Understanding by Design

Best practices for Online, Hybrid, and HyFlex courses

Bowen, Ryan S., (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved [July 12, 2018] from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/understanding-by-design/.
  • Overview
  • The Benefits of Using Backward Design
  • The Three Stages of Backward Desgin
  • The Backward Design Template


Understanding by Design is a book written by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe that offers a framework for designing courses and content units called “Backward Design.” Instructors typically approach course design in a “forward design” manner, meaning they consider the learning activities (how to teach the content), develop assessments around their learning activities, then attempt to draw connections to the learning goals of the course. In contrast, the backward design approach has instructors consider the learning goals of the course first. These learning goals embody the knowledge and skills instructors want their students to have learned when they leave the course. Once the learning goals have been established, the second stage involves consideration of assessment. The backward design framework suggests that instructors should consider these overarching learning goals and how students will be assessed prior to consideration of how to teach the content. For this reason, backward design is considered a much more intentional approach to course design than traditional methods of design.

This teaching guide will explain the benefits of incorporating backward design. Then it will elaborate on the three stages that backward design encompasses. Finally, an overview of a backward design template is provided with links to blank template pages for convenience.

The Benefits of Using 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. Curriculum should lay out the most effective ways of achieving specific results… in short, the best designs derive backward from the learnings sought.”

In Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe argue that backward design is focused primarily on student learning and understanding. When teachers are designing lessons, units, or courses, they often focus on the activities and instruction rather than the outputs of the instruction. Therefore, it can be stated that teachers often focus more on teaching rather than learning. This perspective can lead to the misconception that learning is the activity when, in fact, learning is derived from a careful consideration of the meaning of the activity.

As previously stated, backward design is beneficial to instructors because it innately encourages intentionality during the design process. It continually encourages the instructor to establish the purpose of doing something before implementing it into the curriculum. Therefore, backward design is an effective way of providing guidance for instruction and designing lessons, units, and courses. Once the learning goals, or desired results, have been identified, instructors will have an easier time developing assessments and instruction around grounded learning outcomes.

The incorporation of backward design also lends itself to transparent and explicit instruction. If the teacher has explicitly defined the learning goals of the course, then they have a better idea of what they want the students to get out of learning activities. Furthermore, if done thoroughly, it eliminates the possibility of doing certain activities and tasks for the sake of doing them. Every task and piece of instruction has a purpose that fits in with the overarching goals and goals of the course.

As the quote below highlights, teaching is not just about engaging students in content. It is also about ensuring students have the resources necessary to understand. Student learning and understanding can be gauged more accurately through a backward design approach since it leverages what students will need to know and understand during the design process in order to progress.

“In teaching students for understanding, we must grasp the key idea that we are coaches of their ability to play the ‘game’ of performing with understanding, not tellers of our understanding to them on the sidelines.”

The Three Stages of Backward Design

“Deliberate and focused instructional design requires us as teachers and curriculum writers to make an important shift in our thinking about the nature of our job. The shift involves thinking a great deal, first, about the specific learnings sought, and the evidence of such learnings, before thinking about what we, as the teacher, will do or provide in teaching and learning activities.”

Stage One – Identify Desired Results:

In the first stage, the instructor must consider the learning goals of the lesson, unit, or course. Wiggins and McTighe provide a useful process for establishing curricular priorities. They suggest that the instructor ask themselves the following three questions as they progressively focus in on the most valuable content:

What should participants hear, read, view, explore or otherwise encounter?

This knowledge is considered knowledge worth being familiar with. Information that fits within this question is the lowest priority content information that will be mentioned in the lesson, unit, or course.

What knowledge and skills should participants master?

The knowledge and skills at this substage are considered important to know and do. The information that fits within this question could be the facts, concepts, principles, processes, strategies, and methods students should know when they leave the course.

What are big ideas and important understandings participants should retain?

The big ideas and important understandings are referred to as enduring understandings because these are the ideas that instructors want students to remember sometime after they’ve completed the course.

