AOI | Learning Innovations

Faculty Insider


Weekly Tip: Backward Design in Three Steps

Backward design is a way to ensure that short-term plans and actions are aligned with long-term goals. The basic premise is that, rather than planning your course day by day, you start at the end of the course (or unit, or lesson), planning clear outcomes and evaluation strategies first, and then preparing learning activities and lessons that will help your students meet those goals.

Step One: Identify Desired Results

First, think about the specific skills and abilities that your students should develop in your course. What are the key questions they should be able to engage with and answer? What essential knowledge should they take with them when they finish your course? Be specific.

It is helpful to start with a clear destination and a specific purpose. Without a target, it is difficult to know if you were successful. It is also difficult to be consistent with the design of activities and assessments.

Below are examples from different disciplines:

Biology

Evaluate evidence provided by a data set to investigate the role of natural selection in evolution. (From the AP Biology Curriculum Framework (pdf) by College Board).

History

Assess the credibility of primary and secondary sources and make judgments about their usefulness and limitations as evidence about the past. (From the AP United States History Course and Exam Description (pdf) by College Board).

Mathematics

Use derivatives to analyze properties of a function. (From the Teacher Guide for AP Calculus (pdf) by College Board).

Political Science

Explain how different beliefs about the federal government’s role in U.S. social and economic life have affected political debates. (From the AP United States History Course and Exam Description (pdf) by College Board).

Step Two: Determining Acceptable Evidence

How will students demonstrate evidence of understanding and learning? It is helpful to frame what students will do to show you what they have learned and if they are able to apply the concepts discussed.

Below are examples from different disciplines:

Biology

Produce a report discussing the results from the investigation on the role of natural selection in evolution.

History

Create a presentation that challenges the assumptions made in the primary and secondary sources of a past political event.

Mathematics

Choose a data set showing growth that can be modelled by one of the functions presented and discuss how derivatives give us insight into the changes that occur.

Political Science

Propose an opposing belief about the federal government’s role in U.S. social and economic life and discuss how this perspective would change the political debate.

Step 3: Plan Activities

Now that you have identified excellent learning outcomes and strategies for assessment, the final stage is to determine how you will prepare students to successfully meet the goals of this lesson. While the possibilities may seem limitless, your outcomes can guide the decisions you make. We recommend considering the activities students should engage in, the materials and resources available to them, and the technologies that can facilitate the process of collaborating and sharing results.

Below are examples from different disciplines:

Biology

The professor shares the results of the data with students and creates a think-pair-share activity where students individually analyze the data to identify what the most important results were. Then, the professor puts students in breakout rooms where groups collaborate to draft the key takeaways from the experiment. At the end of class, each group presents their key takeaways. This allows the class to hear if everyone has arrived at similar conclusions and understood how to prioritize the results in their discussion section. The professor asks students to draft written discussion sections on their own.

History

The professor realizes that the process of identifying assumptions in the texts they have chosen will be more effective if students are able to collaborate. The professor shares the text in Perusall and permits students to annotate the text in groups before collaborating on their presentation. This option allows the professor to use his synchronous class time to allow students to collaborate in real time, but it also allows students to continue their collaborative reading after the class period ends.

Mathematics

The professor finishes her lecture and an initial activity related to choosing data sets. Now, she wants to do a quick check to evaluate basic comprehension and encourage participation in a low-stakes way, but the class is large. The professor builds two or three equations with multiple choice answers as an ungraded Canvas quiz. This way, she receives immediate data on student success across the entire student population without any additional grading, and since the quiz does not appear in the gradebook, students are supported for their efforts rather than penalized. Plus, the professor can use this data to modify her upcoming lectures.

Political Science

The professor wants to provide students with a specific format for presenting their counterargument, and so decides to style the activity as part of a traditional debate format. She asks students to plan a three minute “opening argument” where they present the counterargument they have been assigned. Students draft a script of their argument and then deliver it orally through a VoiceThread recording. This allows all students to view each other’s work and provides a forum for the professor to respond not only to the quality of the argument, but also to the quality of students’ delivery.

When teaching, many of us have had those days where we have wondered how to “fill” class time, especially if we have fallen behind on planning due to our myriad other concerns. Backward planning is a framework that helps you ensure that we don’t just fill class time, but that everything we do scaffolds students toward the successful achievement of meaningful learning outcomes.

To read our previous tip on Backward Design, please visit “Backward Design: A Planning Framework”.

This series of videos and teaching tips is presented by Academic Outreach and Innovation (AOI). We invite you to join the conversation. Share your tips and ask questions through this blog. If you would like these posts to be sent directly to your email each week, subscribe to the listserv by emailing aoi.li@wsu.edu.

For more information or to schedule time with an instructional designer or emerging technologist, contact aoi.li@wsu.edu or request training on demand. You can also visit the Spark Faculty Innovation Studio in room 102 any time from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Thursday, during the academic year.