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What we mean by ‘backward design’

“Our lessons, units, and courses should be logically inferred from the results sought, not derived from the methods, books, and activities with which we are most comfortable” (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, p14)

‘Backward design’ (attributed to America educationalist, R.W. Tyler) is an approach to teaching and learning that focuses first on learning goals. Once these goals have been established, and a clear statement has been agreed for what students should be expected to know, do, and in consequence understand, then – and only then – can effective assessment be designed. Backward design, and the conceptually similar ‘constructive alignment’ (Biggs, 2003), are fundamental tools in ensuring that we design coherent and effective formative and summative assessments. Here we recognise assessment as a tool for learning (Arter, 1996), rather than of learning. Yet the ways in which the assessment of student achievement often comes at the end of the process of learning is counter to this view, and feels outdated. Many academics however can arguably still seen to rely heavily on end of unit, summative only, assessment and feedback.

Since the 1990s there has been a move in higher education to developing more authentic assessment tasks for students (Birenbaum & Dochy, 1996) – assessment that is meaningful and in line with the learning goals. The nature of the assessment task has come to be seen as influencing the approaches to learning students take (Beckwith, 1991), and in this sense assessment design that encourages students towards deeper learning should be adopted.

Essentially it is difficult to hold up a constructivist and dialogic pedagogy (from Vygotsky to Mazur) - that acknowledges the place of the student in the co-construction of knowledge and promotes active engagement and ownership - without making room for students to be part of the assessment design of the unit (Wegerif, 2007). Indeed co-creating assessments with students is an important step in developing them into responsible, reflective and autonomous lifelong learners (Sambell & McDowell, 1997; Sluijsmans et al, 1998).

If, as Duffy and Cunningham suggest, “learning is an active process of constructing rather than acquiring knowledge” (1996, p177), and the learning process can be argued to be strongly shaped, or ‘skewed’, by assessment design, then students should as much be involved in unit design, and assessment design, and criteria in particular, as they are in any other aspect of unit learning and teaching. Indeed, an authentically dialogic and active engagement with students would challenge us, as academics to let go of our ‘authorial’ voice, our ‘ownership’, within learning and teaching interactions and towards more equal ‘egalitarian dialogues’ (Alexander, 2005; 2008). Ultimately if students are implicit in the co-creation of assessment criteria, then they are located, not just within an open dialogue about the actual purpose of the unit, but are also co-constructors of a reflective learning framework (Schön, 1983) that they can apply and develop across the rest of their studies and live ahead


Alexander, R. 2005. Culture, Dialogue and Learning:  Notes on an Emerging Pedagogy. Presentation at the International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology (IACEP). 10th International Conference, University Of Durham, UK, 10-14 July 2005. 

Alexander, R. J. 2008. Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking Classroom Talk. 4th Ed. Cambridge: Dialogos

Arter, J. 1996, Using Assessment as A Tool for Learning. In: R. Blum & J. Arter (Eds), Student Performance Assessment in An Era Of Restructuring, Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1-6.

Beckwith, J. B. 1991. Approaches to learning, their context and relationship to assessment performance. In: Higher Education, 22(1), 17-30

Birenbaum, M. & Dochy, F. (Eds) 1996. Alternatives in assessment of achievement, learning processes and prior knowledge. Boston: Kluwer Academic.

Duffy, T. M. & Cunningham, D. 1996. Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction. In: D. Jonnasen (Ed.) Handbook of research for educational communications and technology. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Sambell, K. & McDowell, L. 1997. The Value of Self and Peer Assessment to The Developing Lifelong Learner. In: C. Rust (Ed.). Improving Student Learning: Improving Students as Learners. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development

Schön, D. A. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Sluijsmans, D., Dochy F. & Moerkerke G. 1998. Creating a Learning Environment by Using Self-, Peer- and Co-Assessment. In: Learning Environments Research. 1(3) 293–319

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. 1998. Understanding by Design.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Wegerif, R. 2007. Dialogic Education and Technology: Expanding the Space of Learning. Exeter: Springer.