The figure above illustrates the three ideas. The first question listed above has instructors consider the knowledge that is worth being familiar with which is the largest circle, meaning it entails the most information. The second question above allows the instructor to focus on more important knowledge, the knowledge and skills that are important to know and do. Finally, with the third question, instructors begin to detail the enduring understandings, overarching learning goals, and big ideas that students should retain. By answering the three questions presented at this stage, instructors will be able to determine the best content for the course. Furthermore, the answers to question #3 regarding enduring understandings can be adapted to form concrete, specific learning goals for the students; thus, identifying the desired results that instructors want their students to achieve.

Stage Two – Determine Acceptable Evidence:

The second stage of backward design has instructors consider the assessments and performance tasks students will complete in order to demonstrate evidence of understanding and learning. In the previous stage, the instructor pinpointed the learning goals of the course. Therefore, they will have a clearer vision of what evidence students can provide to show they have achieved or have started to attain the goals of the course. Consider the following two questions at this stage:

  1. How will I know if students have achieved the desired results?
  2. What will I accept as evidence of student understanding and proficiency?

At this stage it is important to consider a wide range of assessment methods in order to ensure that students are being assess over the goals the instructor wants students to attain. Sometimes, the assessments do not match the learning goals, and it becomes a frustrating experience for students and instructors. Use the list below to help brainstorm assessment methods for the learning goals of the course.

  • Presentations.
  • Short-answer quizzes.
  • Free-response questions.
  • Homework assignments.
  • Lab projects.
  • Practice problems.
  • Group projects.
  • Among many others…

Stage Three – Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction:

The final stage of backward design is when instructors begin to consider how they will teach. This is when instructional strategies and learning activities should be created. With the learning goals and assessment methods established, the instructor will have a clearer vision of which strategies would work best to provide students with the resources and information necessary to attain the goals of the course. Consider the questions below:

  1. What enabling knowledge (facts, concepts, principles) and skills (processes, procedures, strategies) will students need in order to perform effectively and achieve desired results?
  2. What activities will equip students with the needed knowledge and skills?
  3. What will need to be taught and coached, and how should it best be taught, in light of performance goals?
  4. What materials and resources are best suited to accomplish these goals?

Leverage the various instructional strategies listed below:

The Backward Design Template

A link to the blank backward design template is provided here (https://jaymctighe.com/resources/downloads/), and it is referred to as UbD Template 2.0. The older version (version 1.0) can also be downloaded at that site as well as other resources relevant to Understanding by Design. The template walks individuals through the stages of backward design. However, if you are need of the template with descriptions of each section, please see the table below. There is also a link to the document containing the template with descriptions provided below and can be downloaded for free.

Backward Design Template with Descriptions (click link for template with descriptions).

Grid of the three ideas to write out for course development

Learn More


  1. Sample, Mark. (2011). Teaching for Enduring Understanding. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/teaching-for-enduring-understanding/35243.
  2. Wiggins, Grant, and McTighe, Jay. (1998). Backward Design. In Understanding by Design (pp. 13-34). ASCD.

Creative Commons License

This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Edited 3/31/19 by jmlittlejohn – accessibility and other updates.

Keeping Student Stress from Devolving into Distress through Course Design


  • Defining Stress, Distress, and their Origins
  • How Distress Manifests in the College Setting
  • Why Make an Effort to Reduce Distress Among Students?
  • Reducing Distress in the Classroom
  • Further Resources
  • References

Defining Stress, Distress, and their Origins

Stress is an omnipresent feature of most Americans lives (American Psychological Association 2010). The American Psychological Association defines stress as a “pattern of specific and nonspecific responses an organism makes to stimulus events that disturb its equilibrium and tax or exceed its ability to cope” (Gerrig and Zimbardo 2002) .

Stress affects all Americans regardless of age, gender, race, socioeconomic status or prior life experience. Typically those who are experiencing stress report feeling “overwhelmed, worried or run-down” (Alvord et al., n.d.). Now more than ever, college students feel stressed in the campus setting (Yorke 2004). These feelings are particularly acute among first and second year students who may be away from home for the first time and trying to adjust to college life (Misra and McKean 2000).

