Backward Design: From Course to Class

Steve Volk, February 27, 2017

Backward Design“We think the best way to protest this guy [a political operative who had been invited speak on campus] is by refusing to let him speak. Once he sits down, we’ll engage the audience in a discussion of our ideas.” That was the message of a group of students who had come to my office some years ago seeking my input on their plan. OK, so they were eliciting my support, not my input.  “Hmmm. Interesting,” I replied, then asked what they hoped to accomplish by this protest, and what they thought actually would happen in Finney (our largest gathering place) when they put their plan into motion. After a fair amount of discussion, they realized that their desired outcome – a discussion of the speaker’s ideas – would not come about by essentially shouting him down. In the end, they planned an alternative assembly in a nearby space and encouraged those entering Finney to attend that meeting instead. What the students and I took part in was a lesson in “backward design.”

In the simplest form, “backward design” asks that the planning process begin at the end by identifying the outcomes one seeks, figuring out how one will know if the goals have been achieved, and then planning the activities most likely to achieve the desired ends. It has been an important strategy in instructional design since an influential article by Robert Barr and John Tagg appeared in Change in 1995. Barr and Tagg challenged the way that most faculty thought about their main purpose within the university. The old paradigm, that “a college is an institution that exists to provide instruction,” they wrote, has shifted to a new one: “a college is an institution that exists to produce learning.” Colleges, they suggested, had been caught in a “means/ends” confusion. To say that the purpose of college was to provide instruction was the equivalent of insisting that the purpose of an auto company was to provide an assembly line. What had gone wrong in higher education was that the means (instruction) had become the ends, whereas its real end point was learning.

"Cacasenno Riding a Horse Backwards," The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1701 - 1800. Public Domain.

“Cacasenno Riding a Horse Backwards,” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1701 – 1800. Public Domain.

The Barr-Tagg article added to a growing body of evidence that instruction, most traditionally provided as a set of 50-minute lectures delivered to a largely passive, if not Ferris Bueller-level comatose, audience “is contrary to almost every principle of optimal settings for student learning.” [Needless to say, there are arguments in favor of lecturing, such as Mary Burgin’s “In Defense of Lecturing,” that appeared in Change in 2006, but since my point here is how to think about planning for an active learning class (and unless lecturing is literally a 50-minute presentation without pause, questions, or discussion, it can also fit in this category), I’ll leave that discussion for later.]

Begin at the End

Backward planning begins, as the name implies, at the end, by asking that we define the broadest learning goals we have for students in that particular class. What do we want them to have achieved when the semester ends? What knowledge, skills, and dispositions do we want them to have learned, practiced, or considered? Obviously, these will vary by discipline, course level, student preparation and other factors, but these questions provide a basic framework for backward planning.

When I finally adopted a backward design model, many, many years after beginning teaching, I began crafting my syllabi by asking myself: “If I bump into a student ten years from now, what do I hope they will have gained from the course that will still be with them?” I know it’s a bit presumptuous to assume that they will even remember me, let alone what happened in class, but our work is in part based on our hopes that, indeed, some of what we provide will stay with our students.

My field is history, and I understood that it was highly unlikely they would retain many of the names, dates, or places that are often featured on quizzes and exams. And anyway, they could look up a lot of that on their smart phones. Instead, as I thought about it, what I really was interested in was that they retain the larger concepts, approaches and principles (how memory and history interact, the ways in which resistance and assimilation often flow together, how images impact our understanding), skills (evaluating primary sources, thinking historically), and dispositions (an empathetic appreciation of other times and culturally relevant approaches). Backward design, then, asks that you begin with want you want your students to come away with: when the class session is over, when the course is over, after the student has graduated.

Determine the Evidence Needed to Demonstrate the Achievement of Outcomes

Having specified the desired outcomes, you need a way to determine whether students have achieved those outcomes, and at what level: you need assessment tools that give you the evidence needed to allow you (and your students) to demonstrate competence or mastery in the outcome areas you find most important. Staying with history for the moment: having determined that the evaluation of primary sources was an important learning outcome, if I didn’t design an assignment that required students to read and evaluate primary sources, I wouldn’t be able to know if they had met one of my key learning outcomes. Figuring out whether students have achieved a level of competence in terms of subject matter knowledge, by the way, is rarely an issue, for the most standard assessments are exams based on content. But assessing important skills or dispositions often falls through the cracks.

Scaffolding Student Success

"Backward," Music Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public Domain

“Backward,” Music Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public Domain

The next step in backward curricular planning is designing the activities that will help students succeed at these key learning outcomes. To stay with the example of reading and assessing primary sources for the moment: students will have a better chance at developing competence in assessing primary sources if they have a number of opportunities to read and comment on them, and if they receive clear and frequent feedback from the instructor. Further, they won’t succeed if they don’t have the knowledge needed to make sense of the documents, to place them in context, to evaluate them historically. So we have to offer a variety of opportunities in class (and out) for them to gain competence at the desired skill along with the requisite knowledge.

