Backward design is a process that instructional designers use to build learning experiences around specific learning goals. It flips traditional training design on its head in just 3 steps. But backward design can be a hard sell in the boardroom.
Let's be honest. Your CEO has probably never heard of backward design. And even if she has heard of it, she probably has some tough questions about how an instructional design framework commonly used in schools and colleges is going to help her build a more profitable company, or upskill her workforce.
In the face of these kind of doubts about using backward design in the workplace, you might be tempted to give in to top-down training requests built around content, not learner needs.
But you'd be wrong to abandon backward design at work. Backward design is a valid and effective way to design corporate learning experiences because it:
- Increases buy-in and attendance among busy adult learners thanks to its learner-centric (not instructor-centric) structure
- Allows you to solve specific performance problems that impact a business's bottomline
- Increases training efficiency by removing superfluous learning material, giving people time back to focus on their jobs
Despite these benefits to backward design, implementing the framework in corporate trainings is not without its challenges. Here's how you can avoid content-first training requests, align backward design with business outcomes, and get stakeholder buy-in.
Backward Design: Explained
Backward design is a 3-step instructional design framework. The framework requires learning designers to set learner goals, or outcomes, before choosing instructional methods and forms of assessment. Backward design contrasts with traditional 'forward design' approaches, in which learning designers start by thinking about content and structure, before trying to align them with learning goals.
Educators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe pioneered the framework in their 1990s book Understanding by Design. They hoped the framework would help learning designers create focused, organized learning experiences built around what learners need to learn, and how to prove they'd learned it. Listen to Grant Wiggins himself explain the concept in this YouTube video.
If the backward design process reminds you of ADDIE, you're not wrong. At Eduflow, we think that backward design is a universal sub-process that can boost the effectiveness of ADDIE's design phase in just 3 steps.
Step 1: Identify desired results
In step 1, learning designers identify the learning goals of the training. You can do this by asking yourself a few questions, suggest Wiggins and McTighe:
- What knowledge and/or skills should learners master?
- What big ideas should learners take away from the training?
- What secondary information should learners be familiar with?
- What new skills will learners have to perform effectively to reach the learning goals?
In a corporate setting, an example relevant learning goal might be: "By the end of the course/module/event, the manager will be able to facilitate a performance review with an employee."
Relevant skills might be things like giving candid feedback, and you may want learners to understand big ideas around performance management best practices.
Step 2: Determine acceptable evidence
How will you know if your learners have successfully learned the right information and skills? Step 2 of backward design aims to help you figure that out. In this step, you think about which assessment methods you can use to prove your learners have learned something.
Continuing with our learning goal of teaching managers to run performance reviews, you might set an observation/dialogue assessment in which you ask the manager to apply a performance management framework to a given scenario.
Step 3: Plan learning experiences and instruction
In the final step of backward design, you consider how to convey the information that will enable learners to achieve learning goals. There are a few questions that will help you define content, structure, and activities in your training:
- What will I need to teach the learners so that they can achieve the learning objectives?
- Which formats would be the most appropriate for teaching the learning material?
- What should the learning journey look like?
In our performance management example, you might create a video series or a live workshop on performance management strategies, and design role-plays to help managers practice performance management.
Advantages of backward design in corporate settings
Following the 3-step backward design process has several benefits for learning designers working in corporate environments.
First, the learner-centric nature of backward design can help increase buy-in and training completion among busy adult learners. Building the learning experience around something that will benefit the learner, rather than around the content or materials at hand (often the case in forward design situations), means learners feel their needs are better served.
Second, backward design helps you focus on solving specific performance problems, and then link them to business impact. Our example learning goal above of "by the end of the course/module/event, the manager will be able to facilitate a performance review with an employee" solves the problem of bad or shirked performance reviews. We can then tie this goal to boardroom conversations about team performance, development and even employee retention.
Third, backward design creates efficiency. The focus on goals and assessment makes it easier to reduce superfluous training material. This makes trainings shorter and punchier, meaning employees spend less time on the training and more time implementing their new skills on the job.
These three factors make a compelling argument for backward design in corporate settings, where efficiency, problem-solving and buy-in are integral to successful training.
3 challenges to following a backward process in companies. And how to overcome them
Despite the advantages laid out above, backward design is often associated with academic curriculum design, rather than instructional design in workplaces. This association likely stems from the fact that assessments—a vital part of backward design—are the cultural norm in schools, but not always in workplaces. In corporate training learners don't often have time to write summative assessments, and other times the nature of the course doesn't really lend itself to summative assessment.