Stress can be both beneficial and harmful. Stress is beneficial when it leads to the production of energy boosts that increase alertness and help individuals power through high stress situations such as exams and/or work deadlines. This type of stress is typically referred to as eustress. On the other hand, stress is harmful when it is experienced in excess (Alvord et al., n.d.). This form of stress is referred to as distress. According to the American Psychological Association, distress can lead to adverse health outcomes that affect the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems (Alvord et al., n.d.).

Within the academic setting, causes of student distress may include:

  • Test anxiety, a form of performance anxiety where a person experiences high levels of distress or uneasiness before, during, or after an examination. Test anxiety interferes with students’ ability to perform in testing situations
  • Perfectionism, the need to be or appear perfect
  • Imposter syndrome, a persistent belief or feeling that one is inadequate even in the face of success
  • Stereotype threat, a self-confirming belief that one may be evaluated based on a negative stereotype of a group in which they belong
  • Generalized anxiety, ongoing anxiety and worry that interferes with day-to-day activities

How Distress Manifests in the College Setting

Vanderbilt University’s Office of Wellness Programs & Alcohol Education has identified several behavioral, emotional and psychological signs of student distress. The repeated occurrence of any combination of the following may indicate a student in distress:

Behavioral signs:

  • Academic performance concerns, uncharacteristic changes
  • Declining grades or reduced class participation
  • Incomplete or missing assignments
  • Repeated requests for extensions, incompletes, or withdrawals
  • Increased absenteeism or tardiness
  • Disruptive classroom behavior
  • Apparent memory loss or difficulty concentrating
  • Cheating, rule breaking, or defiance
  • Poor organization skills or trouble with note taking
  • Bizarre, aggressive or morbid comments or written content
  • Expressions of feeling hopeless, helpless, guilty and/or worthless
  • Self injury or other self-destructive behavior

Psychological and emotional signs:

  • Chronic fatigue, falling asleep in class
  • Symptoms of being easily distracted, “spacy,” or a tendency to daydream
  • Nervousness or tearfulness
  • Marked changes in regular habits or activities
  • Significant weight gain or loss
  • Signs of intoxication, dilated or constricted pupils, or apparent hangovers
  • Poor or declining physical appearance, hygiene, and grooming
  • Hyperactivity or rapid, pressured speech
  • Extreme boredom, negativism, defensiveness, and secretiveness
  • Comments by others about alcohol or drug use
  • Erratic behavior, sudden mood swings, inappropriate anger, hostility, and irritability
  • Hyper-expansiveness or grandiosity
  • Withdrawal from others or loss of pleasure in everyday activities
  • Talk of suicide or harm to self or others

Why Make an Effort to Reduce Distress Among Students?

High levels of stress:

  1. Affect students’ cognitive capabilities including information processing and memory (Sandi and Pinelo-Nava 2007; Sandi 2004);
  2. Inform the mood and mindset that students bring to the classroom (Felstein 2004); and
  3. Can lead to student burnout and unnecessary attrition, especially among students of color (Smedley, Myers, and Harrell 1993).

Being proactive about managing student stress is beneficial for course instructors and teaching assistants for several reasons:

  1. A stressful classroom climate often increases the personal stress level of course instructors and teaching assistants (Jennings and Greenberg 2009).
  2. Heightened stress among classroom leaders can reduce teachers’ ability to empathize with their students, an especially important issue when teaching in culturally diverse settings (Gault and Sabini 2000).
  3. Decreases in teachers’ ability to empathize with students may eventually lead to compassion fatigue, a form of burnout that is characterized by extreme mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion (Schutz and Zembylas 2009).
  4. Compassion fatigue can lead to teacher burnout, or overwhelming feelings of exhaustion, frustration and anger that impairs personal and social functioning and may lead individuals to quit their job (Maslach and Goldberg 1999).

Taking a proactive stance toward student stress also provides classroom leaders with a unique opportunity to help students:

  1. Engage in self-reflection about the ways that stress affects their daily lives including the feelings they bring to classroom, course assignments and interpersonal exchanges with faculty and teaching staff;
  2. Become more personally aware of how to manage stress in order to improve academic performance and position themselves to achieve their professional goals; and
  3. Develop healthy practices with respect to time management, general work practices and study skills.

