Learner-Centered Unit Planning: 3 Backwards Design Essentials For New Teachers

Getting Started

Planning a unit can feel overwhelming, especially for new teachers who are still getting used to managing all of the “moving parts” that the job entails. After all, effective teachers know that they must adapt, pivot, and improvise according to the needs of their students on a daily basis. In this respect, planning a month-long unit may seem like a daunting task. How does one plan for the unpredictable? 

While many unit plans require some degree of modification as students advance in the course, there are a few practices that, if implemented, can help to ensure a unit plan remains effective even as deviations become necessary. Below are three favorites at the Mount Vernon School, adopted from the philosophy of “backward design.”

Begin with the end in mind

Knowing where and how to start the unit-planning process is vitally important. Intuition may tell us to begin at the beginning, starting with the lesson plan for “day one” and proceeding in a linear fashion all the way to the end of the unit. And there’s a good reason for this instinct: starting from “the beginning” accords with our common sense. Where else would we begin? However, as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have argued, a better strategy is “backward design,” which focuses on “designing with the end in mind.” Essentially, the first item a teacher should prioritize when planning a unit is to identify the desired results for learners, starting with a few basic questions: “What should students know, understand, and be able to do? What enduring understandings are desired?”

Many teachers in both the public and private sector will need to align their desired outcomes with those of their school/district/state. For the sake of illustration, let’s explore an example from high school social studies. Imagine you’ve been assigned to teach “History of American Medicine” for a group of tenth graders. Obviously, students will need to understand something about American medicine and you may at first view the course as an opportunity to talk about vaccination, anesthesia, and cancer research. However, instead of building your unit around this content, we recommend the backward design approach. What should students be able to “do” by the end of the course?

After reviewing your school’s competencies/standards and discussing some ideas with your colleagues, you determine that “History of American Medicine” lends itself particularly well to developing students’ ability to express their ideas clearly and skillfully. So the desired results of your course might be something akin to the following learning outcomes:

1. I can share my ideas in different collaborative discussions.

2. I can support my ideas with credible evidence from historical, nonfiction, and literary texts.

3. I can build on others’ ideas while using effective interpersonal skills to communicate.

Now we are getting somewhere! Your assessments and lessons will be far more targeted and focused now that you have embraced “designing with the end in mind.”

The first item a teacher should prioritize when planning a unit is to identify the desired results for learners, starting with a few basic questions: “What should students know, understand, and be able to do? What enduring understandings are desired?”

Decide How You Will Assess

Once you have identified the objectives and desired results of your unit, you may be tempted to begin the lesson-planning stage. We encourage you to resist this temptation for just a little while longer! Instead, turn your attention to the matter of assessing your students’ learning in accordance with the desired results you identified above. How will you know your students are on their way towards mastery of the skills they should learn?

The key, according to Wiggins and McTighe, is to consider a “continuum of assessment methods” that will serve as a collection of evidence throughout the student’s road to mastery. Assess early and often. Methods may include an array of tasks such as “informal checks of understanding,” “observation/dialogue,” “traditional quizzes, tests, and open-ended prompts,” and “performance tasks and projects.”

Now is the time to design assessments using the learning outcomes you established in the previous step. So, in order to assess your students’ ability to express their ideas clearly and skillfully, you will need to give them ample opportunities to develop and refine these skills. As such, you determine that Socratic seminars will be a prominent and recurring feature in your class. Now you can begin to imagine some potential “dates” for these seminars, mapping out a scaffolded approach to assess Socratic seminars formatively and summatively. Perhaps the first two seminars will be formative assessments, while the third and fourth will be summative assessments. Of course, there is no right or wrong number of formatives and summatives, but you will want to make sure students have been able to practice their skills in a “low stakes” environment before putting them in a high-pressure evaluative situation.

Obviously, you will need to add variety to your assessments, ensuring that they all align with your desired results. Choose your assessment methods based on your learning outcomes, not the other way around.


Plan Activities In Accordance With Desired Goals

For years, I approached unit plan design from the vantage point of “covering” content and assessing knowledge of that content. A unit on the early American republic? No problem. We’d “cover” the ratification of the Constitution and make our way to the election of Andrew Jackson, highlighting major events and reading key historical documents along the way. Then we’d have a test to make sure students remembered what we discussed and move on to the next unit until we’d covered as much U.S. history as was reasonably possible within a semester. Does learning occur within units such as this one? Absolutely.

However, we suggest that Wiggins and McTighe offer a more effective strategy. While content is important, it should not be the primary focus of a unit. Rather, the content should be selected and taught as a means to pursuing the desired goals you identified in step one and developed through your assessments in step two.

So, let’s continue using “History of American Medicine” as an example. At this point, you may be thinking, “Ok, do we actually get to learn about American medical history, or are we just going to talk about expressing ideas for the entire class?” Great question, and history enthusiasts will be relieved to know that, having laid a foundation for our desired results and methods of assessment, we can still dig into some fascinating content while sharpening our ability to express ideas clearly and skillfully.

Perhaps you want to explore the process by which new and controversial ideas have become accepted as standard medical practices over the course of American history. Conveniently, this topic lends itself well to a Socratic seminar format, and you decide to use the example of George Washington. Washington famously mandated that his troops receive inoculation from smallpox, a controversial and cutting-edge idea in the late eighteenth century. Oddly (at least in our modern minds) he also believed in the viability of “bloodletting,” an ineffective and dangerous technique that may have contributed to his death. This is some fascinating content that juxtaposes modern knowledge about disease prevention with medieval medical practices, placing George Washington’s life and death at the intersection of early American history. Using this content as the basis for your Socratic seminar, students will be able to participate in a robust discussion in which they express their ideas about how medical practices may have historically and contemporarily fallen in and out of favor.


It’s not that content is not important. Far from it. Rather, the content should serve the purpose of your assessments, which, in turn, should be based on the desired results of the course.

The Challenge

Again, backward design is not the *only* way to design a unit, and we do not recommend changing all of your classes and all of your methods, especially not at the same time. Rather, we believe backward design can yield fantastic results for student growth and, importantly, can allow teachers and students to stay focused on measurable goals. Keeping assessments and activities aligned with your desired outcomes is like navigating with a compass. Even if you veer off course (and who doesn’t?), you can still find your way home because magnetic north is always reliably visible.

In this spirit, we challenge you to experiment with backward design for *one* upcoming unit. Have fun with it, and keep a mental (or written) track record of things that worked well and things that need tweaking. You may find an exciting and infinitely rewarding way of designing units in the future. Need some help? We’d love to help!

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