Whatever the reasons, learning designers in corporate environments might experience challenges when implementing backward design. These challenges usually take one of three forms:
Challenge 1: Dealing with content-first training requests
Decision-makers tend towards making 'content-first' training requests, in which they decide they need a training on a certain topic, rather than defining the change they want to see. These content-first requests are often a symptom an inadequate needs analysis: employee performance issues aren't always caused by a skills gap. Training is often seen as a quick-fix solution, rather than going through a comprehensive analysis of performance problems, such as Mager and Pipe's Model.
LXD Consultant Meagan Griffin says that content-first training requests often stem from belief in the 'transfer acquisition model' of learning: "People making content-first training requests are thinking 'my brain is a bucket of knowledge and the learner's brain is an empty bucket. Let me just dump some of what I know into their brain. Now they should be able to do a task the same way I do.' But skill acquisition doesn't work like that."
Rolling out content-first training can lead to training interventions that have little relevance for learners, which in turn reduces engagement and training completion. Also, the connection to business outcomes is tenuous, which means you'll have to speak to low business impact at some point in the future.
Overcoming the challenge
Meagan Griffin recommends combatting insistent content-first training requests through a 'canary in the coalmine' approach: "use the learning intervention and the ensuing data as a forcing function for change. Imagine C-suite are committed to creating a thematic training. Create that training, collect feedback and learner data, and craft that data into a story arguing for a backward process, not a forward design process."
Say you receive a request for soft skill training for managers. But the learning goals managers actually have are to manage their time better, and prioritize important work. If c-suite are committed to the soft skill training, do it, collect data on how well managers are able to engage, then use that data to say "hey, we need to meet their needs better with backward design."
For the canary in the coalmine approach to work, says Meagan, you have to be honest with learners. "You need to say up-front, 'Ok, this is an experiment, and we may not get 100% towards the learning outcome you want to see. But we'll get data that allows us to move towards a better solution.'"
Challenge 2: Aligning backward design assessments with business outcomes
Assessments make sense in academic settings, where there's little opportunity to flex knowledge outside of exam conditions. But in corporate settings, the assessment step of backward design can feel like a box-checking exercise that has little to do with the bottom-line.
William Cronje, program manager for Eduflow's free course on Instructional Design Principles for Course Creation, thinks that this is because assessments are often thought of as summative, not formative:
It might be tempting to skip an assessment stage for workplace training. But failing to closely tie assessment with business outcomes will make it harder to prove your ROI as a learning designer. This in turn makes it harder to argue for budget and resources, and to be included in strategic conversations longer-term.
Overcoming the challenge
William sees formative, not summative, assessments as the solution to this challenge. "The "determining evidence" stage of backward design can actually really lean into formative assessments for learning. In the case of soft skills acquisition for managers, you can use assessments like reflective journals, group discussions, role-playing exercises, things like that. Facilitators should think about how they can use discussions or other activities to encourage empathy."
Challenge 3: Getting exec buy-in for backward design
If backward design is a new way of working at your company, there can be a reluctance to change the status quo. Instead, you may be asked to follow instructional frameworks that are less relevant for the context, resulting in less impactful training.
Overcoming the challenge
It is possible to get buy-in for a switch to backward design. But you need to understand how stakeholders feel about training first. Once you understand that, you can tailor your arguments better.
Meagan Griffin again: "Some stakeholders are interested in how learning and training works. For these folks, I share the backward design framework and emphasize that it's repeatable across multiple interventions. Empower managers and bosses to leverage the framework themselves in their work with their teams. In this way, you'll win over doubters and gain allies."
For those stakeholders who don't care about instructional frameworks, Meagan suggests a laser-like focus on the business impact.
Backward design template
If you're implementing backward design for the first time, you can follow the basic template below, taken from our free course on Instructional Design Principles for Course Creation.
In this template, 'CLO' refers to course-level objectives, the big ideas, and skills you want learners to acquire. 'LO' stands for learning objectives, the smaller skills which build up to the CLO.
To Move Learning Forward, Design Backward
Backward design is a framework that keeps you laser-focused on goals and outcomes, makes courses punchier (and shorter), and solves performance problems. Overcome assumptions that backward design is just for K12 curriculums, and you'll be on the way to moving your skills and knowledge forward companywide.