Reducing Distress in the Classroom

When there is an imminent threat of harm of a life-endangering situation, take immediate action to ensure the safety of the student and others. Call GCC Campus Safety (585) 345-6500 .

In non-life threatening situations, special attention to issues of course design has the potential to reduce unhealthy levels of stress. Options available to course instructors include the following:

Syllabus Construction


  • Stagger due dates for course assignments
  • Include low stakes assignments that help identify students who may need additional instruction early in the semester
  • For course-long assignments, incorporate periodic “check-ins” during office hours or cancel regular classroom sessions to meet with students one-on-one

Making Office Hours Productive

Advise students on how to prepare for meetings with you. You might instruct them to bring appropriate materials, such as their lecture notes, books, homework problems, drafts of their papers, or readings with troublesome passages marked. You might tell them to write out their questions or points of confusion to help clarify and prepare before meeting with you. In addition, remind them that office hours are not an opportunity to receive a recap of a lecture or lesson. Make your sessions with students a chance to continue teaching them, by helping them work through their own confusions or problems. It may be helpful to respond to their questions with further questions that will lead them to their own conclusions. Provide guidance toward problem-solving rather than simply giving students the answer.

For more information, visit the CFT “Office Hours and Email” Teaching Guide.

  • Allow students to have one “do over” that provides students with an opportunity to either correct missed test questions or resubmit a revised paper draft for partial credit
  • Provide a clearly written explanation of your late assignment and extension policies. Source: Pat James Consulting “Samples of online Course Policies” 
  • Describe and/or model “unsatisfactory”, “sufficient” and “satisfactory” classroom participation for students.

What Does Class Participation Look Like?

Sample Participation Rubric:

  • Voluntarily and frequently offering appropriate, relevant, and creative or original responses/interpretations/observations beyond the obvious,
  • consistently offering plenty of effective textual support for observations,
  • involving others in class discussion by asking questions, seeking others’ responses, etc.
  • eagerly and thoughtfully attempting to anser questions,
  • offering follow-up responses, and
  • treating classmates and the professor respectfully

Incorporate multiple methods of assessing student participation in courses where it is a component of students’ final grade (e.g. completing a worksheet of main concepts, themes, etc. and turning in for a grade)


  • Provide students with a grading rubric prior to giving assignments or at the beginning of the semester (View sample rubrics from the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education)
  • Provide grade and feedback for assignments before the next assignment is due

Providing Meaningful Feedback to Students

Use your comments to teach rather than to justify your grade, focusing on what you’d most like students to address in future work.

Link your comments and feedback to the goals for an assignment.

Comment primarily on patterns — representative strengths and weaknesses.

Avoid over-commenting or “picking apart” students’ work.

In your final comments, ask questions that will guide further inquiry by students rather than provide answers for them.

Suggestions About Making Marginal and End Comments on Student Writing

Campus Resources

  • Include links to on-campus and/or online resources that educate students about how to study, write, prepare citations, etc. (e.g. The Writing Lab, tutoring)
  • Alert students to other resources on campus that can aid in stress management
  • GCC Counseling Center

Communication Policy

  • Clearly articulate communication practices and preferences (i.e. email response policy, etc.)

Email Office Hours

If you’ve published office hours, students know when they can expect to find you to ask a question about the class. It would be helpful to them also to know when they might expect a response to an email message about the class. The notice here could be something rather general (e.g., “I generally check email only once a day.”) or specific (e.g., “I will respond to student email messages between 2:00 and 3:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”) You are free to respond at other times, just as you are free to be available for student appointments at times other than your stipulated office hours. But it’s important for students to know when they can reasonably expect an answer to an email message.

Find more ideas on how to communicate with students by visiting  Vanderbilt’s “Office Hours and Email” Teaching Guide.

Course Management

  • Allow students to select which date(s) they will take on a leadership role in class (i.e. leading discussion, presenting their work, etc.)
  • Consult with other faculty members in your department about due dates and assignments they have implemented on a regular basis
  • Ask students to communicate days/weeks that are especially packed with assignments in their other classes at the beginning of the semester

In-Class Meetings

  • Interact with students with an awareness of the effect of one’s body language (i.e. frowning, smiling, etc.) on student behavior and performance

“Nonverbal communication forms a social language that is in many ways richer and more fundamental than our words. Our nonverbal sensors are so powerful that just the movements associated with body language – that is, minus the actual bodies – are enough to engender within us the ability to accurately perceive emotion.”

