such as rubrics indicating characteristics of best works. I told my group that I like to offer to my students the opportunity to explore an alternative to the traditional syllabus and that I ask my students to brainstorm possible projects of interest. The group seemed surprised and the idea of independent student led activities seemed very foreign to them.

I used the backward design idea to give my students a contract so they could propose their own project for the class.

After this discussion of alternative assessment practices with my group, I realized I wanted to even explore the project proposal idea even more. I realize that often non-traditional students and/or students with extensive experience in the course content need an accelerated curriculum. I used the backward design idea to give my students a contract so they could propose their own project for the class. I set it up so that students would be required to include a detailed outline and time line, a projected outcome, and a rubric for evaluation. See Figure A for the contract.

At first, some of my students had difficulty with this open-ended contract format. For those students I offered additional support by having them visit me in my office. I show them examples others have done and discuss ideas and concepts. I then ask if they would like to have another opportunity to work on their assignment. I feel strongly that I need to help my students every opportunity to learn rather than just get a grade.

When I met with my FACETS group I was excited to share these ideas with my peers. They looked at me like I had lost my mind. Giving students choices and opportunities to do an assignment over was not something they were willing to try. This is when I came to the realization that those of us in education have a very different view of teaching and learning.

Work Toward a Goal, Not a Topic

All in all, I had a very rewarding experience. I learned procedures I can use in preparing for my courses, along with the added benefit of being able to share these practices with my students. In my courses, I have students create an integrated unit. An integrated unit includes two or more academic subjects and specials (art, music, physical education, drama…) and lasts for a week or more. I have the students take a theme from a newspaper article. Groups of students work on this project for the entire semester. The following is an example of the assignment.

Life Skills Curriculum (LSC) Unit

 Each student/group of students (no more than five students) will devise a LSC unit spanning four weeks of time. Emphasize content that transcends more than four (two of which need to be science and social studies) disciplines and stress functional life skills. Address the needs of all students maximizing learning, accommodations and modifications for students with disabilities/needs and accelerated lessons for advanced students. Please provide this information on your SOE web site under adaptive instruction.

Their eyes become as wide as mine did, and they immediately realize how much easier it is to work toward a goal. The lesson plans become relevant.

I have also included the rubric that I use with the life skills curriculum unit. This is the perfect assignment to share backward design with students. After explaining the assignment in detail, I let students work independently for about two weeks. They usually decide what their topic will be and start to design lesson plans. I ask them what their desired outcome is for the students. Initially, they have no idea. I wonder how they are writing lesson plans when they have no idea what they want for an outcome. Students tell me they create plans around their topic. That’s when I ask them “What are your required results?” “What will you accept as evidence of learning?” “How will your lesson plans create learning experiences for your students?” Their eyes become as wide as mine did, and they immediately realize how much easier it is to work toward a goal. The lesson plans become relevant. The idea of an integrated unit is a difficult concept for students to understand. Introducing backward design at the same time has made teaching these concepts more interesting for both my students and me.

Chart 1
Student Project Design Matrix

The Question The Design Plan Design Criteria
How will the Final Project be made public?

Stage 1

What do I already know?
What do I want to know or understand?

Will I do this project alone? With others? With who? How will I decide who?

What will I actually be doing during the process of creating the project? (See chart below *)

Who’s my audience?

Stage 2

What do I want to create that will show my understanding? What format will I use?

Timeline and benchmarks (3-5)

In what ways has my project addressed the WI academic standards?
WI teaching standards?

Degree of public such as:
Class (peers)
Another Class
School board


How will I deliver my project? (web-page, power point, handouts…)

Stage 3

What activities will I engage in to know and understand the topic and create evidence of my understanding?

Materials and human (beyond the internet!)

How will I assess my learning and evaluate my project?
1. Narrative reflection
2. Self-designed rubric
3. Peer evaluations

Time, date of public presentation

Chart 2
Describing and Deciding Process Questions

What do I need to do and include?

Research my topic
What assumptions do I have about the topic?
What point of view will I use?
Should I provide pros and cons?
Should I provide definitions, misconceptions, controversial issues?

