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. Continue reading