Finally, we have to think about what pedagogical approaches, what teaching methods, what kind of sequencing, and what sorts of resources will help us achieve the desired outcomes.

To sum up backward planning at the course level, figure out:

  • What outcomes you want to achieve;
  • How will you know that students have achieved them;
  • How you will scaffold their success; and
  • What pedagogical approaches work best to arrive at our desired outcomes.

From Class to Course:

Put this all together and you get…a syllabus. But “backward design” can be used to help the planning of a single class or course unit as well, as Heather L. Reynolds and Katherine Dowell Kearns, both of Indiana University, argue in a recent article in College Teaching. In “A Planning Tool for Incorporating Backward Design, Active Learning, and Authentic Assessment in the College Classroom,” the authors, a biologist (Reynolds) and an ecologist and instructional designer at Indiana’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (Kearns), offer a useful lesson-planning guide. For those who are not yet ready to employ backward design to revise an entire course, taking the process for a spin around the block by planning one class or one unit might be just the way to go.

Here’s a copy of their planning guide:

Reprinted from College Teaching 65:1 (January-March 2017), p. 19

Reprinted from College Teaching 65:1 (January-March 2017), p. 19

Begin, at the top left, by identifying the desired results for that class and specifying how the goals for that day’s class will align with the overall goals you have established for the course. The authors examples are taken from Reynold’s course, “The City as Ecosystem,” a non-major biology service-learning course. The course syllabus explains its fundamental focus:

Building sustainable cities requires an awareness of the problems of our existing approaches and an appreciation of the potential for change that is firmly rooted in an understanding of ecosystem ecology. Emphasizing cities as ecosystems, this course applies ecological principles to sustainable use of energy and resources. We consider the appropriate size of the human economy in relation to Earth’s biophysical limits. We address the thesis that to be leaders in sustainability, cities will need to move away from an unbounded, linear (or ‘cradle-to-grave’) model toward a bounded, cyclical model based on natural ecosystem processes, involving lower throughput of renewable energy and ‘cradle-to-cradle’ flow of materials.

The course promotes competency in the following areas:

But let’s get back to the particular class session that they focused on in their article. The specific goal for the class was for students to be able to make comparisons of natural and cultivated ecosystems in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services. This addressed the course learning outcome of helping students develop competencies in biodiversity and ecosystem services.

In the columns to the right on the planning guide, the instructor details the knowledge, skills, and values that she expects students to encounter in that class. In this case, Reynolds noted, by the end of the class period, students should be able to understand and apply the “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment” categories of ecosystem services and make connections between ecosystem services and human well-being. She also attached a “value” to the session: that students gain a greater appreciation of human dependence on ecosystems.

On the row below, the instructor determined what she considered “acceptable evidence” to use in the discussion, in this case the assigned reading, although that didn’t preclude the introduction of other evidence. She further listed the assessment technique by which she could determine whether students actually did the required work. In this case she prepared three questions drawn from the readings.

BackbendThe remainder of the matrix encourages the instructor think about the ways that the students will have prepared for that class session (“first exposure”), and how important content will be introduced (the “hook”).  In the case of Reynolds’ class, she planned to provide samples of tea made from Echinacea purpurea, a prairie species native to the eastern U.S., contextualize it in terms of prairie grassland ecosystems, ask students to brainstorm ecosystem services of prairie grassland, and then share their conclusions by writing on the board. Finally, they would discuss whether the list reflected all the possible values of prairie grasslands.

Other parts of the planner encourage the instructor to consider the “activities” to be employed that can promote deeper learning of the material.  In this case Reynolds planned to spend two minutes discussing the learning goals for that class, followed by a 10-minute lecture. The class would also include an active learning component of 30 minutes during which time students would practice categorizing ecosystem services in terms of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment categories and discussing the readings. These are approaches that encourage students to practice their knowledge, skills, or values embedded in that particular class.

The planning matrix guides the instructor to think about the kinds of work students will be engaged in (“student work”) during that class, including both passive (listening, viewing) and active (presenting, discussing) elements. For further planning purposes, you can also note where the activities will take place (“location”), for example if the class will be divided in groups, if students will be outside the classroom (in the library, the art museum, etc.), and specify any “media and materials” that will be used in that class period.

Finally, the planner encourages the instructor to reflect on the class period by jotting down your immediate impressions of how the class went.

All of this might look not just daunting, but ridiculously difficult. Good god! It often feels like we barely have time to prepare for class as it is, and all these columns and rows only add to the burden and make you feel inadequate. I’d be misleading if I said that it’s all really easy and doesn’t take any time. It does take time and some practice. There’s little doubt that class-by-class backward planning takes more time than thinking only about the content that we intend to deliver over the course of the semester, and then dividing the content up into “x” number of class sessions. But backward planning can advance what Barr and Tagg emphasized many years ago: student learning.

If you have your own planning devices, strategies, or approaches, please send them along.

One thought on “Backward Design: From Course to Class

  1. Pingback: The Many Lives of a Syllabus: Making Yours Work | After Class

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