What questions will I ask?
What will I try to discover?
Will I look at case studies?
Will I try to confirm my beliefs?
Will I try to find contradictory evidence?

What will I generate?
Will I compare and contrast issues?
Will I do a literature search?
Will I do a case study?
Will I do an interview?
Will I do a combination of the above

Will I try to make connections
With my experiences?
With different organizations?
Using case studies?
Using information from interviews?

How will I develop my project
Will I use a poster
Will I use a case study to represent findings
Will I create table, charts or diagrams
Will I invite a guest speaker
Will I teach my project

What will be in my conclusion?
Will I provide implications?
Will I provide more questions?
Will I make predictions?
Will I agree or disagree?

Figure A

Instructors criteria:
  1. It must relate to the course content.
  2. It must be something new that you have never done before, but it may have connections to something you have done before.
  3. It must have a final presentation or product that demonstrates learning.
  4. You must have an evaluation instrument.
  5. You must make an appointment and meet with me by the third week of class. During this meeting you should bring a proposal (outline) that includes a paragraph focusing on each of the following:


    The purpose and goal of the project and why its important to you

    An explanation of how this project relates to the course,

    A description of the product you will have at the end of the semester,

    A proposed timeline of the activities that will lead to your finished product,

    A description of how you propose to be evaluated,

    A contract must be signed by the student and the professor and dated.

CLASS #: _________ SECTION: ________ DATE: ___/___/___

My design for an alternative course project has been accepted and I will be responsible for implementation the requirements of my proposal.

STUDENT’S NAME (print): ________________________________________

STUDENT'S SIGNATURE: ________________________________________

I have accepted the alternative course project and feel it meets the requirements of the course. 
Dr. Dayle A. Upham: __________________________________________

Rubric for LSC Unit Using a Newspaper – Assignment #1 – 368


Excellent (10 -7 pts)

Acceptable (6 – 4 pts)

Unacceptable (3 – 0 pts)

Part of the students web portfolio

Unit is part of the web portfolio and is clear and easy to navigate

Unit is part of the web portfolio

Unit is not part of the web portfolio

Unit Spans at least four weeks

Unit spans four weeks or more

Unit spans less than four weeks but more than 21 days

Unit is less that 21 days

Integration of life skills and subject areas

Three (two academic and 1 special) or more subject areas are integrated and all areas are infused with life skills

Life skills and or subjects are not integrated

No life skills and or incorrect subjects areas presented

Evidence of LCS in the areas of Daily, Personal and Occupational skills

Unit addresses all three areas in detail and makes connections with unit

Unit addresses all three areas but lacks details and connection with the unit

Unit does not contain all three areas

Includes LSC Accommodations and modifications for students with learning needs in Reading, Writing and Math

LSC Accommodations and Modifications are age appropriate and based on the students educational needs in reading, writing and math

LSC Accommodations and Modifications are appropriate but do not include reading, writing and math

LSC Accommodations and Modifications are not appropriate

LSC (Integrated Instructional) Unit – to be used in the SOE portfolio to show integration of curriculum and life skills, transition plans, fictional assessment plans, and age appropriate accommodations and modifications and acceleration lessons based on the educational needs of students with special needs/learning needs.

This assignment addresses the following Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Standards: PI 34.02 (1), (2), (3), (4), (5)

Daniels, H & Zemelman, S. (2004).  Subjects Matter: Every Teacher’s Guide To Content Area Reading. Portsmouth, N. H.:  Heinemann.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998).  Understanding by Design.  Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Brief Bio: Dr. Dayle A. Upham is originally from New Hampshire. She became a member of the Education faculty of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1996. Prior to becoming a university professor, Dr. Upham taught reading, math and was a resource room teacher (with a caseload of 55 students) in a middle school. In addition, for two years, Dr. Upham was the lead teacher in a residential school for adjudicated boys ages 8-21. Dr. Upham’s field of expertise is learning and emotional disabilities with a specialization in the emotional needs of learning disabled students.
Contact Dayle at: dupham@uwsp.edu