2.1 Backwards Design

“Backwards design” is an approach to developing learning experiences. Starting with the desired outcomes for your program and how you will measure them, the process works in an “intentionally backwards” direction, planning the specific activities involved in the program last.2

Backwards design explained


CIRTL/University of Colorado Boulder

Capacity and sustainability

An assessment of your library’s capacity examines the skills, knowledge, resources, and relationships your library has — for example, space, technology, expertise, staff time, or partnerships. Determine what you have available, what you can reassign to support the program, and what you need to obtain or build before you can implement your program. See the Capacity module for more.

The sustainability of a program is “the ability to maintain programming and its benefits over time”1. Many library programs are initially funded by one-time grants, but unless a sustainability plan is developed before the grant ends they may falter when the external support ends.


Designing a program starts with a thoughtful articulation of the outcome or outcomes you want to achieve through it. An outcome is simply something outside of your program and outside of connected learning that matters to someone.3

The outcomes you want from your programs should align with your library’s strategic mission as well as the goals and needs of your community.4 But the desired outcome for any particular program doesn’t haven’t to be a high impact achievement. You may simply want to help your teens become more comfortable visiting the library space, or encourage friendships to form. Ask yourself (and your stakeholders): “What will the participants think, do, or feel as a result of their experience?”5

Talk to your stakeholders as you develop outcomes. They should all agree that the outcomes are important and desired. They may even suggest surprising or nontraditional outcomes. By involving your stakeholders, you can get different perspectives on what outcomes are the most important. 6

Assessment and Evaluation

By the time your program begins, you should have a clear idea and plan for the assessment of teens’ progress and the evaluation of the program as a whole. Keep the big picture in mind, especially when evaluating programs that seem to have failed. The program might have been a good idea that suffered from poor marketing or timing (or vice versa). See the Assessment and Evaluation module for more.

Youth involvement in program design

Youth can and should be involved in the process of designing a program. Pima County Public Library used an IMLS grant to create a Youth Design Team that helped plan new programs that resonated with their community’s teens.


Pima County Public Library

1: Program Sustainability Assessment Tool. Washington University in St. Louis.

2: “Intentionally Backwards, the Future of Learning in Libraries,”” by Sarah Kepple. in Young Adult Library Services Fall 2013, 33–37.

3: Introduction to Program Evaluations for Connected Learning (Session 1). DMLResearchHub and Dr. William Penuel, 2016.

4: YALSA’s Teen Programming Guidelines

5: Principal Investigator’s guide: Managing Evaluation in Informal STEM Education Projects. Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.

6: Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments, 113. National Academies Press, 2010.