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Deliberate design

Author: Janet Fletcher, Senior SACE Officer Curriculum and Assessment, SACE Board of SA
Published: August 2018
This is a ‘Terminology in brief’ article, delving into a term's background, meaning, and use in the educational space. Shorter definitions can be found in our wordlist.


Deliberate design, backward design, or backward planning, is a widely accepted concept that was first introduced to the education sector in the late 1940s by Ralph W Tyler in an era where administrators were preoccupied with student testing. Since then, educators and academics have embraced the idea and many well-known authors, such as Wiggins, McTighe, Tomlinson and Marzano have included them in their publications. The most notable is Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by design (UbD), first published by ASCD in 1998.

Deliberate design offers a planning framework for teachers to develop more purposeful and effective teaching and follows two key ideas:

  1. teaching and learning for understanding and learning transfer
  2. designing curriculum and assessment backwards, from the desired assessment outcomes.

A traditional approach to teaching and assessment may start with:

  • what content do I have to teach in this unit?
  • what activities can I use to teach the content?
  • at the end of the unit: how am I going to assess that the students have learned the content? Working from the premise that you either have several weeks before you need to write the test/assessment or you will use the one from last year.

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First question

The first question we should start with, is not 'what content do I teach this unit' but:

What are the desired outcomes? What should students know, understand and be able to do by the end of this unit (KUDs)?

To answer this question, we must look to the learning outcomes and achievement standards of individual subjects within either the Australian Curriculum F-10 or the local senior secondary subject outlines.

  • What should the student know?
    • essential content
  • What should the student understand?
    • essential concepts
    • the big picture, deep understandings
    • transferable understandings – to other subjects, to real life
    • capabilities - ethical, intercultural
  • What skills should the student be developing?
    • subject specific
    • transferable capabilities

The OECD Learning Framework 2030 states that:

students will need a broad range of skills, including cognitive and meta-cognitive skills (e.g. critical thinking, creative thinking, learning to learn, and self-regulation); social and emotional skills (e.g. empathy, self-efficacy and collaboration) and practical and physical skills (e.g. using new information and communication technology devices).

These competencies clearly correlate to the seven core capabilities of the Australian Curriculum.

From this big-picture, end of course understanding, we can begin to design our course.

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Second question

The second question we should ask is:

What evidence will demonstrate student understanding and their ability to use their learning in a new situation?

There are two types of evidence:

  • Daily evidences – formative assessment practices which help teachers determine the alignment between where the learners are headed and where they currently are.

This can look like questioning, quizzes, observations, work samples. Using formative assessment processes should inform you as to what adjustments need to be made to your program of teaching and when the right time is to use a performance task. See the work of Dylan Wiliam, Assessment: the bridge between teaching and learning, 2013 and Carol Ann Tomlinson, The bridge between today's lessons and tomorrow's, 2014.

Students would be aware of the goals and, through ongoing formative assessment practices, be able to make judgments on their own knowledge, understanding and skills.

  • Performance tasks - where students are asked to apply their knowledge, understanding and skills to new and authentic tasks.

Performance tasks are not tests or assessments or assignments to be created at the end of the unit but purposely designed at the start of the unit as a means to enable the students to apply what they know, understand and what they can do. Task design must be deliberately aligned to the learning outcomes and standards.

'A true test of intellectual ability requires the performance of exemplary tasks' (Wiggins 2011).

Instruction is then aimed to performance tasks.

When teachers deliberately build assessment into planning, they establish their own cognitive links between the official or intended curriculum, and planning for how teaching, learning and assessment are expected to take place.

Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith 2014

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Third question

The third question we should ask is:

How will classroom instruction and learning activities support learners to achieve the desired results?

  • What content will you need to teach?
  • How will you explicitly teach capabilities?
  • How will you teach content specific skills and 21st century skills such as self-regulated learning?
  • How will you extend the teaching of content to enable the students to construct meaning?
  • How will you help students to transfer meaning?
  • Do your resources align to the learning outcomes and standards?
  • What do you need to throw away from your resource files that aren't fit-for-purpose?
  • Are your students getting timely feedback to help them realign their work to the standards?
  • Is the learning enabling the students to self-assess themselves against the standards?

Deliberate design for better learning outcomes is not a new idea or practice. What deliberate design does is ask us, as practicing teachers, deeply challenging questions of our current practice and then offer an accessible framework for us to use in order to think both as a classroom teacher and as an assessor.

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Klenowski, V & Wyatt-Smith, C 2014, Assessment for education: standards, judgement and moderation, SAGE Publications Ltd, California

McTighe, J & Wiggins, G 2012, Understanding by design framework, ASCD, Virginia, USA

OECD 2018, The future of education and skills: Education 2030, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris

Tomlinson, CA 2014, The bridge between today's lessons and tomorrow's, in Educational Leadership, vol. 71, no. 6, pp 10-14

Wiggins, G 2011, A true test: towards more authentic and equitable assessment, In Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 92, no. 7, pp 81-93 (also see the 1989 version)

Wiggins, G & McTighe, J n.d., UbD In a nutshell

Wiggins, G & McTighe, J 2005, Understanding by design 2nd ed, ASCD, Virginia

Wiliam, D 2013, 'Assessment: the bridge between teaching and learning', in Voices from the middle, vol. 21, no.2, pp 15-20

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