Source: Psychology Today “How We Communicate Through Body Language”

  • Use affirming language when students provide correct answers, but more importantly, when they make an effort to contribute in class
  • Incorporate ongoing mindfulness practices that provide students with tools to cope with anxiety and stress in the moment

Course Communication

  • Provide students with a syllabus that includes complete course readings, assignments and due dates the first day of class
  • Promptly return student emails, particularly prior to assignment due dates and major exams

Exam Preparation

  • Organize review sessions outside of class prior to tests
  • Hold extra office hours the week prior to an exam or paper due date
  • Establish work groups for students at the beginning of the semester and encourage collaboration when preparing for major exams

Teaching about Learning

  • Schedule periodic workshops that impart skills and information needed to successfully demonstrate learning (i.e. how to construct a thesis statement, how to structure a analytical essay, etc.)
  • Post templates of model work on assignments in conjunction with providing students with feedback on their submitted work

Further Resources

Anxiety and Depression Association of America promotes the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD and related disorders and works to improve the lives of those who suffer from these diseases through education, practice and research.

American College Health Association champions the health of college students and campus communities through advocacy, education and research.


Alvord, Mary, Karina Davidson, Jennifer Kelly, Kevin McGuiness, and Steven Tovian. n.d. “Understanding Chronic Stress.” American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/understanding-chronic-stress.aspx.

American Psychological Association. 2010. Stress in America: Findings.

Felstein, Gary. 2004. “Stress Reacitivity and Vulnerability to Depressed Mood in College Students.” Personality and Individual Differences 36 (4): 789–800.

Gault, Barbara A., and John Sabini. 2000. “The Roles of Empathy, Anger, and Gender in Predicting Attitudes toward Punitive, Reparative, and Preventative Public Policies.” Cognition & Emotion 14 (4): 495–520.

Gerrig, Richard J., and Philip G. Zimbardo. 2002. Psychology and Life. 16th ed. Boston, Mass., United States: Allyn and Bacon.

Jennings, Patricia A., and Mark T. Greenberg. 2009. “The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher Social and Emotional Competence in Relation to Student and Classroom Outcomes.” Review of Educational Research 79 (1): 491–525. doi:10.3102/0034654308325693.

Maslach, Christina, and Julie Goldberg. 1999. “Prevention of Burnout: New Perspectives.” Applied and Preventive Psychology 7 (1): 63–74.

Misra, Ranjita, and Michelle McKean. 2000. “COLLEGE STUDENTS’ ACADEMIC STRESS AND ITS RELATION TO THEIR ANXIETY, TIME MANAGEMENT, AND LEISURE SATISFACTION.” American Journal of Health Studies 16 (1): 41–51.

Sandi, Carmen. 2004. “Stress, Cognitive Impairment and Cell Adhesion Molecules.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5 (12): 917. doi:10.1038/nrn1555.

Sandi, Carmen, and M. Teresa Pinelo-Nava. 2007. “Stress and Memory: Behavioral Effects and Neurobiological Mechanisms.” Neural Plasticity 2007 (April): e78970. doi:10.1155/2007/78970.

Schutz, Paul A., and Michalinos Zembylas. 2009. Advances in Teacher Emotion Research: The Impact on Teachers’ Lives. Springer Science & Business Media.

Smedley, Brian D., Hector F. Myers, and Shelly P. Harrell. 1993. “Minority-Status Stresses and the College Adjustment of Ethnic Minority Freshmen.” The Journal of Higher Education 64 (4): 434–52. doi:10.2307/2960051.

Yorke, Mantz. 2004. Leaving Early: Undergraduate Non-Completion in Higher Education. Routledge.

by Brielle Harbin, Vanderbilt Graduate Teaching Fellow 2014-2015

Adapted/edited by Judith Littlejohn 9/7/18 for GCC – removed some Vanderbilt-specific office contact information, added GCC-specific info/terminology, corrected typos/grammar.

This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.