Backward Design Lesson Planning Strategies

by | Jun 28, 2020 | New Teachers Tips

By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder

Planning lessons without the end in mind is like planning for a trip without knowing the destination. Imagine packing clothes for a ski vacation in Colorado and ending up in Hawaii. You love the beach, but your ski boots aren’t going to be very useful. 

You want your daily lesson plans to lead you to the final destination. That is why backward design lesson planning is so valuable. 

In the days of standardized tests and accountability, you don’t want to get to the end and find out you’ve run out of time or planned for the wrong material. Experienced teachers often make lesson planning look easy because they have learned how to read the map and know where they are going.

According to The Glossary of Education Reform, backward design “helps teachers design a sequence of lessons, problems, projects, presentations, assignments, and assessments that result in students achieving the academic goals of a course or unit—that is, actually learning what they were expected to learn.”

Backward design lesson planning requires you to focus on what students are learning instead of what the students will be doing. 

Start with your standards

Step one in backward design lesson planning is to know all the standards you need to teach. Before you dive in, check with your colleagues (especially if you are a new hire or are moved to a new grade) because sometimes the standards and curriculum are not updated at the district level. You don’t want to waste any of your precious time on outdated information.

Not all standards are created equal. Go through the standards and identify the Power Standards– those non negotiable standards that students have to master for your course or grade level. (These may already be determined by your school.)

Once you have your power standards you can quickly see where all the other standards fall and can start chunking when it makes sense to cover those throughout the year. 

Create a timeline

When you plan a trip, you know how many days you have and plan accordingly. You want to do the same thing with your yearly planning.

Grab a calendar and block out all of the school breaks. Then begin plotting out how long each of these power standards will take. 

Pencil in those standards on your calendar for the length of time you will be allotting to them. There will be overlap and repetition. That’s okay because your goal is to make sure students know those power standards.

Determine the sequence

Many standards are taught throughout the year, but there are sequential standards that require you to figure out how long it will take to cover and in what order. In this step you need to examine when it is logical to teach each element that leads to the final outcome.

Because standards are not necessarily listed in a sequential or logical order, it is up to you to determine what will work best for your intended outcomes. Look at the standards listed under your power standards and organize them by the order they need to be taught.

Analyze the components of the standard and where they fit logically into the school year. 

Once you have the order determined, you will plan the skills, knowledge, and concepts the students will learn in order to master that standard. This will help you determine how you will get there and how much time you will need. 

You are now ready to place those individual components into your calendar. 

How you do this is up to you. I found using a different color for each power standard and using that same color when I added the individual components made it easy for me to see what I added. I also made sure that on my printed curriculum map, I marked off each standard I put on the calendar so that I knew I had covered it.

Plan assessments

The final step before you get to start the fun planning is to decide what kind of assessment you will use to determine if your students have mastered the standard. 

Look at your standards and see what type of assessment makes sense. You need to decide what the students need to show to prove they understand the goal, and then you will choose the method that will provide that evidence to you.

Design the type of assessment/project you will use to allow students to demonstrate mastery of skills, concepts, and knowledge.

This does not have to be a test. It might be a project, paper, presentation, or other type of assessment. It is a good idea to vary the assessment type and when you plot the plan for the year you can easily tell if you have used a variety of assessments or are only using one type. 

How to use the roadmap

You now have a roadmap for the year. Backward planning ensures that you will have the time to cover the required standards. It means that you have logically planned a sequence that will smoothly take your students from one topic to the next. You also have a variety of assessments planned.

The next step is to use that roadmap throughout the year. If you don’t use it, it’s like having a GPS but not turning it on. You might end up in the right place, but you might also end up in the wrong state. 

As you plan each unit, project, or theme, follow the roadmap. Each lesson should lead to the end goal. 

Look to see how much time you have allotted for that standard and follow the same procedure for your daily lesson or weekly lesson plans as you did for your master plan.

  • Look at the standards you will cover that day or week.
  • Plan the assessment you will use. When you are doing your weekly and daily planning remember to plan both formative and summative assessments in a wide variety so you have a full picture of what students have learned.
  • Determine the order you need to teach the skills and material to reach that end destination.
  • Decide the best way to present that information to your students.

Detours along the way

Just like travel plans, you may change your mind and decide to spend a little more time  in one place or cut an activity short. There may be a logical progression into a different order than your “itinerary” called for.

No worries. You are the driver and the trip planner. You are the expert and know what will work best for your students. Be the guide and make the detours you need to make. The important part is keeping your eye on the final destination.

Benefits of backward design lesson planning

Benefit One- standards are not left out

All standards are covered, and you have a planned way to assess each one. Talk to some experienced teachers and they can all tell you of times when it came to the standardized test, AP test, or final exam and they realized they had run out of time to cover all the required material. 

Because our goal as educators is to ensure students are learning and not just being exposed to content, not covering all the standards can cause a huge gap in student learning. This can cause big problems as students move onto the next level or grade and are behind their peers or don’t have the necessary knowledge to succeed. That reflects poorly on your teaching and not their learning. 

Benefit Two- backward planning saves time in the long run

When you use backward design lesson planning, the hard work is done up front, and you can now use that framework for the rest of the year. There is no sugarcoating the fact that planning takes time. But having the hard part complete before school starts gives you more time during the year when time is short.

If possible, for the full year backward planning calendar, it is a great idea to collaborate with another grade or content level teacher and plot through it together. This will ensure that all students in the grade or subject will be exposed to the same standards at approximately the same time. It ensures that the students have learned all the required standards. And, it decreases the planning time when you can tag-team with a partner.

Benefit Three: the framework is reusable

Unless your standards change, you have a framework that can be repeated yearly, even though your daily lessons will change. So yes, it’s work upfront, but once you have finished, you can reuse the basic outline over and over again, until standards change. It is also helpful for new teachers or when a sub has to step in mid-year

Benefit Four: your daily objective is already done

Many schools require teachers to post a standard or objective for the day or week. When you have used backward design lesson planning, yours are planned for the year, so way to go!

Grab your framework and you’re good to go. Your principal will be impressed and you will do it with little daily effort.

Benefit Five- you can focus on what is important

Creating this organization framework allows you to keep your focus on what students are learning and how you will know if they are learning it. Sometimes teachers think about what students are doing instead of what they are learning. We lose focus and spin our wheels. 

Using backward design lesson planning keeps us aligned to our purpose and makes planning with a purpose so much easier.

If you haven’t tried backward design lesson planning, give it a try. It’s a little messy at first and sometimes kind of intimidating looking at the whole year. However, when you have a roadmap, the journey goes so much more smoothly. 


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Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder


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